Home/Rod Dreher/Terrorism & This Religious Century

Terrorism & This Religious Century

The Black Madonna of Rocamadour (Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com)

Anthropologist Scott Atran, who studies terrorism, says we are woefully unprepared to meet the ISIS foe — and that there will be “more, much more, to come” from it. Excerpts:

Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776.


It conscientiously exploits the disheartening dynamic between the rise of radical Islamism and the revival of the xenophobic ethno-nationalist movements that are beginning to seriously undermine the middle class – the mainstay of stability and democracy – in Europe in ways reminiscent of the hatchet job that the communists and fascists did on European democracy in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that Europe’s reproductive rate is 1.4 children per couple, and so there needs to be considerable immigration to maintain a productive workforce that can sustain the middle class standard of living, is a godsend for Isis, because at the same time there has never been less tolerance for immigration. Therein lies the sort of chaos that Isis is well positioned to exploit.


As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.

A July 2014 ICM poll suggested that more than one in four French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Isis, although only 7-8% of France is Muslim. It’s communal. More than three of every four who join Isis from abroad do so with friends and family. Most are young, in transitional stages in life: immigrants, students, between jobs and mates, having just left their native family. They join a “band of brothers (and sisters)” ready to sacrifice for significance.

Read the whole thing. 

Ready to sacrifice for significance. You absolutely must read this interview with Atran on Russia Today. The interviewer is Sophie Shevardnadze. All the boldfaced parts below are my own emphases. Excerpts:

SS: But you know, you would think that these horrors, they would actually repulse people, no? But they help them gain supporters. I mean, for me, looking at it – I can’t even look at it, I have to close my eyes. How does this work the other way around, I still don’t understand it. Basically, what I am asking, is ISIS appealing to sick and disturbed people more than normal people?

DR.SA: No, it appeals to people in span of normal distribution. I mean, it’s like any revolutionary movement, that’s why I think even calling it terrorism or just extremism is beyond the pale. From an evolutionary perspective, everything that is new is extreme – and it’s very much like the French revolution, or even the Bolshevik revolution or even the National Socialist revolution… I mean, look at the French Revolution, they were eating one another just like Al-Nusra and ISIS and other groups are eating one another like bloodied sharks, and they were invaded by a coalition of the Great Powers, and yet not only they survived, but they endured, and they introduced the notion of terror itself, as an “extreme measure” as they called it, “for the preservation of democracy”, and every revolution since then, every real revolution  has done pretty much the same thing, pretty much successfully, so ISIS is no exception.

SS: So, wait, are you saying that ISIS has a chance to be successful and actually create something viable?

DR.SA: Oh yes. I mean, if you look at the speech by Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi last year, or the “Volcanos of Jihad” speech  in November, I mean he’s developing a global archipelago; so even if ISIS is driven out of Syria and Iraq, it’s taking root in other places, especially in Africa. …


SS: Dr. Atran, I know that you’ve mentioned that even if ISIS is destroyed in Iraq and Syria, it will spring up elsewhere and you’ve said, Africa, for instance, and Asia. Is the potential of this movement limitless? How many people can there be who want to live in a blood-thirsty, genocidal state run by psychopaths? I mean, I know, you’re saying it’s a repetition of history…

DR.SA: Well, first, I don’t think they’re psychopaths…

SS: …and you know, it’s like French Revolution or Bolshevik revolution – but you’d think that we’ve learned something from history, no? I mean, I don’t want to be back in Bolshevik revolution times…

DR.SA: No, I don’t think so. Look, George Orwell in his review of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” back in 1939 have described the essence of the problem. He said: “Mr. Hitler has discovered that human beings don’t only want peace and security and comfort and free from want. They want adventure, glory and self-sacrifice, and Mr. Hitler’s appealed to that –  and while the Oxford student union at that time vowed to never fight again, Mr. Hitler has 80 million people fall down to his feet, in one of the most advanced countries in the world.” How did that happen? Again, ISIS is appealing to the same sort of sentiments, that have been appealed to throughout human history… and no, I don’t think we’ve learned much from history about that.

SS: You know, ISIS has a message that “everything is bad and corrupt, and we will change the world for the better”, a message of revolution, a message of cause, like you’ve said; and, in response, all we can muster is basically: “oh, ISIS is baad” – you know, only negating what they say, not offering any counter-cause. What kind of a positive idea can stand up to ISIS’ slogans?

