Scott Atran recently addressed the UN Security Council’s Ministerial Debate on “The Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace.” This post is an adaptation of his remarks: I am an anthropologist. Anthropologists, as a group, study the diversity of human cultures to understand our commonalities and differences, and to use the knowledge of what is common to us all to help us bridge our differences. My research aims to help reduce violence between peoples, by first trying to understand thoughts and behaviors as different from my own as any I can imagine: such as suicide actions that kill masses of people innocent of direct harm to others. The key, as Margaret Mead taught me long ago, when I worked as her assistant at the American Museum of Natural History 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.
I’ve spent much time observing, interviewing and carrying out systematic studies among people on six continents who are drawn to violent action for a group and its cause. Most recently with colleagues last month in Kirkuk, Iraq among young men who had killed for ISIS, and with young adults in the banlieus of Paris and barrios of Barcelona who seek to join it.
With some insights from social science research, I will try to outline a few conditions that may help move such youth from taking the path of violent extremism.
But first, who are these young people? 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. This isn’t an outlandish proposition in their lived circumstances: as they told of growing up after the fall of Saddam Hussein in a hellish world of constant guerrilla war, family deaths and dislocation, and of not being even able to go out of their homes or temporary shelters for months on end. [Continue reading…]