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Aeon Magazine has published a 11,000 word essay by Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution. Atran is one of my favorite thinkers, and his book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, is one of the more influential in shaping my understanding of cultural phenomena (warning, the prose is dense, but worth it!). Over the last ten years Atran has focused on the phenomenon of radical Islamic terrorism, using his anthropological and evolutionary scholarly toolkits to decompose the problem. More recently he’s been doing “field work” on the front-lines of the battle against ISIS in Iraq. Literally the front lines!
The piece in Aeon is a necessary corrective to two vulgar and populist reactions to the rise of radical groups like ISIS. First, there is the materialist viewpoint, which holds that a lack of economic opportunities is the dominant causal factor driving the violence. The first order issue to address is the reality that many regions of the world (e.g., non-Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa) have larger portions of the population which are underemployed or unemployed than the Islamic world, and yet do they not serve as sources of violent politically or religiously motivated terrorism. In fact, the best ethnographic work indicates that a disproportionate number of the young men involved in violent religious and political terrorism are not from the bottom of society, but closer to the top. In particular those striving and moving up the socioeconomic ladder in cultures undergoing modernization. The rural peasantry and the established upper classes are relatively immune to radicalization, but those whose roots are in the country but attempting to situate themselves in the middle class or higher are subject to more social dislocation, despite lack of material want. Most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudi, a nation which has a cradle-to-grave system of benefits for citizens, and which has been shielded and enriched by an alliance with the United States. Certainly marginalization, social and economic, are necessary conditions for recruiting from the Islamic Diaspora in Europe, but even here they are not sufficient conditions. The Roma are more socially and economically deprived than Europe’s Muslims, but do not engage in organized terrorism of any sort.
A second extreme position is that Islamic terrorism is a natural necessary consequence of the character of the Koran. The problem with this viewpoint is that though most of those who participate in Islamic terrorism may identify as Muslims, on closer inspection they often lack even the patina of fluency in their own religion. This may be especially true of those who grew up in secular Diaspora environments, but the vast majority of the world’s Muslims have little to no familiarity with the details of the Koran or the Hadith (the latter of which is in any case more relevant for day to day practice). There’s a reason that they make recourse to the ulema as a de facto clerical caste. Additionally, Islamic terrorism in the Middle East is to a great extent the heir of radical nationalist terrorists of the 1970s, many of whom were Marxist, or were from Christian Arab backgrounds (in particular the PFLP). Even suicide bombing, a major calling card of Islamic terrorists today, was pioneered by the Left nationalist Tamil Tigers. But just as economic and social marginalization fuel disaffection among Europe’s Muslims, many elements of Islamic religious theory and practice are easily co-opted into justifying violent movements. Islam after all is a pacific religion historically only after it has dominion. Even if one rejects the proposition that Islam is the reason for violent terrorism by Muslims, one does not therefore accept that it is no part of the overall dynamic.
Finally, there is also the idea that Islamic terrorism is nihilistic. Certainly it can seem nihilistic…from our perspective. That is why it is essential to look at things from the perspective of others, and also periodically engage in Epoché and detach from individual subjectivity. Many conservative Muslims decry the Western lifestyle as without meaning, soulless and empty. Though there is some truth to this, most of us who live the Western lifestyle know that there is a fair amount of meaning, dignity, and value in our quotidian days. Some conservative Muslims who arrive in the West are surprised to observe that the sight of women walking about in shorts does not induce an orgy of mass rape. But that is because they simply do not consider any viewpoint not conditioned on their own prior assumptions. Similarly, we in the West need to consider the viewpoints of our antagonists, without it implying in any way that we accept the positions of our antagonists as necessarily meritorious.
