In "Talking to the Enemy," social scientist Scott Atran makes an elaborate case for seeking to find common ground with terrorists. His subtitle: "Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists" tells us, in effect, that humanity is dependent upon faith to generate larger communities (brotherhoods) that will develop enough respect and restraint within themselves not to hurl suicide bombers into crowds populated by other communities (also brotherhoods united by faith, which may or may not be religious.)
This premise is both tantalizing and utopian.
Atran spends a great deal of time-- many chapters--examining the terrorist communities of the last twenty years. Clearly he has gone to some dangerous places and spoken with some dangerous men (they're almost all men.)
One demon he seeks to demolish has already fallen--al Qaeda. I should think George Bush had more or less worn all the fuzz off that organization by 2003 or 2004. Within intelligence and foreign policy circles, it was known to have been crippled badly by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. A few years later, almost no one considered al Qaeda per se as a matter of direct, substantial concern. Yes, it was good to see Osama bin Laden meet his end, but he was at the time of his death more or less what he had been for many years: a little heard voice and a leader with moral influence, to a certain extent, but no operative impact.
The terrorists of the middle and latter part of the first decade of this century are then examined by Atran with a great deal of care and insight, and we find what I think is pretty well known: in London, in Madrid, in Pakistan, and elsewhere (he overlooks Yemen and wrote his book before Mali became an issue), the world's terrorists were relatively well-educated, self-selecting, alienated groups of men who came up with an idea that was fed by bin Laden's achievements and the continuing verbal jihad being waged on the Internet by his emulators.
Atran goes so far as to cite Hannah Arendt's famous term, "the banality of evil," as he probes some of these ganglets (my term). The train bombing in Madrid was one of the worst cases, hundreds dead, a thousand wounded, but it was a tragedy of improbable success and…murderously pointless.
The conservative party lost the presidency to the socialist party in Spain because the conservatives quickly blamed ETA (the Basque terrorist organization) and was wrong, but the fact is that terrorism (Atran points this out) has never achieved more than murder. It didn't bring down Spain, London, the United States, Indonesia or any other country. In other words, terrorism, as we have seen it practiced, has not yet moved to the next stage--from random acts of violence to organized insurgencies to regime changes wherein, in the Islamic case, Sharia becomes the law of the land and the religious leadership takes over from the secular leadership.
Such a revolutionary progression did take place in Iran, though not because of the terrorism under discussion. It also took place in Afghanistan, though, again, not because of the terrorism under discussion.
President Obama bravely said, at one point, that the terrorists had not crippled New York, much less the United States, and never would or could. President Bush never would have said that. He was reelected on his war platform (war on terror, war on Saddam) and couldn't tell such a truth.
After Atran surveys the actors involved in two decades of intermittent, high-profile, unproductive carnage, he then assesses two big issues: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the role of religion in modern life.
On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Atran probes (he did this in person, face-to-face) the willingness of leaders to accommodate one another's needs, not just for land but for justice. These two factors are blended into that which holy, both for Jews and Muslims (as well as Christians). What Atran senses is that if the respective leaders would exchange some kind of apology, other concrete pieces of a settlement could fall into place. He's referring, implicitly, to the honor/shame rigidity of religious and/or ideological societies. (In fact, ideology has its flexibility, and so does religion.)
Like many academics, Atran portrays senior U.S. government officials as insensitive to these nuances of human experience (history, culture and religion). Okay, let him have his fun, but I doubt that everyone he met with was as illiterate about human nature as he suggests.
The problem for the U.S. government is two-fold (at least). First, we have overinvested in offensive military capability. This has grossly distorted our foreign policy, Washington decision-making in general, and our entire economy. Let me mention one startling fact: the U.S. has over 700 foreign military installations. Beyond that, we have weapons no nation could possibly match in the next twenty-five years. Second, as Atran points out, we are a nation ostensibly of law (our Constitution) although culturally we are quite religious. Officials in Washington are better equipped to make policy through the Pentagon than they are through religious leaders.
Atran concludes his long book with an abstract consideration of the role of God in human life. He writes as a social scientist who believes, in effect, that belief is intrinsic to the community-making mind of mankind. He doesn't argue that God does exist or doesn't exist; he simply argues that God has a habit of showing up in zones of conflict and could be deployed to resolve rather than worsen those conflicts.
At different points in his book, Atran links monothiesm to universalism and universalism to the concept of human rights. All this is good, but the question arises as to whether this book should have been two or three books.
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