Someone get Scott Atran to tell us which soccer club these guys belonged to. — Tweet from Sam Harris

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by Neil Godfrey

Nigeria’s Street Football: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-15257141

The title was a tweet by Sam Harris: https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/337313832814919680 in response to the horrific terrorist murder of Lee Rigby in London. I told someone in a recent comment that I would do a post explaining my perspective on what lies behind Harris’s response. (In that same comment thread one can see a video in which Sott Atran goes some way to explaining what a soccer club has to do with terrorism.)

Firstly, who is Scott Atran? From Wikipedia:

Scott Atran (born 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a

  • Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris,
  • Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University in England,
  • Presidential Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York,
  • and also holds offices at the University of Michigan.

He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders. . . .

. . . he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. . . .

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan, and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East. . . .

Atran’s debates with “new atheists” Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between “new atheists” who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, or worse, and those like Atran who see unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.

Atran has taught at

  • Cambridge University,
  • Hebrew University in Jerusalem,
  • and the École des Hautes Études in Paris.

He is currently

  • a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research
  • and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure.
  • He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan,
  • presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City,
  • senior research fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University,
  • and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

I am belatedly catching up with two of his books, In Gods We Trust and Talking to the Enemy, after having read a few of his scholarly journal and online writings.

I mentioned Atran’s video presentation — there is also follow up to that and Atran’s exchanges with Sam Harris at The Reality Club, Beyond Belief webpage (note on that page there are several in depth comments by Atran). Of his exchange with Sam Harris he writes:

I do not criticize Sam Harris, or those he identifies with, for wanting to rid the world of dogmatically-held beliefs that are vapid, barbarous, anachronistic and wrong. I object to their manner of combating such beliefs, which is often scientifically baseless, psychologically uninformed, politically naïve, and counterproductive for goals we share.

Where soccer clubs fit in

Scott Atran interviews terrorists in both prison and in their home hideaways. He has also had to make at least one quick exit from the latter when his hosts had been overheard planning to kill him, either because they became suspicious of his presence and inquiries or discovered (apparently through Googling) that he was not only French but also an American.

Atran concludes from his field research that terrorists are not radicalized in mosques or madrassas. Many even know very little about what is really in the Koran, he writes.

Instead, Atran informs us, young men become radicalized through their network of close friends (“soccer clubs”) and family networks.

The lead-up to the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombing illustrates the interplay of camaraderie and friendship, kinship and marriage, school ties and discipleship. . . . Four of the principal actors in the 2009 hotels plot and its planned foll0w-ups were part of one village family . . . .

Indonesia’s counterterrorism success has relied on cracking extremist networks by grasping their social structure, and moving against likely players in that social structure. Close ties of kinship and marriage, friendship and discipleship, have made penetrating these networks very difficult, and sometimes key parts have continued to operate right under the nose of security forces. But increasing success has depended on closer scrutiny and exploitation of social connections, not in directly attacking or challenging ideas and values. Those ideas and values continue to circulate and diffuse freely, and their potential for bringing in new blood remains. The problem for the future is how to turn youth away from them, without violence or denial of liberty. (Talking To The Enemy, pp. 164-165)

He concludes this chapter:

Finally, the suicide bombers themselves are often young men in transitional stages of life with unsure futures. In JI-related cases, strong-willed seniors persuade younger men who seem somewhat vulnerable and marginalized that death for a cause bestows on life something sure and good. (p. 167)

Of the importance of friends and family networks, Atran provides much evidence from the terrorists themselves and their families and friends.

My son didn’t die just for the sake of a cause, he died also for his cousins and friends. He died for the people he loved. (Father of a suicide bomber in Palestine, p. 27)

I found that suicide bombers will usually turn down individual scholarships if the choice is between personal gain and family and friends. (p. 48)

The idea that joining jihad is a carefully calculated decision or that people are “brainwashed” or “recruited” into “cells” or “councils” by “organizations” with “infrastructures” that can be destroyed is generally wrong. This (minus, perhaps, the brainwashing part) is the way most government bureaucracies, law enforcement agencies, and military organizations are structured. It’s their reality, and they mirror that reality by interpreting, understanding, and acting on the world in these terms. But generally, this isn’t the way most human lives are structured, including the jihadi movement. (p. 50)

People who are humiliated generally don’t take the path of violence (as studies I present later show). But those who do may seek to avenge the humiliation of others for whom they care. (p. 55)

