October 16, 2014
Scott Atran
Hopes and Dreams in a World of Fear

For over a decade, the French-American anthropologist Scott Atran has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. He explores the human dynamics of what we analyze as “breeding grounds for terrorism” — why some young people become susceptible to them and others, in the same circumstances, do not. His work sheds helpful light on the question on so many of our minds as we watch horrific news of the day: How could this happen — and how could we possibly help transform it?

Share Episode


is director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, visiting professor at the University of Michigan, senior fellow at Harris Manchester College of Oxford University and research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He’s the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.


October 16, 2014

SCOTT ATRAN: Sometimes you have to fight things, when people want to kill you, when people want to blow you up, then you have to fight them.

But that’s not the case with the vast majority of people who could possibly become tomorrow’s terrorists. That’s where the fight for the world will be. It will be in the next generation of these young people, the ones caught between should we go the path of happiness as martyrdom or should we go to the path of yes, we can. They’re both very enticing paths. I think one has a lot more to offer, but we have to show them it has more to offer, and we have to show them now. And that’s what they’re asking for right now.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: For over a decade, the French-American anthropologist Scott Atran has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. He’s explored the human dynamics of what we analyze as “breeding grounds for terrorism” — why some young people become susceptible to radicalism and others, in the same circumstances, do not. His work sheds helpful light on the question on so many of our minds as we watch horrific news of the day: How could this happen — and how could we possibly help transform it?

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Scott Atran holds appointments at the University of Michigan, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and at France’s National Center for Scientific Research. He began his career working with the great anthropologist Margaret Mead. In the early years of this century, he turned his attention to global Islamist terrorism. Scott Atran tells some of this story in his 2010 book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. I interviewed him the following year.

MS. TIPPETT: As we begin, I’m interested — I mean, you have spent a lot of time in recent years studying the power of religion and sacred values in human life, and I did wonder was there any kind of religious background to your life?

DR. ATRAN: Oh, not much. I mean, I had a Jewish upbringing and I’m pretty much non religious myself. But I was always interested in religious and ethnic conflict, so I started especially — actually I first started working on this stuff in the Middle East within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and then sort of branched out across the world as my interests became more general in terms of how human beings think more broadly and what brings them to the ideas they have. I mean, why are there certain universals and general patterns of reasoning and behavior across the species?


DR. ATRAN: Then I discovered that these notion of sort of transcendent or sacred values is really what drives people forward, what frames who they are, what their existence is all about. It’s not really about struggle over economic possibilities or resources. Those are secondary to the fact that you need them to create who you are. And even more interesting was the groups that are created, human groups, are so different from other animals in that they’re mostly groups of genetic strangers. I mean, take the notion of the nation. It’s a really imagined group of fictive kin and yet people are willing to make the greatest sacrifices, to die and to kill for these groups of genetic strangers that are bound together by these preposterous beliefs.

And then I started thinking about our own society’s preposterous beliefs. I mean, think of something like The Declaration of Independence, where they’re taking on the mightiest empire in the world at the time and they say they’re pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I mean, that’s crazy. If you look at all of human history up until then, and they say that we’re endowed by the creator, it’s all natural, and it worked. I mean, they actually engineered this through different laws and mores and wars, and they changed the world.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, as you apply this mindset, right, this approach, these core questions that you named basically, you know, how do human beings think, how do they act, how do they — how are they capable of change over time. You’ve been applying that to this phenomenon of global terrorism or breeding grounds for terrorism.

And I know that, over these past few years, when I’ve interviewed, Muslim scholars and thinkers, for example, about Islam, and trying to understand their roots of violence in the name of Islam, people will often kind of reflexively object that what we’re, you know, ultimately trying to do is justify violence or relativize extremism, or humanize crime that needs to be punished. And I wonder if that’s also a criticism that you come under, just for doing the work you do, for asking the questions you ask.

DR. ATRAN: Sure, you know, when I talk to, religious leaders, especially those involved in things like Jihad, first thing they do, of course, is give me a Qur’an and try to convert me to their particular point of view. And then are fairly highly suspicious that I’m trying to, hook them into, saying that, their philosophy of life is a violent philosophy of life.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: On the other side I get it from, sort of secular liberals, that I’m, you know, a patsy for these guys, and that I — I’m an apologist for religion — you know, sort of Sam Harrison’s latest book points out that I’m moral relativist…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: …which I’m really am not. And that my interest is in just sort of this touchy-feely hippie hermeneutics, where everybody can get along in the world. But, my interest in dealing with the Jihadis is both general and concrete. The general part is I’m always interested in those people who are as different from me as possible. Whether in the Maya rainforest, because except for wilderness freaks nobody in our society could last months out there in the middle of the rainforest and survive, but these guys do it all the time…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: Or these Jihadis — say, suicide bombers, who blow themselves up, which sort of seems to go against all evolutionary dispositions, for this greater cause. Now, nothing could be further from me. So, my idea is that if I can understand what moves these people, I can much better understand, sort of, what it is to be human.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: And I find they’re really just people like everybody else.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’re also talking to people who are in those extended spheres of human beings, right? But who don’t actually make that move across the line of bombing a subway train.

DR. ATRAN: Right. So if you take, you know, these polls if you put any credence in them, like the Gallup and Pew polls, you find that about 7 percent of the Muslim world has some sympathy for bin Laden. That’s about 100 million people out of 1.3 or .4 billion Muslims in the world. But then if you look who actually is willing to do something violent, you find that it’s an extremely, extremely small number of people. But when you look at — of those thousands out of the 100 million who actually do anything, you find that the greatest predictor — it has nothing to do with religion. The greatest predictor is whether they belong to a soccer club or some action-oriented group of friends.


DR. ATRAN: In fact, almost none of them had any religious education whatsoever. They’re all born again, sort of between the ages of 18 and 22. So if it’s not religious inculcation, if it’s not religious training, if it’s not even religious tradition, what could it possibly be? And again, it’s first of all who your friends are. That’s the greatest predictor of everything.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Hm.

DR. ATRAN: Then there’s a sort of geopolitical aspect to it. I mean, people talk about a clash of civilizations. I think that’s dead wrong. There’s a crash of territorial cultures across the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah. I want you to talk about that. I think that’s a very intriguing distinction you draw that it’s not a clash of civilizations, but you’ve also said a crash of civilizations. So tell me what you’re describing there.

DR. ATRAN: Well, globalization, of course, has provided access to large masses of humanity to a better standard of living, better health, better education. But it has also left in its wake many traditional societies that are falling apart, that just can’t compete. And so what you have is young people especially sort of flailing around looking for a sense of social identity, as these traditional territorial cultures and their influence disappears. And they’re trying to hook up with one another peer to peer.

And this is paralleling another new development in history of humanity and that is this massive media-driven global political awakening where, again, for the first time in human history, you’ve got someone in New Guinea who can see the same images as someone in the middle of the Amazon. And so you’ve got these young people, paradoxically, focusing in on a smaller and smaller bandwidth in this sort of global media trying to hook up with one another and make friends and give themselves a sense of significance. And the Jihad comes along.

I mean, the Jihad — you know, I interviewed this guy in prison in France who, wanted to blow up the American Embassy and I asked him, you know, “Why did you want to do this?” and he says to me, “Well, you know, I’m walking along the street one day and someone spit at my sister and called her sale Arabe, a dirty Arab, and I just couldn’t take it anymore and I realized that this injustice would never leave French society or Western society, so I joined the Jihad.” I said, “Yeah, but that has been going on for years.” And he goes, “Yes, but there was no Jihad before.”

MS. TIPPETT: Mm. Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: So it’s a sort of receptacle. You find it’s especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives: immigrants, students, people in search of jobs or mates, or between jobs and mates, and it gives a sense of empowerment that their own societies certainly don’t.


DR. ATRAN: I mean, the message of the Jihad is, look, you, any of you, any of you out there, you too can cut off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter. That’s what we did.


DR. ATRAN: We changed the world with paper cutters. That’s all you need. All you need is will and truth and meaning, and you will correct injustice in the world and you’ll be heroic and you’ll have the greatest adventure of your lives. And that’s surely powerful.

MS. TIPPETT: And are you drawing connections between this scenario you just described of hopes and dreams and also skewed hopes and dreams with this ferment that’s now happening?

