Talking to the Enemy

Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists

Scott Atran, CENTRAL, 303.625 A882t 2010

Why do young Muslims choose explosive crowd-attack martyrdom? What are "we" (the west, governments, NGOs) doing so badly that we actually encourage this behavior? That's the primary question that Atran ponders, plausibly, IMHO.

Mass murder acts are planned and executed by small groups of friends, not by governments or "terrorist groups". These are not radical madrassa graduates; they are more likely to be soccer teammates or students at a trade school. The attacks are not high tech; stolen construction explosives and human "timers" deliver the bombs to their victims. One of them could be on the transit train I'm riding now; unlikely, human bomb explosions are one in a billion.

Few mainstream Muslim religious or political leaders promote this behavior, though some explain it, which might become "excuses" when selectively quoted by journalists.

Atran is an anthropologist and researcher, not a journalist. The book contains excerpts of interviews, with politicians, family, and many boys in poor neighborhoods who love soccer, Obama, and bin Laden. The latter two are opposite poles of attraction, not to be conflated, but evidence of the choices we can help these boys make.

Atran is a "sympathetic atheist", who works to understand the evolutionary advantages of religion. Evolutionary biology cannot easily explain why people cooperate in nation-sized groups, or why people develop beliefs involving costly, time-consuming rituals. Atran suggests these co-evolved to enable huge, internally peaceful, and economically efficient groups. Many nations share the same religion, and religion promises horrendous consequences for uncivilized behavior. Atran says the "four horsemen of atheism" (Harris, Hitchens Dawkins, Dennett) contradict abundant anthropological evidence and psychological studies when they dismiss theism as childish, or the motivation for terrorism. Religion, like patriotism, capitalism, communism, and most other isms, is used as camoflage by scoundrels.

But "defoliating" our culture won't eliminate scoundrels.

Totalitarian nations use punishment and fear to extort reluctant cooperation from mavericks (like the former Soviet Union), but religious nations (like the United States) encourage enthusiastic cooperation for "One Nation Under God". Which works, until schism and mistrust break the contract.

The "public" aspect of journalism and community pressure presents a different public opinion of terrorism than is expressed in private by grieving parents and worried politicians. The mother of a suicide bomber is expected by her community to celebrate the martyrdom of her son; in private, she longs for her son and protects her remaining children.

Western ignorance of eastern ways results in expensive and counterproductive programs that create more enemies. Afghanistan is a troubled region of the world, united only in its opposition to foreign invasion. The Soviet invasion fostered the Taliban resistance (taliban means student, and describes the young people who formed it), which is quite different from Al Qaeda, and quite different from the opium criminals. US policy conflates all of this, resulting in indiscriminate attacks and counterproductive and dishonorable bribery attempts. The McChrystal repot describes ten billion dollars spent to reduce opium poppy production; this eradicated 5,000 out of 150,000 hectares of opium production.

Not in the book, but a friend from Afghanistan offers a better solution - spend those billions paying to feed Afghans while they repair their irrigation canals, and reverse US import restrictions on cotton and fabric, encouraging farmers and artisans to sell cloth to the US rather than opium.

Encouraging regional visionaries (like Anwar Sadat) to risk censure in the pursuit of peace (he visited Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque and gave a speech at the Israeli Knesset in support of peace. We cannot bribe our way to peace, but we can make the machinery of peace safer and more beneficial than conflict, while celebrating the best of the cultures we wish to befriend.

This is a long book, full of examples, and took months to read, a chapter at a time. I don't remember specifics as much as the attitude - peace is a process grounded in understanding and respect. Extremism and intransigence are the opposite of peace, and the opposite of the persistent patience required for the development of sturdy peaceful cultures.

TalkingEnemyAtran (last edited 2019-10-19 19:27:18 by KeithLofstrom)