They gave courage to one another. Friends encourage and give courage to another. It depends on your friends. (Words of a Moroccan who agreed with terrorist attacks, p. 56)

People usually go on to such violence in small, action-oriented groups of friends and family (with friends also tending to become family as they marry one another’s sisters and cousins.) (p. 58)

Many of the people Atran studied cared very little for religion. Their social circle, not the Koran, is the central focus of their lives. Sometimes the religious interest would be generated as an afterthought, to maintain focus and direction. But even that religious interest would be guided by extremist leaders. (I try to imagine someone who knew very little about Christianity gaining all his serious education in religion from a suicide cult not unlike Jonestown or that of Dave Koresh.)

Is Atran saying religion plays no role, then? No:

Now I see that friendship and other aspects of small-group dynamics, such as raising families or playing on a team together, trump almost everything else in moving people through life. But I also see religion, and quasi-religious nationalist or internationalist devotion such as patriotism and love of humanity, as framing and mobilizing that movement with purpose and direction. (pp. 33-34)

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12 thoughts on “Someone get Scott Atran to tell us which soccer club these guys belonged to. — Tweet from Sam Harris”

  1. Forgot to add my punch line. (It’s a habit. I often prefer to leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions.)

    Sam Harris makes his sarcastic dismissal of Atran’s argument apparently because he fails to grasp the meaning of Atran’s message. By calling for the identity of “the soccer club” that the Nigerian born murderers belonged to, he is referring to such a club as an organized indoctrination unit. Now I’m sure Sam does not really think soccer clubs are formal indoctrinators for terrorism, but he is dismissing Atran’s argument as if that is what Atran himself is implying; or at least he is scoffing at the idea that social networks are responsible in the way Atran believes they are.

    In other words, Harris is unable to escape the view that terrorists must be the products of formal systems of organization or programs. Atran’s point, however, is that such a view is a misguided projection of governmental, religious or military infrastructures. Youth are looking to do something meaningful with their lives and, fed on a diet of the atrocities that are happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, Palestine and the corrupt dictatorships upheld by outside powers, given the right circle of contacts who discuss these events in a certain way, they are susceptible to wanting to go along with friends who choose to do something cruel to “right the wrongs” of these things, or as Atran says, to ‘build their heaven on the foundation of hell”.

    That’s also why bin Laden was able to say that he would have done the same even if God had not given the world the gift of Islam. As Atran points out, people have always acted this way, especially youth who are still in transitional stages of their lives, and religion or patriotism or some other quest for a utopian future serves to give direction to that impulse.

    1. Indeed, what pretty much always happens is that a group of young men – aged normally 18-30 – create a social unit in the form of soccer clubs or other team-based activities. Then, often as a response to an event which instils a sense of moral outrage such as news of civilian deaths in Iraq or the Gaza Strip, , one of the soccer team decides that the global jihad represents the only response to the injustices of world. He, in turn, brings his friends along on the adventure. This self-made terrorist cell then goes looking for Al-Qaeda, usually on the internet.

      The important thing that also needs to be added to this is that what these groups construct are ‘bonds of fictive kinship’. So in the same way that militaries propagate fictive kinship as a way of creating a fighting unit, these ties also hold firm in the world of terrorism. Marc Sageman – a former CIA Operations Officer – came to similar conclusions after years of studying al-Qaeda. Actually there is a good talk by Sageman here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWcH5sDHzPQ

      Terrorist “handlers” actually actively enforce the idea that suicide bombing will benefit ‘fictive’ kin. Potential bombers become convinced their sacrifice will benefit kin. As this happens, the calculus of costs to benefits shifts to the point where sacrifice makes sense in the mind of the terrorist.Terrorists are spurred not by their own humiliation, but by watching the humiliation of people they identify with – their “imagined kin”. So they kill and die for each other not simply a cause.

  2. I’m glad you’re reading Atran–you hadn’t heard of him last time we exchanged on this. But I find it strange that while starting to familiarize yourself with Atran’s work, you are willing to suggest that you are more familiar with it, and understand it better, than Harris–who’s been engaging with Atran both in print and in person, for years.

    Harris was making a *joke*, on twitter, where his character count is limited; it’s hardly fair to take 144 characters as a complete summary of his understanding of Atran. Regardless, his joke wasn’t as off-base as you seem to think. It was about a claim Atran *explicitly* makes–that membership in a soccer club is the greatest predictor of willingness to engage in terrorism.