DR. ATRAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. So let me just sort of give you two anecdotes that comes out of my work with the Madrid bombing. So, I went to trial and I interviewed, you know, the surviving plotters and their families and their friends. And then what I discovered was that of the seven plotters who, when cornered by police blew themselves up, were actually from a little barrio in a northern Moroccan town, Tétouan, called the Jamaa Mezuak. 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. You know, this elementary school had Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, they all went to the same high school except for one who was brilliant and then, went to train with the, Moroccan Royal Air Force. And then, when they blew themselves up, some friends and kinsmen, other young people went to Iraq to blow themselves up.

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.


DR. ATRAN: 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.”


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.


DR. ATRAN: So what is that telling us? It’s telling us that these young people are looking for something important and they’re looking around for role models in life and where are they finding them? Well, they’re finding them in soccer, which is exciting; they’re finding them in action figure heroes, which is also exciting. And these political figures would seem to agitate everything that’s going on. I mean, it’s mostly in barbershops and fast-food restaurants and cafés and on the streets that peoples’ images of society are formed.


DR. ATRAN: And, Barack Obama suddenly appears on the scene and is a hope for these young people. They just look at the guy’s face, you know, and the color his skin and they say, if he can do it, we can do it.

[music: “Artifact” by Balmorhea]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with anthropologist Scott Atran. My conversation with him predated the recent spectacle of ISIS. But his long fieldwork on why young people succumb to — or resist — radicalism speaks to an ongoing challenge: the dangerous distraction, as Scott Atran describes it, of over-emphasizing the threat of any terrorist group itself, beginning with al-Qaeda.

MS. TIPPETT: You’re right. I mean, there tends to be this generalized view of terrorism and it’s all al-Qaeda, right? And it’s not even what al-Qaeda is, but something that we imagined on September 11, 2001, I mean…

DR. ATRAN: Al-Qaeda was a specific group and they were a specific group of bad guys that got lucky. There hasn’t been one successful attack against the United States since 9/11. Most of the plots are sting plots by our law enforcement agencies. All the plots in Europe were not al-Qaeda directed. None of them were except for a sort of indirect one in the London underground bombings. They’re completely homegrown. I think never in human history have so few people with so few actual means cause such fear in so many, but it’s not an existential threat to our society and it’s blinding us to the possibilities of political change, and political change which really could bring the world forward in an interesting way.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. So, you know, I wanna keep talking about what you know from the scope of your work about the human dynamics that have fed, the terrorist threat in recent years in the world. I mean, so one thing you mentioned a minute ago, is that we have been able to look at particular — at schools, for example, that have been then labeled breeding grounds for terrorism — madrasas. One of the observations you made is that — I think you’re saying that we’re not necessarily asking the right questions, we’re not saying, “What is it about that school that makes it a breeding ground for terrorism?” But the more pertinent question might be, “What is it about human friendship that becomes such a powerful force?”

DR. ATRAN: Yeah I think that’s right on, I mean, what is it about the way people bond? And even law enforcement — so I’m asked a lot to brief law enforcement or counterintelligence or, you know, military people about what I find in the field…

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: And, I find that they always concentrate on people who actually do things: who are involved in plots, or who do something they call criminal — just like, you know, the law enforcement or FBI concentrates on the criminal act and actor. Then you realize that, first of all theres no command and control or hierarchy to any of this. It’s pretty spontaneous, the Jihad. And people come in and out of it all the time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: They don’t even know what the others are up to. Their plots are sort of scatter-brained. All of them fail except for one or two. OK?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: Out of the hundreds of plots, how many have succeeded? Really, almost none. And if you look at even the ones who have succeeded, like Madrid, it was 39 people who didn’t know what the other was doing. It was — I can tell you — it was like the Keystone Cops, it was so ridiculous with the police infiltrating three different groups, but never able to figure out what was going on. The groups themselves weren’t able to figure out what was going on.

9/11, too, the Hamburg plotters — the bomb plotters — like Atta and Jarrah and al-Shehhi, they were confused guys, they were sort of doubly alienated in their neighborhood in Hamburg, they weren’t Turks they weren’t Germans, they were all Middle Easterners. And they wanted to go to Bosnia — they got an apartment together, they sort of got into their parallel universe.


DR. ATRAN: The neighbors told us the place stank because they never went out of the apartment. They brought in like twenty mattresses for their fellow travelers. They watched videos of Bosnia and things. They came out of their cocoon wanting to do something heroic. So they wanted to go to Bosnia and the Bosnians told them “Forget it. Maybe you can get us some Russian goggles or something that are coming on the market in Germany.”

