Anthropology, not demagoguery, is the way to understand ISIS

Anthropology, not demagoguery, is the way to understand ISIS April 28, 2015

Connor Wood

ISIS Man 600x314

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.

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe.

This is the clincher. Maybe – just maybe – tearing apart all the world’s cultures in hopes of inculcating a globe-spanning market monoculture was not such a good idea after all. As it turns out, human beings are cultural animals. We need to know who our ancestors were, what practices they followed, what stories they told. We are evolved that way. We need culture to live. Disassemble people’s cultures in the name of Progress, or economic development, or whatever rationalist dystopia you’re hoping to build, and soon you will find yourself dealing very serious problems – like, say, unwinnable ground wars in Asia.

The thing that we Westerners really need to understand, we Internet-surfers ensconced safely in our leafy suburbs and interchangeable chain coffee shops, is that the vision of life we offer isn’t necessarily all that appealing for everyone – or even most people. The dispiriting materialism, the creeping acid assault on ancestral bonds, the lurking meaninglessness…these are actually problems. Some people respond to these problems by trying to make life in the West more meaningful, less materialistic, deeper. We should applaud these people and support them. Others, less nobly, are led to join violent countercultures that know how to offer a compelling alternative vision. These people we should fight. But as we fight them, we damned well better know what their real motives are, and not lie to ourselves that they’re just mindless savages or political pawns:

ISIS and related groups pose the greatest threat as the world’s most dynamic countercultural movement, one whose values run counter to the nation-state system represented here in the United Nations, and to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has drawn youth from many places into the largest, most potent extraterritorial fighting force since WWII.…Unless we understand these powerful cultural forces, we will fail to address the threat. When, as now, the focus is on military solutions and police interdiction, matters have already gone way too far. If that focus remains, we lose the coming generation.

(We need to) offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship. …When I hear another tired appeal to “moderate Islam,” usually from much older folk, I ask: Are you kidding? Don’t any of you have teenage children? When did “moderate” anything have wide appeal for youth yearning for adventure, glory, and significance?…Young people will NOT choose to sacrifice everything, including their lives – the totality of their self-interests – just for material rewards.

Read the whole thing. Please. Is the frightening upsurge in religious violence over recent years merely another symptom of age-old religious irrationality? No. We can’t blame ISIS on generic religious superstition or deny its genuine religious dimensions. To do either make us completely blind to the social processes that are actually happening.

Atran’s UN speech reminds us in no uncertain terms that people really do have more needs than superficial, Western-style prosperity. When these deeper needs aren’t met, things can get ugly. Culture is in part a cooperative endeavor for meeting those deeper needs, but from the outside, no culture – whether cosmopolitan democracy or Islamist theocracy – makes any damn sense. So from our Western perspective, it’s all too easy to shrug off the behavior of ISIS and other Islamist extremists as simple political brainwashing or the inevitable result of inherently violent Muslim theology. But these interpretations are facile, wrong, and destructive. By contrast, it takes genuine sophistication, intelligence, and fortitude to carefully learn the personal, internal logic of religious terrorism, to learn concretely what motives it feeds on. It takes people who can empathically step into the interior worlds of other societies, other cultures, to understand how their particular logic unfurls – and then report back what they’ve found.  This, people, is why the world needs anthropology.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment