It is a sad reality that we are often unsurprised when news breaks of a violent attack against Americans in the Middle East, whether it is of a military target, like the USS Cole, or a civilian, like James Foley. But just because we are used to the events—however horrifying they may be—it does not mean that we have a clear understanding of why they are happening.

In particular, how much is support for a group like Al-Qaeda, which expresses willingness to target civilians, different from support for a group like Hezbollah, whose platform is based on resisting foreign military targets? And what do the differences in support among Arabs mean for American foreign policy?

These are the questions that a group of researchers, including the Kellogg School’s Nour Kteily, sought to answer by conducting a survey of 400 Muslim and Christian Arabs in Lebanon and Syria. They found distinct differences in what motivates people to support groups that espouse violence against civilians versus those that focus their efforts on military targets. The results have implications for those doing business in the region, as well.

“The main takeaway from a business perspective is the importance of being sensitive to how one’s actions will be perceived by the local culture.”

The researchers found that Arabs who believe there is a clear and irreconcilable culture clash in the underlying values of Arabs and Americans are most likely to support fundamentalist violence in the form of groups that target civilians. Conversely, Arabs who are guided more by a belief that Americans are trying to dominate the Middle East and plunder the region’s resources are more likely to support groups that promote what the research participants perceive to be “resistance violence,” which focuses on attacking military targets.

The fact that feeling dominated by the U.S. led some participants to support violence carries lessons into the business world.

“People in these societies are proud of their cultures. They want to protect their cultures, whether that be from material and physical threats or from more symbolic threats ,” Kteily says. “The main takeaway from a business perspective is the importance of being sensitive to how one’s actions will be perceived by the local culture.”

Separating Out Two Motivations for Violence

To conduct their study, the researchers enlisted the help of an international polling firm that interviewed 400 Arabs in several Lebanese cities as well as in Damascus, Syria in 2010.

The participants were asked questions like how much they support or oppose each of several actions against Americans, such as attacking American military targets or American civilians, or how much they agree with statements like, “Americans exploit Arabs for resources and keep all of the profits for themselves.”

The study was conducted by Kteily, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, as well as by Jim Sidanius at Harvard University, Shana Levin at Claremont McKenna College, Felicia Pratto at the University of Connecticut, and Milan Obaidi at the European University Institute.

The researchers used participants’ answers to assess how much each participant identified with the clash of cultures viewpoint versus the perceived economic and military domination of Arabs by Americans, as well as how strongly they identified themselves as Arab. They then analyzed how much participants supported fundamentalist violence versus resistance violence.

They found that the most significant predictor of support for fundamentalist violence was whether a person believed there is a clash of values between the Arab world and America, outweighing the role of belief in America’s intended domination of the Middle East. On the other hand, the strongest predictor of support for resistance violence was the perceived American economic and military domination of the Arab world.

In separating out the motivation for violence against Americans—something that has very rarely been done, Kteily says—the researchers in some ways have good news to share: there is much less support for fundamentalist violence than there is for resistance violence. This means support for violence is not simply a product of Arabs feeling like American values are incompatible with their own and need to be eliminated.

“It’s not just about who they think Americans are, but it’s more about what they perceive America to be doing,” he says, in terms of its actions and foreign policy in the region. “In many ways, that’s a more optimistic take. That’s more changeable.”

Looking at Under-Studied Christian Arabs

The researchers were eager to include Christian Arabs, who made up about a third of the study’s participants, because the group has largely been left out of other examinations of the motivations for violence in the Middle East.

Kteily says much of this has to do with assumptions Americans have made about Islam being the impetus for violence in the region.

“There is a sense that these factors would be much less relevant for Christians, that Christians in general don’t have this beef, so to speak, with the West,” he says. “That reasoning ignores the fact that, even for Christian Arabs, as Arabs, the sense of being dominated by the United States or by Western nations could still very much be a driver for angry responses, potentially including violence.”

The researchers found that was indeed the case. While Muslims supported fundamentalist violence far more than Christians in the study, the gap was smaller in regards to resistance violence. And the dominant predictors of support for each type of violence were the same for Christians and Muslims.

Practical Implications

One of the study’s key findings, Kteily says, is that while Americans may lump together groups like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in their minds—and both are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S.—the root cause of support for them among Arabs is very different.

“When they get lumped in with one another, I think it muddies our understanding of what’s going on,” he says.

Given that the research was conducted in just two countries, it remains uncertain how results from Lebanon and Syria would correlate to opinions elsewhere in the Middle East, where different countries can have very different histories and political relationships with the U.S. But parsing out the different roots of support for the two distinct types of violence is a key step in understanding the region.

“These two factors,” Kteily says, referring to the clash of cultures perspective and the American economic and military domination perspective, “are important ones, and they’re different. I think you can analyze any particular country in terms of which one of these two is more likely to be playing a bigger role at any point in time.”

And the implications for American companies doing business in the region likely extend beyond those two countries as well.

For a U.S. company that comes into the region, “it would be helpful to have products that show an awareness of the cultural norms in that country, so you’re not just coming in from above and marketing this as something that’s better than the local products;,” Kteily says, instead, “approaching it more as a collaboration than as a form of cultural imperialism or domination.”