Then they wanted to go to Chechnya and someone said, “Well the Russians aren’t gonna let you into Chechnya.” Then they met somebody on a train who basically said, “Well maybe if you go to Pakistan you can eventually get to Chechnya. And they wound up, basically near al-Qaeda where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — whose proposal to al-Qaeda — I mean, al-Qaeda’s like a funding organization, like the National Science Foundation.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK.

DR. ATRAN: You know, you apply to it. Nobody — they have no recruiters, I mean, people go looking for it they don’t go looking for anybody — they accepted about fifteen to twenty percent of their applicants and they accepted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s proposal to blow up planes. And he basically said to bin Laden, “Look boss, look what I got. I got these guys who wanna go to Chechnya, they got visas, maybe we can use ‘em.”

So they’re out there looking for adventure and you don’t even know which ones will eventually wind up in the plot or doing anything. Because, again, they themselves don’t really know what’s going on. They have these sort of vague ideals and motives and hopes and desires.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: It congeals almost randomly around an opportunity that arises spontaneously.

MS. TIPPETT: But you also have said, uncategorically, and I believe you’ve said this in testimony before congress that people in the end don’t kill for a cause, they kill and die for each other. That it’s those human bonds.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah. I mean, if you look at them. You know, people often ask me, so, how we gonna, you know, come up with these sophisticated models and predictors and I say, “You really wanna know, you know, who’s involved in a plot? Well, find one of the guys and look at what he eats and what he wears. And then you’ll find the others.” Because they’re friends. Almost all of them are friends. Sometimes there’s a family member, you know, a cousin or something and then friends start marrying one another’s sisters because this is just cook for them, and they get to know one another. So you really wanna know who gets involved, look at their networks, look at their — look at what they eat, look at what they wear, look where they hang out. And it’s not in mosques, by the way, people pray in mosques, you gotta be quiet. You plot in barber shops, you plot in cafes, fast food restaurants, you plot in soccer fields. You plot at picnics. You know, I found so many plots in weddings because it’s like the opening scene of The Godfather, you know, people shmooze and mingle.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

DR. ATRAN: It’s a great place to get family and friends together and plot.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, now here’s another really interesting thing you’ve pointed out, that organizations that are effective in bringing off these kinds of things awaken this instinct of family and tribe that’s so strong in us as human beings, right? That we’re biologically hardwired. I mean, I think that’s a really interesting point and it’s no accident that the names of organizations will be something like the Muslim Brotherhood or, you know, Bands of Brothers. We think of that when human beings are capable of things that we wouldn’t normally do, for those who we consider to be part of our family.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah, that’s sort of the — you’ve sort of got the essence of what I’m actually interested in. I mean, I know of no political movement or territorial movement or even transnational movement — that is, no large grouping of human beings that don’t consider themselves in terms of brotherhoods or sisterhoods or fatherlands or homelands or motherlands.

MS. TIPPETT: All that family vocabulary.

DR. ATRAN: And it’s very strong. And all the sort of rites of passage and oaths people say are all couched in terms of these families.


DR. ATRAN: Now these families, they’re biologically weaker, of course, than real genetic families. But how in the end do they become stronger? Well, there are evolutionary reasons why human beings who are absolutely the weakest of all primates physically bond together with strangers to survive. And we got into competition with larger and larger groups and we needed mechanisms to build these larger and larger groups, and that’s what these sacred and transcendental values are all about.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Monotheism created something completely new in the history of the world. The Jewish notion of a chosen people under God and the Greek notion of universal laws merged in these universal religions along the Silk Road, along these Eurasian commercial networks, and they started the notion that human beings could be saved, that there was good — those who were saved — and there were evil, those who were bad. No cultures before that actually thought in terms of good and evil.

MS. TIPPETT: They thought in terms of the other? I mean, the tribal other, but not …

DR. ATRAN: … the tribal other. But now with the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, these universal monotheisms became secularized and brought down to earth. But if you think about it, these secular ideologies, all modern secular ideologies, all the isms: fascism, communism, socialism, anarchism, colonialism, democratic liberalism, are all variants on this monotheistic theme, however secular they are in appearance. They’re salvational Messianic ideologies which believes the world must be saved and should be saved whether they like it or not, and that’s what drives us.

