Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human

June 2, 2011

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln upbraided a critic by asking "do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" Scott Atran wants the US to follow Abe's example by, if not actually befriending its enemies, at least talking to them, or trying to discover what moves them to give up their lives to attack it.

Atran is an anthropologist and psychologist, and the fact that his fieldwork is with "a certain sector of Moslem holy warriors - particularly suicide bombers" means that he leads what is, by academic and indeed most other standards, an exciting life.

We first meet him interrogating some of them in Poso, a small Indonesian town that "probably contains more violent Islamist groups per square metre than any other place on earth". He does a hasty bunk when he realises that a jihadi leader has identified him as a Jew. As he admits, "there's a daredevil high to this sort of fieldwork".

Sadly, the US has, as he says, consistently preferred to "wipe out" its enemies rather than talk to them. His book is clearly intended to change the nation's mind, and it certainly brings those enemies to life more vividly and perceptively than almost anything else currently in print. But it also tries to do a lot more than this. As its subtitle indicates, it is nothing if not ambitious - swooping from the "creation of the western world" in an early chapter, to "natural origins and the evolution of religion" towards the end.

Running through the book is a personal exploration of what has been labelled "leaderless jihad". The most striking terrorist attacks since 9/11 - the Bali, Madrid and London bombings - were carried out by groups that were not recruited by existing organisations such as al-Qaeda, but "self-mobilised". They were social networks, friends or football buddies, for whom violent jihad was "fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious and cool". Remarkably few of them had a strict religious upbringing or beliefs. Holy warriors are less likely to mobilise in mosques than in internet cafes. Atran contends that "what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much religion as a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends".

Atran is still rare among Americans in getting the threat posed by such terrorists in proportion - terrorism by itself cannot, as he says, "destroy our country or even seriously damage us". But we can do ourselves grievous harm by "taking the terrorists' bait and reacting in ways that inflate and empower our enemies, alienate our friends and frighten our own citizens into believing that they must give up basic liberties in order to survive".

But if it is easy enough to see, after a decade of the global war on terror, how ill-conceived that reaction was, it is harder to propose more apt remedies that have any chance of becoming state policy. If the problem is "a massive, media-driven political awakening in which jihad is presented as the only way to resolve problems of global injustice", an answer might be to "provide alternative heroes and hopes" - but how?

Could the successful action comic series The 99, in which young Muslim superheroes "dodge bullets and bullies to 'fight for peace' with 'multicultural initiatives'", indicate the way to a counter-radicalisation strategy that, says Atran, speaks to their hopes rather than just to ours? The prescriptions offered here still have a tentative air: his suggestion that the media might help to dampen the glamour of jihad by "desensationalising" terrorist attacks is frankly utopian. But they are the product of an approach far more sophisticated than any so far shown by his government. We must hope that it listens.

Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human

By Scott Atran. Allen Lane, 576pp, £25.00. ISBN 97818461441. Published 4 November 2010

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