Two works from the mid-2000s give us a window into Islamic terrorism as it was then, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape, and Understanding Terror Networks by Marc Sageman. Pape utilized standard social science methods (e.g., regression) to show there was strong relationship between suicide bombing in the service of political ends in contexts where foreign powers with an asymmetrical advantage had historically intervened. In other words, Pape’s work suggests that rational choice frameworks are useful even for acts as individually irrational as suicide bombings. Second, Sagemen’s survey of the ethnography of the violent Salafi international punctures the perceptions of those who might suggest that global capitalism will ultimately abolish political violence in a bath of chemically flavored french fries. Many of the recruits in Salafi terror networks are from well off families like Osama bin Laden. Or, they are well educated like Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is the recurring thread of the over-representation of applied STEM backgrounds, in particular engineers. And, converts and those from relatively globalist/cosmopolitan backgrounds are also over-represented in terms of orders of magnitude in comparison to the worldwide Islamic population. In other words, it is those most familiar with the fruits of global capitalism who have turned away from its allure.
Atran’s research, like Sageman’s, has focused on detailed statistical ethnographies of those who are recruited into Islamic terrorism. What it shows that peer networks are essential to explaining how become recruited in these activities, and in particular kinship ties, both fictive and real. Humans are social creatures, and much of our cognition operates through a social sieve. Our beliefs and preferences are strongly shaped by a tendency to conform to our “in-group.” This is so strong that even if it is clearly irrational humans may still engage in behaviors to maintain conformity to group norms. The Xhosa cattle killing is a clear example of this principle of adherence to majority norms despite grave consequences, but so was the continued adherence of most Germans to the Nazi regime after defeat became inevitable, or Chinese enactment of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which probably retarded the rise of that nation to prominence for a generation.
Group solidarity around a compelling meta-narrative is the important “big picture” element of Islamic terrorism which is critical toward understanding its motivations, and which can be missed by descriptive ethnographies or econometric analyses. Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s, or Tamil Tiger suicide bombing of the 1980s, were fundamentally derivative or subordinate to a broader family of ideologies, post-colonial nationalism with a Leftist inflection (ETA and the IRA also fall into this category, even if situated in the West). In contrast, Islamic terrorism has the potential to become superordinate, and swallow up individual movements and grievances into a meta-narrative. E.g., the core actors in ISIS to this day seem to be a shadow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist officers. It is neat to presume these individuals are using Islamic ideology in an instrumental sense, as Saddam himself clearly did. But the Islamic meta-narrative is powerful, and has historical precedent. It is plausible that though the trigger for the precipitation of an Islamic movement in Iraq was the defenestration of the officer core of a notionally secular national regime, the ultimate crystallization and end state of the movement may be toward a sincere and genuine Islamic nationalism. One might make the analogy here to what has occurred in Pakistan. The founder of the state, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a religiously non-observant Shia Muslim (who had Hindus in his recent ancestry, and whose family was of the marginal Ismaili sect) who seems to have envisaged a secular state, albeit demographically dominated by Muslims. Today Pakistan is riven by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflicts, and adheres to a strong Islamic self-identification. Jinnah’s proximate motives in creating Pakistan could be understood in light of the nationalist sentiments of India’s Muslim ruling class, and their dispossession in the 19th century, and impending marginalization in a united India. But ultimately he set in motion a series of events which would hinge Pakistan to a de facto Sunni Islamic international, and allow it to be an incubator for violent religious radicalism which it can barely control. Pakistan was swallowed by a broader evolving meta-narrative.
What Atran highlights in his piece is that young men across the Islamic world are being inspired by a powerful ideal which transcends the material. That is, they are not being driven by dreams of material wealth and affluence. Nor are they driven by simple hatred of the West, or unthinking nihilism. As Shadi Hamid has noted it is an act of political cant to assert that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam. For the broad masses this sort of assertion will suffice. I recall, for example, a conversation with a friend of mine in 2002 who was a gay man who repeated to me the standard narrative that Islam is actually a religion of peace. As a straight male with a “Muslim name” I could probably get some peace out of Islam, but as it is constructed today in majority terms it is rather strange for a gay man to assert this, as there is little tolerance for gay orientation in the Muslim world (though that is changing). But this is human social conformity and social cognition kicking in again. For people interested in reality one has to move beyond the artifice of social cognition, and dig deeper. Islam is a meta-narrative which arose as a cultural adaptation 1,500 years ago. First it bound factious Arab tribes together. Second, it bound Arabs and non-Arabs together in a common meta-ethnic identity, and allowed for a period of Islamic cultural hegemony at the center of Eurasia.