[music: “Kalimba” by Inti-Illimani]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Scott Atran through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Kalimba” by Inti-Illimani]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this On Being. Today, with the French-American anthropologist Scott Atran, we’re seeking context, pulling back a human lens on dynamics unfolding in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and beyond. Scott Atran is the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. His global field work examines the conditions that drive young people into, as well as away from, violent radicalism. What he’s learned is not what we generally talk about when we analyze these events in news and strategic terms.

MS. TIPPETT: So, tell me what you’ve learned in these past years as you have been out there talking to suicide bombers and potential suicide bombers. I mean, what have you learned about how people get out, how they walk away from that how that longing and that passion can be transferred in more positive directions? What’s powerful enough to take them away?

DR. ATRAN: Well, as you sort of implied, there’s — it’s a pathway to violence, and it depends on where along this pathway you catch these young people. So, it usually happens like this. So, there’s sort of a larger counterculture out there. For whatever reason, people are not happy. They believe there’s injustice in the current state of things, and so they protest and they want change.

Then usually what happens is that a small group, for whatever reason, maybe one or two individuals in this small group break away from this sort of counterculture and they say, “You guys haven’t been doing enough. You’ve been talking and talking and talking and nothing has happened and we’re going to do something.” And when they break away, we find they move into a sort of parallel world. They usually get a place together or go out into the country together and live their sort of isolated life or lock themselves up in an apartment or somehow withdraw and build this world that they think is better and will be better through their actions.

Now once they’re in this mode, it’s a lot harder to get to them because they’re sort of locked in. They’ve built this sort of sacred view of one another and they’ve locked it into their own personal friendships so that the notion of the cause and their friendship is almost inextricably bound. And once they’re in that stage, the only people I’ve found that can bring them out of it are those very, very close to them that haven’t made this move. So the only groups that I …

MS. TIPPETT: … so, again, it comes down to this relational, the friendship circle somehow.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah. So, I was in Sulawesi with a bunch called al-Muqatila, suicide attackers, against Christian militia. The only ones who could get them out were a group of Salafis who talked to them and said, “Look, I understand what you want. You want to reduce injustice in the world. You want Islam to prosper. This isn’t the way to do it. This is a better way.” And they got them to do it.

Now when I hear our people or president of France talk about, you know, we’re going to have moderate imams and preach the true nature of religion to these people, I ask what world are these leaders living in? First of all, moderate, you gotta be kidding. When was the last time you told your kids to be moderate about their boyfriends or choice of career?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

DR. ATRAN: I mean, they basically say, “Yeah right, Mom; right, Dad, OK,” and then they become — and as far as true message of religion, the whole thing about religion is it has no true message. It is true for people in a certain time in a certain context. Otherwise, religions would have disappeared once conditions changed.

So it can’t be about some eternal message and it can’t be about moderation. It’s got to be, again, about things that are exciting, thrilling, hopes and dreams. And if we go back to that poll I took where Obama beat out bin Laden, that was in November 2009. But look what happens now. We just did a poll, comes out in 2010. He comes out dead last. Ahmadinejad beats him out, Nasrallah beats him out, bin Laden beats him out.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, so what’s that about?

DR. ATRAN: It’s because these young people were looking to him for hope and they found their hopes in him. And then, for whatever reason — and it’s quite understandable from our domestic political agenda that he couldn’t really deliver in a short time on those hopes. And when they look around, they see things like Israel and Palestine or Afghanistan and things get just way worse, then they think that they have been taken down the garden path and they become angry and it’s almost better as if he said nothing at all.

Now, again, you know, I often try to talk to even leaders in these different countries and say, “Look, the American political establishment is such that if a president tries to do too much on intractable foreign conflicts, especially in his first administration, then he’s out, so you usually have to wait until the end of the second administration where a president can really concentrate on these intractable issues.” But, again, those people live in their own world and their own priorities, and so they see this as hypocritical rather than…

MS. TIPPETT: Well, Americans don’t even have patience for that, right? [laughs].

DR. ATRAN: Yeah, but they’re a little more understanding.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Something that comes up in your writing and is very much on my mind is we have no memory in the United States of how important religiously based, very deeply religiously based civic organizations were in the beginnings of American democracy, right? The YMCA, the YWCA, the Boy Scouts and even well into the 20th century. Do you think about how Islamic Muslim religious organizations can be a very — could be a very constructive part of what will be young democracies if things unfold peacefully?

DR. ATRAN: Yes, they could well be. Now if you look at the history of the United States, you’re right. I mean, when de Tocqueville, even Engels, when he goes to California, he’s writing back to Marx and saying, “Look, we got this all wrong. We’ve got to change the Communist Manifesto.”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] It’s not the opium after all. I didn’t know that Engels wrote to Marx from California.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah. Marx says, well, we’ll deal with it when we — he goes, “We got this all wrong.” I mean, these people are very progressive and lively and seem to have free exchanges, and they’re basing their lives in these community churches and things like that. And he goes, “We’ve just got to reconsider here.” It was America’s community-based religious establishments that were the basis of things like credit. I mean, the Americans virtually —


DR. ATRAN: I mean, the Jewish community introduced credit, but the Americans were the first nation that were based on credit. And credit, which made the economy flow and produce, was strictly a church-based, family-based community affair.

I mean, there’s this wonderful anecdote of Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology at the turn of the last century. He was in a train going through the South of the United States and he’s sitting in a car with an undertaker and a sawmill owner. And they’re talking for two days about their families and the church. And then just as the undertaker’s about to get off, he asked for so many million board feet from the sawmill guy. Weber goes, “Well, what the hell happened here? I mean, you guys have been talking for two days. You never mentioned business and, all of a sudden, you make this huge business deal.” And the undertaker says, “Well, sure. I mean, if he didn’t care for his family and his church the way I did, then I wouldn’t give a plumb nickel for the value of the deal.” So it is and it was still and still is to a great deal a part of what made America, America.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: Now that’s falling apart. I mean, Robert Putnam in this wonderful book called Bowling Alone describes how that is breaking apart and that, as a result, we’re into a different culture based on, you know, sort of legalistic lawyerly contracts and transactions and where personal notions of trust, especially with strangers, increases inordinately. And I think that also feeds into our political system. It makes us less able to understand what is happening in the rest of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I remember right after the war in Iraq started and ended, back when we were still talking about building civil society, you know, before it just turned into this entrenched conflict. And I spoke with a young Iraqi American who’d been over there with the Coalition Provisional Authority consulting on how to rebuild the school system. He was saying, “Why isn’t the U.S. government helping create Muslim Chambers of Commerce?” Because that’s exactly the kind of organization that was the glue, again, of early American democracy for hundreds of years. I mean, Christian-based Chambers of Commerce, that kind of thing.

DR. ATRAN: Because one of the things is that the reaction to 9/11 has created this notion of Muslims as an alien force, to the United States and a rival in the world. But the idea that, you know, Islam is very similar to Christianity or anything else, I mean, it’s a broad-based social movement. It gives a sense of significance to people. And it runs the gamut just like all religions do basically from good to bad.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s huge diversity.

DR. ATRAN: Everything good you can think of has been religiously inspired from creativity in art and music to intellectual endeavors. And everything bad from war and genocide and murder to torture. But that’s also been the case with secular governments as well. I mean, there are modes of being, of how people reconcile the contradictory yearnings and aspects of their human nature. We need them.

We can’t exist in a logical world because we can’t even accept things like death and deception, which are inevitable, because our brains don’t accept it. I mean, if they did, then we’d spend our entire time trying to struggle against it. So there’s a reason that we have these transcendental ideas, however secular in appearance, and unless we find a way to reconcile ourselves with these changes in the world, then I have a feeling we’re going to be left in the lurch.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s easier to draw implications, of this kind of insight to how foreign policy might change, right? How diplomats might behave. I wonder how you think about how ordinary citizens might take in some of the larger perspective that you and others offer and, you know, is there a way in this technologically connected world also for American citizens to weigh in more positively, you know, let’s say just taking this premise of yours that so much of our thinking and acting has to start with what it means to be human and take that into account in all its fullness?

DR. ATRAN: Well, it’s hard because people are constantly reminded of their sort of tribal aspects, that there’s an enemy out there. And we seem as human beings to need enemies to drive us forward as well. I think that there is a place for spontaneous movements of our people, especially our young people, in forging new ideas and perhaps eventually weighing in on our society. But I had an interesting dinner with someone very close to the president and his administration. And, I went through my sort of shtick about never before have so few people cause such hysteria in so many.

And he posed an interesting question to me. He said, “OK, maybe the president agrees with you. Maybe the president does agree that the threat of terrorism and the reaction of the United States to it has been outsized, that we have overreacted, but now what do you do? What would you advise the president to do to help convince the American people that the political landscape has changed and we should deal with the rest of the world in a different way?” So it’s a little bit like turn — the way policy works, is you — it’s like turning a giant aircraft carrier in a small port.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right, yeah.

DR. ATRAN: You cannot give, as most people do on their blogs or in op-eds, these grand sudden changes and expect them to be meaningful at all.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: It’s got to be by small steps and what small steps?

Well, I went to the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan and I posed this to, you know, foreign policy people. And I said, “So what would you suggest?” It’s fascinating. They all come with data-driven, evidence-based arguments for what’s wrong and what we should do. And I sort of said, “Look, guys, that’s not going to work. First of all, outside of the economy, people are not interested in evidence and data or even truth. People are interested in persuading, in victory, and confirming what they believe in or love. Second, you haven’t addressed any of the emotional aspects of this which really drive people…


DR. ATRAN: …revenge, revenge and fear.

MS. TIPPETT: Fear. Mm-hmm.

DR. ATRAN: You haven’t even touched on those. How do you lessen that? Why is it that an earthquake or what was called back in the 1920s in an old study by Henry Ford, the “jerk effect” when all of a sudden you hit a pothole, why is that so much more powerful emotionally than real threats? You know, if you look at the data, you’d find that even frequent flyers have a better chance of being killed by a lawnmower than in a terrorist attack.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK.

DR. ATRAN: But people aren’t worried about dying by lawnmower.

MS. TIPPETT: Didn’t you tell a story in one of your books about, even at the height of the Cold War, that some American president said that, if only we were attacked by Martians, we would — all of our differences would disappear?

DR. ATRAN: Right. That’s Reagan to Gorbachev when walking in the woods.

MS. TIPPETT: Reagan to Gorbachev, right, right.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah but that’s the — see, here’s what I think is the greatest political challenge of all. In addition to dealing with fear and revenge, there’s something which I like to call sort of the principle of enmity. Human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Just look at novels. Look at the news. No one’s interested in happy, good-feeling cooperative things. I mean, people — when they’re tired of war and they’re tired of conflict and competition, then they’ll go back on it. But what really drives interest and passion is competition and conflict. So the question is, can we actually lessen conflict without having enemies? Well, there are two answers to that. One is the sort of Gorbachev/Reagan — Reagan’s proposal to Gorbachev. We can come up with some kind of enemy, maybe an …

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yet another common enemy.

DR. ATRAN: And the enemy of my enemy, right? Or we can change it to a sort of abstract enemy like poverty or killing or something like that. And that sort of reminds me of how I actually ended the book. You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.

And a woman, an elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. And Lincoln says to the woman, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” And if you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. And I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we’re reacting to these young people around the world.

[music: “Theturningbull” by Bexar Bexar]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with anthropologist Scott Atran. For the past decade, he’s listened to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. He’s explored the human aspects of what we speak of, in political terms, as “breeding grounds for terrorists.”

MS. TIPPETT: This does present a moment of opportunity, doesn’t it? I mean, you have been writing about this restlessness and rootlessness that defines a lot of young peoples’ reality in the world today and, in some cases, has led them to be receptive to this terrorist message. I mean, this could present an opportunity for us, right? For…

DR. ATRAN: It does. I mean, it’s like those little kids who are between Obama and Osama. I mean, the ones right now who are out in the streets of Cairo and Oman are hopeful that a democratic change is possible and that they can, for the first time in their lives, not only achieve some kind of modicum of economic security, but hopes for their political aspirations, whatever they may be, and they see this as an opportunity. And the United States, regretfully, is not seeing that, or at least not seeing it in their terms. They’re seeing it through the old lenses of how the political structure of the world appeared to them on the eve of 9/11 or before.

MS. TIPPETT: You have even talked about us being — not with regard to very recent events, but they may be an expression of it — talked about humanity being on the cusp of the second great tipping point in human history. Tell me what you mean by that, pulling the lens way back?

