Monday, January 4, 2016

Scott Atran on ISIS as a Revolution

Agree with him or disagree, Scott Atran remains one of the most thoughtful Western analysts of the phenomenon of jihadism - and especially ISIS. This very long article is an excellent statement of his views.

"As pundits and politicians stoked the recent shootings in California into an existential threat; as French troops were deployed in Paris; as Belgian police locked down Brussels, and US and Russian planes intensified air attacks in Syria following yet another slaughter perpetrated in the name of the so-called Islamic State, it was easy to lose sight of a central fact. Amid the bullets, bombs and bluster, we are not only failing to stop the spread of radical Islam, but our efforts often appear to contribute to it.


While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world.


The Caliphate seeks a new order based on a culture of today. Unless we recognise these passions and aspirations, and deal with them using more than just military means, we will likely fan those passions and lose another generation to war and worse."

The entire piece can be read here.  

An interesting and rather positive analysis of the Atran essay by Razib Khan can be found here

I agree with both writers that the problem posed by ISIS and the cult of jihad is not likely to be minor or transient, but how truly existential it will become for the world order will depend not only on what the jihadis do but also on how the rest of the world responds. The system as a whole is too complex to admit of simple predictions beyond "almost anything is possible", which isn't very useful at all. I think we may have more success trying to analyze possible futures at a finer spatial and temporal resolution - say, country by country, or issue by issue (e.g., impact on the Saudi-Iranian conflict). But the fact remains that jihadism is a global phenomenon, and we ignore its global emergent effects at our peril.

Atran's central point, which I think is quite perceptive, is that ISIS should be seen as a worldwide transformative movement rather than as a parochially nihilistic one -- an almost Byronic cause which many idealistic, though hideously misguided, young people see as a way to rediscover meaning in their life and to commit themselves to something greater than self-gratification. Those who leave their homes and families to go kill and die are not doing so based on any formal piety or doctrinal analysis; they are drawn like moths to a flame by the desire to participate in history. I think that this insight is crucial to developing strategies to counter ISIS, but it isn't clear to me that such thinking at the gut level is even possible in the world of think tanks and academic analysis. What is the analyst to do when game theory and the standard economic model fail? Well, perhaps use insights of behavioral economics and good old marketing strategies! ISIS has put salvation on sale. Can the world -- and especially the world of Islam -- offer a better product?

All successful movements in the history of the world -- peaceful or violent -- have been based on an intuitive but sophisticated understanding of human motivations and psychology. ISIS certainly embodies this attribute in the most ferocious way possible. Any counter-strategy will need to be similarly grounded in psychological rather than conventional methods. I tried to make this point in more detail in a recent piece on 3QD.

More on this to come in this space, I'm sure....

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