The reality is that we’ve seen this before, and relatively recently. Atran, and others, have made the analogy between anarchism around 1900 and Islamic terrorism today. To outsiders both movements were frightening and nihilistic, but in hindsight anarchist violence arose as a side effect of the transition toward a liberal democratic order. Atran critically observes that the wave of anarchist violence abated when Marxist-Leninism emerged to capture a nation-empire, that of Russia. International communism in its Soviet dominated period proactively smothered anarchism (e.g., during the Spanish Civil War), and perhaps more importantly deprived it of oxygen, as idealistic youths who would have been attracted to anarchist terrorism as outlets for their rebellious energies were co-opted by the dream of a universal Communist commonwealth of states. And so with the transition from the age of al Qaeda to the age of ISIS.
At this point then we may have to stop talking about “Islamic terrorism,” and refer to the Islamic international, if the analogy with anarchism and communism hold. Atran also points to the example of the French Revolution, which began the process of organized political terror in the name of an ideal, and ultimately gave rise in a genealogical sense to most modern political movements which persisted into the 20th century (fascism being the arguable exception, though it was in many ways a reaction to the ideologies spawned by Revolution).
On the individual level what is appealing about the Islamic state is that it has a heroic narrative ready for those who wish to embrace it. From the perspective of most of the world, including the Muslim world, this is perverse, considering the barbarities committed by the Islamic State. But again, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that our enemies lack humanity; rather their assumptions are inverted and different. There are millions of Germans whose grandfathers were proud members of the SS, despite the fact that some of its killing units engaged in wholesale genocide, and specifically acts of murder against women and children. They thought they were heroes for their fatherland, doing dark deeds to forge a better world. Or as one SS commander stated boldly as he lifted up a child he was about to murder, “You must die so we may live.”
The liberal democratic “end of history” is not heroic or anti-heroic. It is banal, and heroism plays out only in the context of a job well done in the banality of existence and persistence. Being a good parent, friend, and a consummate professional. But not everyone is a parent, and not everyone has a rich network of friends, or a fulfilling profession. Ideologies like communism, and religious-political movements like Islamism, are egalitarian in offering up the possibilities of heroism for everyone by becoming part of a grand revolutionary story. Though John F. Kennedy’s administration has a glow and sheen today which would have been unfathomable to those who lived through it, his words about why America sought to go to the moon are remembered because they capture the essence of a heroic spirit. The reality of course is that we sought to go to the moon because America wanted to defeat the Soviet Union in the space race. But he asserted that the American nation sought to go to the moon because it was hard. And ultimately getting to the moon first brought America glory and renown. And that is what many young men crave, but few can attain in a stable liberal democratic consumer society.
The Islamic State has co-opted a meta-narrative which exists within Islamic history, and offers up a heroic vision to individuals who identify as Muslim across the world. Prior to its meteoric rise many people dismissed the Islamic State, or what was then simply al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, including president Barack Obama (and myself). After its conquest of Mosul there were many who asserted that the material structural parameters of the domains which the Islamic State ruled would make its period of rule ephemeral by necessity. In short, the Islamic State was poor and under-resourced. There was no way it could sustain itself more than six months.
Obviously those prognostications were wrong, and they were wrong because of an excessive fixation on material parameters of success or failure. In the generality Atran points out that there’s a fair amount of social science and historical scholarship which suggests that motivated minorities can capture and transform whole societies. The world religions are key examples. Most humans are conformist, so when faced with a powerful bloc which operates as a unit they often simply fall into line. This arguably occurred in Germany in the 1930s, in Russia in the 1920s, and in France in the 1790s. The transition to Protestantism in the Netherlands and England occurred despite initial apathy or resistance from the peasant majority (yet sometimes majorities remain steadfast; the Hohenzollerns did not transform their Lutheran domains to the Reformed faith, while later Saxon rulers who were Catholic were a minority in their own kingdom).