DR.SA: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I mean, the counter-narratives I hear, at least in the Western Europe and in the U.S. are pathetic. They basically say: “look, ISIS beheads people, they’re bad people” – God, didn’t we know about that before already? The way ISIS attracts people is that they actually are both very intimate and very expansive. So, they’ve brought in people from nearly 90 countries in the world, and they spend hundreds, sometimes even thousands of hours on a single person, talking about their family, saying to young women, for example, in the U.S.:”Look, we know you love your parents and your brothers and your sisters, and we know how hard it’s going to be to leave them, but there are more things to do in life. Grander things. More important things. Let us try to help you explain it to yourselves when you get here, and explain it to them.” And they go through the personal history and grievances and frustrated aspirations of each of these individuals, and they wed it to a global cause, so that personal frustration becomes universalized into moral outrage, and this is especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives: immigrants, students, between jobs, between mates, having just left their genetic family, their natural family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travellers. This is the age that ISIS concentrates on, and in response, most of the countries of the world, and the Muslim establishments, who call for “wasatiyyah, moderation. Well, everybody who has ever had teenage children, they know how worthless that is. So, the counter-narratives we’re proposing are pretty pathetic.

SS: So, you’re saying, you know, the Western volunteers for ISIS are mostly youth in transition and parents usually have no idea what their kids are up to – so, is it sort of teen rebellion, is it a form of a teen rebellion?

DR.SA: Right, it’s driven by young people, well actually most revolutionary movements are driven by people who are fairly well off and well educated, especially doctors and engineers, for some reason, ever since the XIX century, because they can show commitment and hands on operation knowledge of things… But yes, it appeals to young people and their rebelliousness, and again, that’s the specific target population of the Islamic State – and they provide a very positive message.  I mean, what’s reported in our press and in our media, are of course the bad things, the horrific things, but if you pay much closer attention to what ISIS is actually producing in its narratives – it is offering a utopian society. I mean, they show warriors playing with children in fountains, and at the same time they’re training them to kill. I mean, it’s not all one-sided and they’re perfectly aware of trying to balance the two. That is, showing the future of peace and harmony, at least, under their interpretation, with the brutality that is needed to get there.

SS: But, you know, we’re used to think that young people, teen in transition, like you say, they want freedom. They want to have fun, they want to have sex and drugs and drink. What we see with ISIS is forbidding this, for young people and for everyone – yet, there is this flock towards ISIS. I still don’t understand why, because whatever they’re trying to convince young people of, it’s pretty obvious there is no freedom where they are going. And young people usually strive for freedom…

DR.SA: Yeah, but I believe they do think they’re getting freedom. Instead of freedom-to-do-things, it’s freedom-from-having-to-do-things, where a life well-ordered and promising. I mean, again, they appeal to people from all over the world. I got a call from head of Medical School telling me that her best students have just left to set up field hospital for ISIS in Syria, and she was asking me why would they do this; and I said, “because it’s a glorious and adventurous mission, where they are creating a Brand New World, and they do it under constraints.” I mean, people want to be creative under constraints. A lot of young people just don’t want the kind of absolute freedom you’re talking about. The choices are too great, there’s too much ambiguity and ambivalence. There are too many degrees of freedom and so one can’t chart a life path that’s at all meaningful, and so these young people are in search of significance, and ISIS is trying to show them a way towards significance. Again, we have to take it very seriously, that’s why I think it’s the most dynamic counter-cultural movement since WWII, and it’s something I don’t think people are taking seriously, just dismissing them as psychopaths and criminals and… this, of course, is something that we have to destroy. I think, we’re on the wrong path in terms of the way we’re going to destroy it.

One more:

SS: So, there’s no way to win this social media war against the Islamic State?

DR.SA: Yes, there is; and that is coming up with some kind of equally adventurous and glorious message that can give significance to these young people, and this – I’m not hearing. At least in the Western democracies, things have become sort of “tired” as young people become alienated from their leaders and no longer believe in them very much.

Again, read the whole thing, or watch it by clicking this link. It’s terrific.

More from Atran, here’s an excerpt from a piece he co-authored on the New York Review of Books blog, after the Paris attacks:

Because many foreign volunteers are marginal in their host countries, a pervasive belief among Western governments and NGOs is that offering would-be enlistees jobs or spouses or access to education could reduce violence and counter the Caliphate’s pull. But a still unpublished report by the World Bank shows no reliable relationship between increasing employment and reducing violence, suggesting that people with such opportunities are just as likely to be susceptible to jihadism. When I asked one World Bank representative why this was not published, he responded, “Our clients [that is, governments] wouldn’t like it because they’ve got too much invested in the idea.” … If people are ready to sacrifice their lives, then it is not likely that offers of greater material advantages will stop them. (In fact, our research shows that material incentives, or disincentives, often backfire andincrease commitment by devoted actors).

The classic response of the secular West: to think that a pathway to bourgeois life is sufficient to inoculate people against a movement that promises them meaning and transcendence. François, the protagonist of Submission, accepts Islam because doing so offers him a bigger salary, a better position in the university, and multiple wives. It’s shameful, and certainly not something that any pious Muslim could approve of, but that’s the only thing that appeals to François, in his degraded state. The young jihadists attracted by ISIS will not settle for that.

