Writing on the Obama administration’s military campaign against ISIS, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman provided a stark illustration of the prevailing mindset within elite circles in times of war. “The rise of the Islamic State,” he intoned “is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst.” Disregarding the by now uncontroversial fact that the rise of ISIS can be traced, in large part, to the criminality of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war of aggression Friedman endorsed with near psychotic enthusiasm (see video below), this statement should raise fundamental questions about dominant portrayals of those we call “the enemy.” Scott Atran’s brilliant study Talking to the Enemy thoroughly deconstructs these media representations, offering an incredibly detailed and empirically grounded understanding of how sub-national terrorist groups are organized, the ideologies they subscribe to, and the goals they aspire to achieve. Quite apart from the simplistic “Sunni death cults” of the Thomas Friedman school of journalism, Atran draws from an extensive record anthropological field work, interviews, and surveys to show how terrorist atrocities (9/11, the 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali, the 2004 Madrid Train bombings, etc.) are not centrally organized plots carried out after years of religious indoctrination in Pakistani or Indonesian madrassas.
Instead, these events are the end product of highly decentralized and self-organized groups motivated to reach a common goal. These goals are not religious in nature but extremely political. Take for example the 2004 Madrid Train bombings. This attack was organized by a Moroccan drug dealer by the name of Jamal Ahmidan, three Spanish collaborators (Emilio Trashorras, Carmen Toro, and Antonio Toro), and a large group of friends led by a Tunisian named Abdelmajid Serhane. As Atran notes, “there was no ingenious cell structure, no hierarchy, no recruitment, no brainwashing, no coherent organization, no Al Qaeda.” This amorphous character of sub-national terrorist operations plays an integral role in Atran’s study because it reveals how small group dynamics, what he calls “imagined kin”, are the principal drivers in the plotting and execution of terrorist attacks. In the case of the Madrid Train bombings Ahmidan’s and Abdelmajid’s social circles played soccer together.
Another major factor in the ideological backdrop that motivated the Madrid bombings was the 15th century conquest of Muslim Spain, a world historic event witnessed by Italian terrorist, and “founder” of the “New World” Christopher Columbus. “I saw the King of the Moors sally from the gates of said city … and kiss the royal hands of your Highnesses,” Columbus observed. Memories of this humiliating moment were revived centuries later in a video left in the wreckage of the apartment where the Madrid Train bombers blew themselves up. The video condemned the “Spanish crusade against the Muslims,” and “the tribunals of the Inquisition.”
Willingness to point out verifiable facts of this kind is rare in an intellectual culture eager to conflate mere explanation of potential motives behind horrific crimes with justification of those crimes but ignoring them virtually ensures that a discourse will not emerge to discourage future acts of violence, whether they be committed by subnational retail or wholesale state terrorists. For example, attributing sub-national terrorism to an innate, religiously fueled desire for martyrdom, completely divorced from any empirical analysis or investigation of how these plots come in to being, does nothing to illuminate the nature of this phenomenon. In fact, this frame of reasoning, when sincerely felt, can erect huge barriers to genuine understanding.
Such is the case with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who, in Atran’s words, “insists that secular moderation toward religion and ecumenical tolerance only enable bizarre and belligerent beliefs to thrive and extremists to flourish with cruel and savage consequences for the world.” And Harris is by no means alone in his valiant stand against the purveyors of “ecumenical tolerance.” He is joined by esteemed biologist Richard Dawkins, who laments “suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.” Dawkins also ridicules the “mainstream religious instructors” who “[line children] up in madrassahs” so they can “rhythmically [nod] their innocent little heads up and down while they [learn] every word of the holy book like demented parrots.”
Perhaps this lurid portrait of religious indoctrination will set off alarm bells among racists at NSA headquarters or “mosque crawlers” in the NYPD’s surveillance unit, but among serious analysts it’s hardly worth responding to. Not only did “none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers or thirty-odd Madrid train-bomb conspirators [attend] a madrassah” but statistical data from Indonesia and Pakistan—“the two countries with the greatest number of madrassas as well as jihadi groups”—reveal “less than 1 percent of the madrassas can be associated with jihadis.”
Far from idle, academic debate, recognizing these realities ought to play a significant role in how we conceptualize so-called “enemies” and, more importantly, how we respond when power systems portray massive state violence and terror as the only legitimate solution. In his highly anticipated speech before the UN, President Obama stated, in reference to ISIS, “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Compare Obama’s rhetoric to the approach of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a recent event held by the Council on Foreign Relations journalist Fareed Zakaria asked how the Turkish government managed to free 49 Turkish hostages who were being held by ISIS or as he put it “What did you give ISIS? Why did they give back your hostages?”
Erdogan’s answer was instructive: “When we say the word ‘operation,’ people only think of air strikes, bombs, aircraft, [and] weaponry. But an operation isn’t only that. Operations are political sometimes, or diplomatic, or civilian. And they involve discussions, contacts.” So alien is this perspective—that anyone could actually diplomatically deal with ISIS—that if a US Congress member or media personality were to go as far as suggesting a diplomatic solution they’d be immediately marginalized as irrelevant or, more insidiously, an ISIS sympathizer. Another possibility is a member from the commissar class would publish an Op-Ed in the Newspaper of Record, not to inquire whether or not such an approach is feasible, but to contemplate, in austere tones, whether or not the person who advocates such an outlandish position has a soul.
It’s therefore no surprise that Erdogan elicited harsh denunciations from the Captain of The Reluctant Warrior’s Cheer Squad. In addition to standing for “authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS”, as Thomas Friedman mournfully observed, he “won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air”, prompting the question “what’s in his soul?” Bombing countries without Congressional or UN authorization is perfectly fine. But disobeying the Godfather? This is the ultimate crime, if not the enigmatic behavior of a spiritless monster.
Apologetics of this kind is ugly but standard, as is the behavior President Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, and the rest of the “we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists” camp. Unless they are checked by popular dissent they will continue to operate under the doctrine that overwhelming military force must be used to terrorize the world into their image but much more informed analysts and scholars have long ago realized that such blind devotion to state violence endangers us all (Obama’s latest contribution to nuclear proliferation is a dramatic example of this). It is for these reasons that Scott Atran’s book should be required reading for those of us willing to confront these tribalistic taboos and a morally complacent intellectual culture that would like nothing more than to keep them intact.