But, I am somewhat more sanguine than Atran about the impact of the Islamic State on the world in comparison to revolutionary France or Soviet Russia. He makes much of the fact that the French nation repelled massive invasions in the 1790s, and ultimately transformed the whole continent. But as documented in Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization the French victories probably had less to do with élan imparted to the armies of the Revolution than the reality that the new political arrangement in France allowed for total mobilization of the society. In short, the armies of the French were larger, though Napoleon’s genius did seem to allow for a initial strategic bonus. The final loss of Napoleon’s empire was due to the fact that other European powers began to follow France’s lead and mobilize their whole society toward war. Similarly, the Bolsheviks in 1917 captured a very powerful state, as did the Nazis in the 1930s. Modern conflict is by necessity an economic battle, and the weight of matériel will usually adjudicate as to who the ultimate victor will be. Atran notes that during World War II German soldiers were on a per individual basis more effective than the troops of the Soviets or the Western allies, but ultimately the military-industrial might of the United States and the sheer numbers of the Soviet forces overwhelmed the Nazi regime.
The gross domestic product of the nations which constitute the Organization of Islamic Cooperation is about 7 trillion American dollars. The aggregate GDP of the European Union is 19 trillion dollars. The United States of America is 16 trillion dollars. China is 9 trillion dollars. In 1790 France was in the running for the number #1 economic power in Europe. In 1913 the Russian Empire was in the running for being the #1 economic power in Europe. Though France in 1790 was far more heterogeneous than it is today, and the Soviet Union was very heterogeneous, arguably they were far more cohesive polities than anything that one might congeal out of the OIC.
In the Aeon essay Scott Atran argues that the millenarian forces which ISIS is harnessing are here to stay. I agree with him. There are structural demographic and sociological forces which make Islamic movements, of which ISIS is the most extreme manifestation, nearly inevitable for the next generation or so. But, there are also structural demographic and economic forces which suggest that it will not be as nearly an existential threat to the liberal democratic political order as the movements of the 20th century. The West, Russia, China, and India, are all not particularly congenial to a long term alliance with Islamic powers. Electric cars and the shale oil revolution both threaten a major point of leverage that the Islamic international in the form of Saudi Arabia have over the rest of the world. Of course some might wonder at the Islamic demographic bomb. If current trends hold by 2050 30% of the world’s population will be Muslim. And as I noted above motivated minorities can capture whole cultures. But 30% of the world’s population at that time will also be Christian, with a larger proportion in areas where religious zeal remains strong. And, the orientation of Chinese culture is such that conversion to Islam is often seen as tantamount to leaving one’s Han identity in totality (one particular issue is that pork is central to Chinese cuisine, but it is taboo for Muslims). As documented by Philip Jenkins in God’s Continent and Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Europe’s Christian identified population should be far larger than its Muslim identified population as far as 2100, even in pessimistic analyses (Pew suggests that 10% of the European Union’s population will be Muslim in 2050).
That is the optimistic angle on what awaits us. It’s not going to be as bad as Soviet communism or German fascism. I lived through the specter of the former, and many people alive still remember the latter. But the likelihood is that the core Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan, will be riven with conflict and tumult, and that will draw in Diaspora populations, and those from the demographically important margins (e.g., Indonesia). This conflict will spread back out to non-Muslim nations with Muslim minorities. As Atran notes all one needs are a small motivated number of young men to allow for their to be critical mass for violence. Some level of violence directed toward majority non-Muslim populations in nations with large Muslim minorities may be inevitable. For non-Muslims the fact that the vast majority of Muslims decry violence, both due to sincerity and self-interest, will be somewhat besides the point, as the violent minority are going to take center stage in national concerns. In the Muslim world the violence will be orders of magnitude worse, just as the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century inflicted most of their terror upon the populations whom they ruled. In an almost Newtonian fashion I expect that non-Muslim societies under attack from Islamic international will exhibit a more self-conscious cultural identity than before in reaction.
Over the long run the flames will die down as a cycle of inter-cultural conflict abates. The future beyond 2050 is difficult to predict. Technology will have changed a great deal, and technology effects change on culture. What it means to be human will shift. Perhaps humanity will again focus on space travel, channeling some of its heroic energies outward, though this will always be a small demographic slice due to the constraints of physics. The vast majority might turn inward, and disappear in a vacuous virtual reality realm. Far better than projecting violence outward. But, I do think it points us to the reality that Islamic violence is a horrible answer to a real question. What should we do? And why should we do it?