Anthropology, Not Demagoguery, Is the Way to Understand ISIS

Anthropology, Not Demagoguery, Is the Way to Understand ISIS

Recently, I started a series of blog posts on the evolution of religion. Those posts will start back up next time, but this week I’m stopping the presses to share something more important: Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist who studies religious terrorism, recently addressed the UN Security Council on the subject of ISIS and Islamist violence, and the message he brought was one the world desperately needs to hear.

Anthropologists study people. Anthropos is Greek for “human.” Over the past century and a half, anthropologists have amassed a staggering body of research and insight into how humans work in different cultures and settings. It’s a veritable treasure mine of knowledge about the human species. But we don’t listen to the people who created it. Critics of religion like Sam Harris habitually demonstrate monocultural perspectives and are sometimes proudly ignorant of the inner structures of other societies. Just a few years ago, Florida governor Rick Scott suggested that anthropology departments at state universities were a waste of funding. And until Scott Atran’s visit last week, no anthropologist had ever addressed the UN Security Council.


Think about it! The Security Council’s job is to keep the world safe. Conflicts are caused by, and fought by, people – invariably with cultural agendas and motives, often entwined with local histories and fueled by age-old tribal allegiances. You’d think the Security Council should be all over anthropology, right? Wrong. The UN, and virtually every other major international body, is duped by a millimeter-deep understanding of human nature rooted in empirically bogus pseudo-Enlightenment utilitarian notions of rational economic individuality. In the worldview of this shallow humanism, people are mere self-actualizing autonomous agents, driven by quantitative motives, and nothing else. “Culture” is window dressing, put on display for government-sponsored festivals: strange foods and colorful dances, maybe some quaint music. But that’s it.

This blinkered rationalism renders Western policy makers and thinkers embarrassingly incapable of understanding anything about how the rest of the world thinks. Leaders from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies simply can’t comprehend anyone who is genuinely motivated by religion, loyalty to tribe or tradition, or the drive for anything other than prosperity. So they assume that people are lying when they say they are motivated by these things.

By contrast, Scott Atran – who actually understands humans – thinks differently:

The key, as Margaret Mead taught me long ago, when I worked as her assistant at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, was to empathize with people, without always sympathizing: to participate in their lives to the extent you feel is morally possible. And then report.

None of the ISIS fighters we interviewed in Iraq had more than primary school education, some had wives and young children. When asked “what is Islam?” they answered “my life.” They knew nothing of the Quran or Hadith, or of the early caliphs Omar and Othman, but had learned of Islam from Al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda, teaching that Muslims like them were targeted for elimination unless they first eliminated the impure.

See how, instead of writing off the enemy as evil animals who are motivated by greed or mental illness, Atran actually tries to understand where they’re coming from, so as to better interpret their motives? And see how this doesn’t automatically lead to condoning their vile decisions? In this age of Internet blather, where no one is remotely interested in learning others’ points of view, this kind of patient information-gathering should be grounds for secular canonization.

Atran also points out an uncomfortable truth that’s fundamentally antagonistic to the fanciful dreams of universalist rationalism:

In Europe and elsewhere in the Muslim diaspora  …(ISIS recruits) are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives: students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance. Most have had no traditional religious education, and are often “born again” into a socially tight, ideologically narrow but world-spanning sense of religious mission. 

By contrast, our own research shows that even among native Western youth, ideals of liberal democracy no longer elicit willingness to make costly sacrifices for their defense…

In other words, many people crave something to sacrifice for, not just the fulfillment of their brute physiological appetites. This single fact flies so starkly in the face of received post-Enlightenment wisdom that it seems to have simply never occurred to anyone in the UN or the World Bank. But it implies that the lack of demand for self-sacrifice in contemporary wealthy Western societies is actually a problem. As I’ve pointed out before, societies that demand real sacrifice enjoy fiercely committed members. Societies that give people Gap outlets and Internet porn and the Super Bowl and never ask for any meaningful sacrifices in return…well, don’t.

(This post excerpt is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?” and “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals.” It appears in full at Patheos‘s blog “Science On Religion.”)



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