How Terrorism Works

By Namit Arora | Feb 2008 | Comments

Experts on Islamic terrorism are now everywhere, spouting wisdom on countless media outlets and blogs. Most of them—including scholars, novelists, scientists—reflexively summon their gut to explain what turns Muslims into terrorists, marshaling anecdotes and selective data as evidence. The Qur'an is the underlying cause to some, sociopolitical inequities to others; virgins in paradise explain much to some, follies of US foreign policy to others; hatred of "freedom-loving" West suffices for some, dislocations of modernity to others. Rare is the attempt to understand terrorists themselves as social and moral beings (as, for instance, in the movie Paradise Now).

Atran_6An insightful analyst of modern terrorism is Scott Atran (see my previous post on Sacred Conflicts). He has done pioneering field research on suicide bombers and the social dynamics of terrorist networks. Watch this remarkable 40-minute lecture he gave at the Beyond Belief conference in Nov 2007 (attached below). The same material is summarized in this slideshow for the US State Department (I'm surprised they invited him and wonder how he was received). Here are ten conclusions I've selected from it:

  • Global Al-Qaeda is now a viral, social movement and political ideology, not a well organized operation with command and control. Young men self-radicalize in their social groups as soccer and camp buddies, neighbors and schoolmates, etc.

  • The new wave of terrorism is about "youth culture", not the Koran. It cannot be checked by military means or elders spouting niceties from the Koran, but with ideas and proposals for action that address their sense of injustice and moral outrage.

  • Prison radicalization in the USA vs. Europe differs significantly: Foreign-born Muslims, like Jews, are underrepresented in US prisons. But Muslims in European prisons are wildly over-represented (for many of the same reasons that Blacks in US prisons are over-represented). Nevertheless, prior religious education is a negative predictor of radicalization.

  • Social welfare is not a solution, adding only to alienation and boredom and to a hole in one's life more readily filled by radicalized dreams of justice and glory. New dreams and heroes need to be cultivated among the young.

  • Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. Without publicity, terrorism would probably die off. Publicity is hard to avoid in an open society where media outlets seek news with dramatic psychological impact to attract the most "eyeballs". [I should add that this is also in the interest of politicians and the defense industry who stand to gain from an climate of exaggerated fear.]

  • Non-Muslims should never preach to Muslims about what is true Islam. This always backfires. Especially in the Middle East and elsewhere, do not attempt to discredit fundamentalist ideology if it is non-violent.

  • Stop trying to impose ethnocentric values of Freedom and Democracy on people. Imposing democratic institutions without cultural grounding backfires. Elections are meaningless unless the majority elected feels obliged to consult the minority and treat it with tolerance. It takes time, patience, and deep commitment to persuade people of this.

  • PEW surveys show that in the Muslim world support of "Freedom and Democracy" has declined since the onset of the Iraq War. Both radical and traditional Islam value Justice and Fairness, not Freedom and Democracy. Western notions of Freedom are compatible with Justice, and Democracy with Fairness, but not in any "automatic" way.

  • Stop wasting millions of dollars studying the Koran and trying to figure out what terrorists think from studies of Islam. Terrorists are rarely Islamic scholars or know much anything about the Koran.

  • Stop trying to generate a catch-all approach to terrorist profiling, radicalization processes, etc. These are very context sensitive. What goes for one context (e.g., radicalization in a country of origin) often does not translate directly into another (radicalization in the immigrant diaspora).

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