    Here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=79nmOmuOZsc#t=113s

    That’s one of half a dozen places where he’s made this claim. He makes it *explicitly* as refutation of the idea that beliefs play a crucial role in the decision to pursue terrorism. He does so by comparing soccer club membership not to religious belief but to *religious education*–as though only those who study religion believe it with conviction. Heck, that’s nearly the opposite of the truth.

    1. Can you explain explicitly and with reference to Atran’s fuller argument why it is flawed? Is his claim about “soccer clubs” (a metonymy?) wrong? If so, where is his reasoning or data at fault?

      What work/s of Atran do you recommend I read to fully grasp the argument as you present it?

      1. It’s funny that Sam Harris is always annoyed that people are “misrepresenting his views or not engaging with his work thoroughly enough”, because he has a regular habit of deliberately obfuscating other people’s work. However, it is possible that Harris hasn’t read any of Atran’s work, but he should because some of it is even sympathetic to parts of his thesis:

        …[This does not mean that] the behavior of Muslim jihadists has nothing to do with their religious beliefs. In our own interviews and experiments with militants, we have found overwhelming support for the idea that suicide bombing is an “individual obligation” (fard al-ayn) for any Muslim when the society around them fails to fight off the perceived onslaught of infidels (this notion of jihad against infidels as the “sixth pillar of Islam”— on par with the five traditional pillars of belief in God, prayer, alms for the poor, fasting at Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca—is considered heretical by most religious Muslims).

        But then goes onto say.

        But such radical religious commitment arguably has less to do with traditional and institutionalized forms of religious learning and teaching than with the sacralization of political aspirations into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment into new, nontraditional forms of group identity and commitment.

        As previously mentioned. this is corroborated by Marc Sageman’s work, which points out that most jihadis and jihadi leaders especially tend to come from a secular, scientific, education as opposed to a religious education (Leaderless Jihad, 2008, p. 59). The glaring difference between Atran and Sageman’s work with Harris’ work is that Harris is merely supposing that there is a causal link between the religious views and teachings of jihadists and deliberately ignoring evidence to the contrary, whilst smearing the work of those who are arriving at separate conclusions and offering nothing in the way of research of his own.

    1. He answers your question:

      The number of madrassahs that accommodate Takfiri ideology is small. Out of some thirty thousand religious schools in Indonesia, only about fifty, far less than 1 percent, preach extremist views (about the same percent as in Pakistan. . .), such as agreement with the statement that “it is the duty of Muslims to fight and kill non-Muslims,” as we put it to the students at Al Islam in one questionnaire. “Talking to the Enemy” by Scott Atran, p.163-164)

  3. “Now I see that friendship and other aspects of small-group dynamics, such as raising families or playing on a team together, trump almost everything else in moving people through life. But I also see religion, and quasi-religious nationalist or internationalist devotion such as patriotism and love of humanity, as framing and mobilizing that movement with purpose and direction. (pp. 33-34)”

    How do you see the motivation of the murderers of Lee Rigby as being due to patriotism and love of humanity? The words that came out of their mouths were words of intense hatred and malice. They were words about and motivated by Islamism. And they were essentially identical to the words of praise for their actions which came out of the mouth of the Imam who inculcated them in his mosque, which was located thousands of miles away from Britain.

    But I suppose we should not listen to the confessions and public proclamations of the perpetrators themselves, but should instead listen to Scott Atran, who tells us that radicalization of terrorists does not take place in mosques and that Islamic terrorism is not about Islamism?

    Perhaps I misunderstand you, Neil, but it seems to me that you have completely lost the plot.

    1. I would be interested in learning of evidence or research that falsifies Scott Atran’s work and conclusions. So far I have only heard expressions of disbelief. It contradicts what “everyone knows”. It contradicts what even evolutionary biologists and the average person in the street who can read and tune in to the mass media all know.

      I welcome a serious debate with explicit reference to the evidence and the points I have made. Sweeping assertions like this leave me with little I can respond to.

      I addressed the actual words spoken by one of the murderers at the time at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/science-and-religion-four-fundamental-differences-observed-by-an-anthropologist/#comment-46942

      Do you know how our young patriotic soldiers work? They learn to hate, to dehumanize, the enemy — needing very often to be tightly disciplined to be restrained from “war crimes” — as they fight and die to be proud and for their mates, their “fictive kin”.

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