THE STATE WE’RE IN
Th e P r i v i l e g e o f Ab s u r d i t y TALKING TO THE ENEMY: VIOLENT EXTREMISM, SACRED VALUES, AND
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
★ By Scott Atran (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 558pp £25)
has resurfaced today in regard to suicide bombing. If you read evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins, you will be told that suicide bombers are driven by their irrational religious beliefs. ‘Suicide bombers do what they do’, writes Dawkins in a passage cited by Scott Atran, ‘because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools; that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise.’ What is striking about claims of this kind is that they are rarely accompanied by evidence. They are asserted as self-evident truths – in other words, articles of f aith. In f act, as Atran writes, religion is not particularly prominent in the formation of jihadi groups:
Though there are few similarities in personality profiles, some general demographic and social tendencies exist: in age (usually early twenties), where they grew up (neighbourhood is often key), in schooling (mostly non-religious and often science-oriented), in socio-
IN LEVIATHAN HOBBES writes of ‘the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’. Nothing could be more absurd, according to Hobbes’s way of thinking, than killing oneself – except perhaps killing oneself in order to kill others. War shows the law of self-preservation working itself out in practice: humans kill other humans because they fear being killed themselves. But if that is so then any t ype of warf a re that involves certain death for the combatants will be self-defeating. Soldiers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect their comrades are committing suicide – an attitude that Hobbes, for whom a self-interested fear of death was the primary human motivation, could never account for. Behaviour of this kind is not only irrational, but – Hobbes at times suggested – a symptom of madness.
economic status (middle-class and married, though increasingly marginalized), in family relationships (friends tend to marry one another’s sisters and cousins). If you want to track a group, look to where one of its members eats or hangs out, in the neighbourhood or on the Internet, and you’ll likely find the other members. Unlike Dawkins’s assertions, Atran’s account of violent jihadism is based on extensive empirical research. An anthropologist who has spent many years studying and talking to terrorists in Indonesia, Afghanistan, Gaza and Europe, Atran believes that what motivates them to go willingly to their deaths is not so much the cause they espouse – rationally or otherwise – but the relationships they form with each other. Terrorists kill and die ‘for their group, whose cause makes t he i r imag i ned f amily o f
Though he is commonly seen as a g r imly realistic thinker, Hobbes’s account of human conflict is a long way from the reality of violence. For all his insight into how humans are impelled to prey upon one another he would have been hor r ified by the world portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in which violence has come to be a way of life practised for its own sake. For Hobbes violence is instrumental: either it serves the goal of self-preservation, or it is pointless. Seeing humans as essentially driven by their passions, Hobbes cherished little hope that they would ever be guided by reason. Still, he never doubted that if people were more rational they would be less prone to violence. How could any sane person not seek peace? After all, everyone wants to go on living – or so Hobbes wanted to believe.
Anti-jihadi Muslim superhero comic book
Something like Hobbes’s analysis (though without his refreshing pessimism or his wonderfully terse prose style)
genetic strangers – their brotherhood, fatherland, motherland, homeland, totem or tribe’. In this terrorists are no different from other human beings. They may justify their actions by reference to religion, but many do not. The techniques of suicide bombing were first developed by the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group hostile to all religions, while suicide bombers in Lebanon in the 1980s included many secular leftists. The Japanese Aum cult, which recruited biologists and geneticists and experimented with anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction, cobbled together its grotesque system of beliefs from many sources, including science fiction. Terrorists
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4 THE STATE WE’RE IN
have held to many views of the world, including some – like Marxism-Leninism – that claim to be grounded in ‘scientific atheism’. If religion is a factor in terrorism, it is only one among many.
There will be some who question Atran’s analysis of suicide bombing. Clearly the practice has a rationalstrategic aspect along with the emotional and social dimensions on which he focuses. Suicide bombing is highly cost-effective compared with other types of terrorist assault; when volunteers are plentiful life is cheap, and a successful suicide bomber cannot be captured and interrogated. But Talking to the Enemy is about far more than violent extremism. One of the most penetrating works of social investigation to appear in many years, it offers a fresh and compelling perspective on human conflict. No one who reads and digests what Atran has to say will be able to take seriously the faith-based claims of the ‘new atheists’. As he notes, some of his fellow scientists may ‘believe that science is better able than religion to constitute or justify a moral system that regulates selfishness and makes social life possible … [But] there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of histor ical or experimental evidence to support such faith in science’. The picture of human beings that emerges from genuine inquiry is far richer than anything that can be gleaned from these myopic rationalists. When Atran is less than completely convincing, it is because he doesn’t take his own lessons to heart. He is clear that having enemies is part of what it means to be human. Yet the solution he proposes for what he calls ‘the mother of all problems – Palestine, the world’s symbolic knot’ involves turning enemies into fr iends, a fanciful notion in connexion with such a deep-rooted conflict. Palestine is not the only such conflict – think of Kashmir, whose division stands in the way of anything like stability in Afghanistan. Nor would a settlement in Palestine (supposing such a thing to be possible) bring peace to the Middle East, which would still be tor n by r ivalr ies between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the internecine wars of Islamism.
The true lesson of Atran’s account is that intractable conflicts go with being human. As he puts it himself: ‘Our biology and our history say that permanent peace is about as improbable on earth as unending day.’ The readiness to kill and die for one’s group is not a human frailty that can be remedied. Linking us with our evolutionary kin, it expresses our animal nature, but it also reflects what is peculiar about our species. Unlike other animals humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea – the conception they have formed of themselves. This is the ‘privilege of absurdity’ of which Hobbes wrote, a human trait that will not change. To order this book at £20, see LR bookshop on page 10
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