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The Double-edged Sword of Scott Atran

For several years the French-American Anthropologist Scott Atran has been trying to get people to listen to his findings on the group dynamics of violent radicalization terrorism, and it seems that some people in high places are beginning to listen. He has recently spoken at the United Nations Security Council, and following the rise of ISIS and terrorism attacks in Europe, his name can be found in the bylines of dozens of digital and print articles.

Atran published Talking To the Enemy in 2010 following a long series of on-site studies dealing with radicalized Islamic youth primarily in Indonesia and northern Africa. He interviewed and traveled with terrorists or would-be terrorists and interviewed them, had them fill out surveys about their lives, religious beliefs, and even abstract thought-experiments. I first heard him talk about some of his findings in a discussion with Robert Wright on Wright's His wide-ranging findings can't be neatly summarized, but since it's necessary to summarize them, they seem to come down to something like this: The magnetic draw of radical jihad is largely facilitated by the familiar camaraderie of young people, mostly boys and young men, who join the cause in groups. Atran notes that many of the young people that make up the rank-and-file of terrorist groups do not necessarily know much about theology or the Koran at all. Rather they talk about brotherhood, glory and martyrdom – an attempt to find transcendent meaning in a world that has appeared meaningless their entire lives. Atran seems to think it is folly to focus too much on doctrinal teachings of Islam or radical Wahhabi dogma, at least if one is interested in reversing the tide of support for terror organizations. This incredible excerpt from an interview illustrates the point. Atran goes to Morocco to interview kids in a neighborhood that bred participants in the Madrid bombing:

Dr. Atran: So I went there and found out they all grew up within about 200 meters of one another, and then some more of their friends — they all went to the same elementary school[...]

And, while I'm in this neighborhood, two things struck me. First, all of those kids, none of them had a religious education to speak of. They all came into religion quite late. In fact, some of them right before the plots. And they were involved in Spain in petty criminal activities, drug trading. It's these guys who were killing themselves[...]

Now, what that means is they're sacrificing the totality of their self-interests, which goes against all economic theory, and giving up their lives for an idea. Why? Because all of a sudden, they are telling themselves we really don't want to be criminals. We want to be somebody. We want to be something significant in this world and this is our chance.

And then I started interviewing the little kids. Well, first I tried interviewing the 18-year-olds. I would ask them, you know, "Who's your hero?" and they'd tell me, "George Bush" or "Dick Cheney" or "Don Rumsfeld." They were just pulling my leg. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.

Dr. Atran: The younger ones don't lie, right? So they're all playing soccer — their world is sort of divided between the Barcelona soccer team and the Real Madrid soccer team — and I'm asking them what they want to be in life. The answers were sort of stunning.

I mean, the first little kid, eight years old, he tells me, "I want to be an archaeologist." I say, "Why? You want to get treasure?" He goes, "No, I want to find out who we are."

Ms. Tippett: Mm.

Dr. Atran: Then the next kid says, "I want to be a doctor, a surgeon." And then I say, "OK, who're your heroes?" Number one hero, Ronaldinho, who's a Barcelona soccer player.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] OK.

Dr. Atran: Number two hero, The Terminator — no idea he's related to the past governor of California. And number three was Osama bin Laden.

Then I went back a week after Barack Obama's election and I did the same survey in a few towns. Number one was a sort of tie between soccer guys, Sergio Morales from the Real Madrid team, Eto'o, a striker from Barcelona. Number two now was Terminator II, and number three, just beating out bin Laden, was Barack Obama.

The vulgar fact that emerges from this anecdote is that in a few years these kids could end up being the raw material of Jihad. And if one spends a minute thinking about it, it makes perfect sense why a boy from some poor neighborhood in Morocco could equally admire Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. No it's not because Obama is a closeted Muslim. It's because the two figures, without knowing anything about them, presented themselves as abstract figures of hope. And though the hopeful world Obama presented in 2008 is nearly the exact opposite of the vision of the man whose life he ended in 2011, Atran's point is that this glaring contradiction did not seem to mater to these kids at all. And why should it? There is a large number of people in the United States, with far greater informational resources than any of these kids, who choose to believe, again, that Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya. The draw of the irrational seems to cut across many disciplines, cultures and classes.


So the main message of Atran, if put in political terms, seems to follow along what would be considered liberal or progressive lines. He was a sharp critic of the War in Iraq, the drone program as it exists, and the hysterical and violent military-centered reaction of neoconservative policy in general. This leaves him in rather a big tent. There's no lack of grumbling about this kind of thing.

But there is another facet to Atran's message that possibly has gone unnoticed in progressive circles, which he is reproducing in interviews and in print with more regularity. For example, in a good interview with NPR he gave last November, he is quite explicit about the problem we face regarding radicalization:

MARTIN: Since 9/11, there has been one school of thought that this can be combated through economic incentives. If you just create enough jobs and economic opportunity in this part of the world, they won't be as vulnerable to radicalization. You say that's not true. Why?

ATRAN: The process of radicalization is a path. If you can give people a sense of identity and a sense of economic security and social status at the very beginning of this path, sometimes it works. But once people lock in to a set of sacred values, a belief that this new way of doing things in the world cannot be bought off, then the lure of jobs not only fall flat; they backfire. Now, people don't want to hear this because jobs and education and things like that are the standard fare of social and financial aid. But they don't work.

MARTIN: Then what can Western governments do if it's not about creating economic programs? You say it's not about military intervention because that feeds the narrative that ISIS propagating. Are Western governments and their allies in the Gulf area to just sit it out?

ATRAN: Well, the coalition of Western allies is a joke. I mean, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have knives in each other's backs. But that doesn't mean military means are out. Now, how do we stop it in the long term? Well, we've got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that's hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don't provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don't even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

It is at this point that I got a sinking feeling when I first read this interview, and reading it again I still get it. I wonder how many times I have given this lazy 'progressive' response in an argument about radical Islam. “Well if the West would give up on their imperial project in the Middle East and actually provide economic opportunities then maybe we wouldn't see recruitment rising in terrorist groups.” This triumphant line, while certainly not untrue in a general sense, is perhaps not the glistening nugget of wisdom it sounds like to me when it comes out of my mouth. I think Atran is telling people who care about the rise of radical Jihad, as well as other forms to radicalization in our own country, that we ought to get more serious about it across the board. He notes that ISIS sometimes spends dozens or even hundreds of hours on a single individual person in their recruitment efforts, listening to their individual grievances and trying to consolidate them into the greater Struggle. He also notes that the United States and the West in general has nothing like that kind of outreach for at-risk youth. The outrageous fact of the matter is that a violent, poisonous cult is better at reaching young people looking for meaning in the world than our government programs are. Why exactly this is the case, and how we can reverse it, seems to be an open question.

Nor does Atran seem to have a definite answer. At the close of the NPR interview he summarizes our long difficult task: “...I've always found that the most persuasive means, once people have locked into these sorts of views of the world, are arguments from people closest to them. As one imam from the Islamic State told us, he left the Islamic State because he couldn't stand the Islamic State just killing willy-nilly any foreigner who happened to be in Syria and Iraq. But he said the people coming to us aren't witless, as your propaganda makes it. They aren't brainwashed in any sense. They're compassionate. They're looking. And the Islamic State has a powerful and positive message, even though what's recorded here is mostly the negative message. We've got to - and this is the, again, an imam from the Islamic State telling me - we have got to come up with a positive message within our religious idiom that can attract these young people and track them away from violence and killing.”

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