In a recent interview on NPR, anthropologist Scott Atran discussed ISIS, based on his recent New York Review of Books article titled “Paris: The War ISIS Wants” which Atran co-authored with fellow scholar Nafees Hamid. Between the article and the interview he has given us an interesting set of ideas about the problem of ISIS.
NPR interviewer Rachel Martin asked him, “It is meaningful to people to be part of a movement like that that feels significant. How do you create a counter-narrative to create alternative meaning for people who feel disaffected by mainstream Western society?”
Atran responed that radicalism is a process. A large part of that process is, for ISIS, to “look at each individual and sometimes spend hundreds, even thousands of hours drawing out their personal grievances and frustrated aspirations and trying to link it to a larger story of how the world should be and what they can do to contribute to it.” This creates a narrative which gives people a larger meaning than simple Western materialism.
Atran also commented on the limits of present-day Western materialism, saying that “once people lock in to a set of sacred values, a belief that this new way of doing things in the world cannot be bought off, then the lure of jobs not only fall flat; they backfire. Now, people don’t want to hear this because jobs and education and things like that are the standard fare of social and financial aid. But they don’t work.” He reinforced this same idea when he stated, “Again, we don’t provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don’t even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.”
These ideas point towards a recognition of the limits of so-called Western values. Atran goes to the edge of a conclusion and stops before he reaches it. Had he gone all the way, he might have recognized that the only ideas capable of resisting the lure of ISIS are the ideas inherent in the Christian patrimony of Faith, Hope and Love.
ISIS has not stopped its efforts. It is likely to continue to attack us again and again. What Atran’s work has revealed is the closest thing I’ve seen to an honest discussion of ISIS and Islam as a whole. The failure to truly discuss Islam and its outcomes is part and parcel of why ISIS continues to advance across the world. Whether or not ISIS succeeds in its goal of a global caliphate, we can be sure that others will continue to push what they see as the true goal of Islam: submission of all mankind to the dictates of Allah.
If you want to read more, check out an extended discussion of this topic on Christopher McDonald’s personal website, the Old Whig Blog.