DR. ATRAN: Well, I sometimes see myself, you know, sort of among the ancient Maya or in ancient Sumaria when writing is first coming onto the scene. And if you think about writing, what it did. I mean, establishing words and records and memory for all time, augmenting the memory that human beings have, establishing things like contracts, making long-distance trade possible, even making things like the building of roads possible.

And then you see what’s happening in the world today in internet and Facebook and the media, and you realize that things like nations and libraries and the world as we have known it over the last 3,500 years is changing at an incredible pace. Now young people are beginning to — they’re born into it now, so they grasp it right away and they’re moving in a completely different space than us old geezers.

MS. TIPPETT: And we’re now seeing it has political power in a way.

DR. ATRAN: Yeah, but unfortunately, most of our political guys are still in a completely different world. It’s as if they’re in a world of, you know, buggies and carriages and horses. Then I hear them come out with their political proposals and it’s like saying, “Well, I have got a really good buggy stick…

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

DR. ATRAN: …It’s really the best one we can find.” You ask yourself what is the relevance of a buggy stick in this new world?

And I see the vast possibilities of this world, of a social brain. Just think about the networking possibilities of knowledge and access to knowledge that people have now.


DR. ATRAN: I mean, again, people now in New Guinea can link up with what people in New York are doing and work together with their different experiences and lives and come up with new possibilities for human life. And this is happening at an incredibly fast rate and it’s something that I don’t think our traditional political establishments are at all capable of dealing with and I think there will be huge upheavals as a result, economic and social.

MS. TIPPETT: So you know, at the beginning of your book, which is called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, right before the table of contents, you have this absolutely beautiful picture of children. It looks like they’re either coming out of school or going to school. They’re beautiful children. It’s kind of a heartbreaking picture in a lovely way.

And then I read underneath that it’s a school that you mentioned early on. You say, school’s out at this school in Morocco from which five of the seven plotters of the Madrid train bombing who blew themselves up attended, as did several volunteers for martyrdom in Iraq. Tell me why you put that picture at the beginning of your book and what you would like a reader or someone coming to these ideas to see in that picture.

DR. ATRAN: Because those are the terrorists. Those are those who would be terrorists or would be us or our friends. And it is up to us and how we deal with the political world and the hopes and dreams that emerge in their own societies that will decide whether they go one way or the other. It’s not, again, the fact that there are good or bad ideologies out there. It’s not the fact of lack of presence of economic opportunities per se. It’s whether there are paths in life that can lead them to something that’s more congenial to the way we live in the world. I think we have many things to offer, but not in the way we’re doing it.

I mean, I’m reminded very much of Maximilien Robespierre’s statement to the Jacobin Club in the French Revolution, a statement he promptly forgot, which was, “No one loves armed missionaries.” No one loves armed missionaries. No one loves the fact that we have troops out there in the world trying to preserve or push democracy or whatever. As Jefferson said, “The way we’re going to change the world is by our example. Never, never can it be by the sword.” Now sometimes you have to fight things. When people want to kill you, when people want to blow you up, then you have to fight them. There may be at the time no opportunity.

But that’s not the case with the vast majority of people who could possibly become tomorrow’s terrorists. And that’s where the fight for the world will be. It will be in the next generation of these young people, the ones caught between should we go the path of happiness as martyrdom or should we go to the path of yes, we can. They’re both very enticing paths. I think one has a lot more to offer, but we have to show them it has more to offer, and we have to show them now. And that’s what they’re asking for right now.

[music: “A Brief Walk In the Sea” by Near the Parenthesis]

MS. TIPPETT: Scott Atran is director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, visiting professor at the University of Michigan, senior fellow at Harris Manchester College of Oxford University and research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He’s the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

[music: “A Brief Walk In the Sea” by Near the Parenthesis]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this conversation with Scott Atran at onbeing.org.

[music: “Sukra (Zaman 8’s Sepia Tone Remix)” by Zaman 8 Featuring Hafez Modir]

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, David Schimke, and Bekah Johnson.

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Scott Atran
Publisher: Ecco
Binding: Hardcover, (576)Pages
Author: Scott Atran
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Binding: Paperback, (388)Pages

Music Played

Artist: Zoe Keating
Label: Zoe Keating
Artist: Balmorhea
Label: Western Vinyl
Label: Warner Italy
Artist: Bexar Bexar
Label: Western Vinyl
Artist: Near the Parenthesis
Label: N5md

About the Image

Share a Reflection