Atran and his co-author write:

And for some, strict obedience provides freedom from uncertainty about what a good person is to do.

That’s it, isn’t it? ISIS gives them a narrative about what it means to be good. What is the Western secular materialist narrative? As MacIntyre teaches, we have lost our story. And as Douthat wrote in his Sunday column, the politically correct militancy of the campus Social Justice Warriors may be illiberal and odious and all manner of bad thing, but at least it’s an ethos.

Finally from Atran, here is a piece he did in 2012 for Foreign Policy magazine’s blog, on the importance of studying religion and trying to understand how it motivates people. I found this quite interesting:

Across history and cultures, religion has often knit communities together under the rule of sentient, but immaterial deities — that is, spiritual beings whose description is logically contradictory and empirically unfalsifiable.Cross-cultural studies pioneered by anthropologist Pascal Boyer show that these miraculous features — talking bushes, horses that leap into the sky — make lasting impressions on people and thereby increase the likelihood that they will be passed down to the next generation. Implausibility also facilitates cultural transmission in a more subtle manner — fostering adaptability of religious beliefs by opening the door to multiple interpretations (as with metaphors or weekly sermons).

And the greater the investment in outlandishness, the better. This is because adherence to apparently absurd beliefs means incurring costs — surviving without electricity, for example, if you are Amish — which help identify members who are committed to the survival of a group and cannot be lured away. The ease of identifying true believers, in turn, builds trust and galvanizes group solidarity for common defense.

To test this hypothesis, anthropologist Richard Sosis and his colleagues studied 200 communes founded in the United States in the 19th century. If shared religious beliefs really did foster loyalty, they reasoned, then communes formed out of religious conviction should survive longer than those motivated by secular ideologies such as socialism. Their findings were striking: Just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning 20 years after their founding, compared with 39 percent of the religious communes.

This is why denatured, rationalized, happy-clappy Christianity common to our time — both Catholic and Protestant — cannot survive. Felt banners will serve as its burial shroud. In Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, there’s no there there. Similarly, this is why a society built on secularism and individualism, without any meaningful religious glue holding the people together, cannot endure.

In his column on Tuesday, David Brooks explores the insights of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who says that whether we like it or not, we are going to see a lot more religious conflict in this century. Excerpts:

Humans also are meaning-seeking animals. We live, as Sacks writes, in a century that “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” The secular substitutes for religion — nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster. So many flock to religion, sometimes — especially within Islam — to extremist forms.

This is already leading to religious violence. In November 2014, just to take one month, there were 664 jihadi attacks in 14 countries, killing a total of 5,042 people. Since 1984, an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been killed by Islamist militias in Sudan.

Sacks emphasizes that it is not religion itself that causes violence. In their book “Encyclopedia of Wars,” Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts and found that less than 10 percent had any religious component at all.

Rather, religion fosters groupishness, and the downside of groupishness is conflict with people outside the group. Religion can lead to thick moral communities, but in extreme forms it can also lead to what Sacks calls pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad.

So, shall we embrace secularism to avoid the problems of religion? It won’t work. More (emphasis mine):

Sacks correctly argues that we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace. Secular thought or moral relativism are unlikely to offer any effective rebuttal. Among religious people, mental shifts will be found by reinterpreting the holy texts themselves. There has to be a Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God’s face in strangers. That’s what Sacks sets out to do. … Sacks’ great contribution is to point out that the answer to religious violence is probably going to be found within religion itself, among those who understand that religion gains influence when it renounces power.

If the West is going to endure, it will have to return to its ancestral faith, Christianity, and do so in a serious, sustained way. I believe that it will, but not soon. The future of the West depends on the faithful, on those who really live the religious life, not just play at it. I believe that Orthodoxy will have a role to play in this revival. But the revival will come, one way or another.

I’ll leave you with a link to something the radical cultural historian Morris Berman wrote in 2012, praising for the Russian emigre sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. Sorokin believed that the West was living through the long decline of the “sensate” order, one that was going to give way to a more spiritual one. Berman says Sorokin’s prediction (75 years ago!) for how it would all unfold includes:

The dies irae of transition will not be fun to live through, but the only way out of this mess, he wrote, is precisely through it. Under the conditions outlined above, the “population will not be able to help opening its eyes [this will be a very delayed phase in the U.S., I’m guessing] to the hollowness of the declining Sensate culture…. As a result, it will increasingly forsake it and shift its allegiance to either Ideational or Idealistic values.” Finally, we shall see the release of new creative forces, which “will usher in a culture and a noble society built not upon the withered Sensate root but upon a healthier and more vigorous root of integralistic principle.” In other words, we can expect “the emergence and slow growth of the first components of a new sociocultural order.”

The West is at its Rocamadour Moment — a moment of choice between ancient faith and modern futility.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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