Posts Tagged ‘Scott Atran’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

During the last week, America has been paying an inordinate amount of attention to world events. On Friday night, terrorist attacks in Paris killed over 100 people. After the attacks, Americans started to (finally) pay some attention to Syria, where a Civil War has ripped the nation apart, giving Syria_areas_of_control_March_2014opportunities to groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) to find a territorial foothold.  Unfortunately, most US citizens ignored Syria and the instability of the region until the day ISIS began targeting areas outside the immediate region. Hence, a bomb going off in a marketplace in Beirut on Thursday passed through the 24 hour news cycle with nary a whisper, while the attack in Paris was front-page news with fully invested in-depth reporting.

For the most part, Americans have no idea what ISIS is, or what they want. Their story is too complex for most Americans to follow, and, to be quite frank, most US citizens just don’t care to follow foreign affairs.  The majority of the nation concern themselves with sports, video games and the lives of celebrities, and don’t worry about the world outside their immediate selfie-bubble.  The one thing Americans do seem to know though, is that ISIS is made up of some pretty bad guys.  Whether it be beheading those identified as heathen apostates in Syria, or shooting civilians randomly with automatic weapons in Paris, ISIS fulfills the Hollywood villain role quite nicely.  Of course, for most Americans, when this is happening ‘over there’, we can simply shake our heads and declare such actions monstrous, evil or devilish, and turn the channel. ISIS is not sticking ‘over there’ though. As Americans feel it hitting closer to home, our rhetoric of fear and aggression has intensified .

Evil. I never like to use that term.  Strangely enough, it is too comforting of a word. Labeling something or someone evil simplifies complexities.  It glosses over reality. If our enemies are evil, then we are good.  If they are


Jim Acosta


evil, then they easily explained.  If they are evil, all we need to do is kill’em and the world will all go back to normal.  In President Obama’s press conference the other day, a CNN reporter spoke for all those who want to live in such a simplistic Manichean world. Jim Acosta stood up and asked the President, why can’t we  ‘just take out these bastards’?  It is a simple question, and it is begging for a simple answer. The problem is, the situation at hand is not simple. Hard problems often call for difficult, ugly, complex, time consuming and unpopular solutions.

With this in mind, I would hope Jim Acosta, and all those he speaks for would take 10 minutes and read an analysis of the problem by one of the world’s experts on the psychology of terrorists.   Anthropologist Scott


Scott Atran


Atran has written numerous books on how we should understand terrorists, and how we can hope to defeat the social challenges that give rise to terrorist movements. A couple days after the Paris attacks, he published an important article in the New York Review of Books that should be required reading for all American policymakers.   To me, this is the most clear explanation of what ISIS is, what they  want, and why they seem to be so popular with young people around the world.  I highly recommend you read it.  I will attach it below.

Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid.

If you are interested in more, here is Atran speaking to the United Nations earlier this year.
Atran at the UN


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Well, that’s over.  As I write this, I am watching NBC News coverage of the capture of “Suspect 2” in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  This has been one of those events when you feel like history is being made, so I want to write a couple blogs in the coming weeks in response.  This blog is the first of those.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

One of the disturbingly enthralling aspects of today’s media coverage has been the interviews and reactions of those that knew “suspect #2” before his apparent conversion to violence.  Over and over today, I have heard 19 and 20 year kids, high school teachers, and parents of friends describe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a extremely normal kid.  Most interviewees have been calling him quiet, athletic, friendly, helpful and kind.  The shock of those who knew him is telling.  No one foresaw this.

It seems the older Tsarnaev was more militant. Reports have depicted him as a loner; as ideological.  But, his younger brother doesn’t seem to fit that mold.  Now, this may be completely wrong.  Perhaps law enforcement will find loads of documents, and writings that prove that the younger Tsarnaev was the ring leader in this attack. I can’t say, though it seems unlikely at this point. We are left asking then, why would this seemingly normal kid commit this horrendous act?

Unfortunately, I know what many political figures, religious leaders, media spokespeople, and persons on the street will say.  It is Islam; violent, malicious Islam. I know this because such rhetoric has been making the rounds since hours after the attack.  But, even those who are not so inflammatory, or so prejudiced feel the need to simplify this situation for an angry, frightened viewing public.  As I heard Brian Williams, NBC head anchor say tonight, everything will be okay in the future “as long as we have more good guys, than bad guys.”

If the younger Tsarnaev had been killed tonight, such simplistic bombast and platitudes would most likely control all discourse. With him in custody, perhaps we can find out the truth of his motivations, and as the atrananthropologist Scott Atran has found, the motivations of terrorists can be surprisingly recognizable.   An incredibly brave scholar, Atran has spent the last decade interviewing members of terrorists groups, their families and their friends, compiling his conclusions in his 2008 book, Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.   His interviews  of young terrorists most often found that they “were campmates, school buddies, soccer pals, and the like, who became die hard bands of brothers in a tragic and misbegotten quest to save their imagined tribal community from…morally deformed” enemies. These youths join cells and organizations because they are intrigued by “the camaraderie of a cause, however admirable or abhorrent, and the courage and commitment that come from belonging to something larger.”  In other words, it is not necessarily ideology that makes these young men kill. They kill for their community. They kill to protect and strengthen their biological or social family.

Is this what happened here?  Is this how a ‘nice, kind kid’ became a murderer? Maybe.  Maybe not.  We should know soon enough. My one hope is that people pay attention to this young man’s motives, and don’t simply label him an Islamo-fascist, or a nut-job, or a bad-guy. Doing so only simplifies, and thus clouds, a complex phenomenon.