12 January 2016

PLoS Neuroanthropology: “Scott Atran on Youth, Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace”

Last summer, an ICM poll revealed that more than 1 in 4 French youth – of all creeds – between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favorable attitude towards ISIS; and in Barcelona just this month 5 of 11 captured ISIS sympathizers who planned to blow up parts of the city were recent atheist or Christian converts. The unholy alliance of narrow xenophobic nationalism and militant jihad, which play off one another’s fears, are beginning to destabilize the European middle class much as fascism and communism did in the 1920s and 30s, while inciting willingness to sacrifice among both nationalist xenophobes and militant jihadis. 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.

But the popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. 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. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi, far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam.

Scott Atran

Wonderful analysis of the extremist phenomenon from its causes to possible ways of converting young people away from these tendencies. It’s very hard to fight people willing to kill (or die) for their beliefs – the best method would be to give them better reasons to live, a positive narrative that feels increasingly absent from Western democracies.

Scott Atran: The Youth Need Values and Dreams

In Singapore last week, some speaking for Western governments argued that the Caliphate is mythology, covering traditional power politics. Research with those drawn to the cause show that this is a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re-emerged as a mobilizing cause in the minds of many Muslims. As one imam in Barcelona told us: I am against the violence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, but they have put our predicament in Europe and elsewhere on the map. Before, we were just ignored. And the Caliphate…. We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples. The Caliphate is here, in our hearts, even if we don’t know what real form it will finally take.

Without recognizing these passions, we risk fanning them.

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