Scott Atran on Rationalist Sam Harris & Talking To Terrorists

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When it comes to politics, truth is irrelevant. Peoples, tribes, and political parties are interested in persuading the opponent to their point of view. It's victory not veracity.

After years of field research in various countries, that is the finding of anthropologist Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. Traveling to Muslim communities from Indonesia to Morocco,holding extensive interviews with would-be martyrs and holy warriors, and using detailed surveys, Atran "concludes that young jihadists aren't merely motivated by political or religious fervor--they are powerfully bound to each other, they were campmates, school buddies, soccer pals, and the like, who become die-hard bands of brothers." Do not mistake this for a love-thy-enemy book.

Atran unequivocally understands that they are dangerous enemies. In terms of our foreign policy, strategy, and tactics, this means we must understand the enemy, not simply subdue him. . . .

His well-researched book is about "the nature of faith, the origins of society and the limits of reason."

"Whereas armchair rationalists such as Sam Harris are happy to generalise that the parents of suicide bombers feel "tremendous pride", Atran, who's interviewed dozens, can write: "I have yet to meet parents who would not have done anything in their power to stop their child from such an act. . . ."

Unlike Harris, Atran does not hold the naive belief that religion merely has to do with belief. He understands that it cannot be replaced without severe side effects. Himself an atheist, he includes Richard Dawkins among those who have an all too simplistic view of religion.

His is an "impassioned call for evidence-based policy, but it's also an ambitious survey of culture and violence."

By the end of his book "we understand that terrorists are often highly moral people, altruists even, spurred not by their own humiliation, but by watching the humiliation of people they identify with – their "imagined kin". Moral? Yes, it's just that what is rational and right to them is horrific to us, and vice versa. It makes no sense, then, to treat them as non-human. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but we must empathise with terrorists if we are to behave in ways that make terrorism less likely."

Atran tells us that "by itself contemporary terrorism cannot destroy our country or our allies or even seriously damage us. However, we can do grievous harm to ourselves by taking the terrorists' bait and reacting in ill-conceived, uninformed, and uncontrolled ways that inflate and empower our enemies." (p. 267) He states that "perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many." (p. xiv) More here and here.

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