Saturday, March 2, 2013

Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human by Scott Atran

If I were to start college now with the knowledge that I've gained over these nearly six decades, for a major, I think that I might now choose anthropology, and more specifically, the anthropology of religion. This is not a statement of regret. Obtaining majors in history and political science were very worthwhile, and I'm inclined to think that history might be the master of all learning, since all thinking immediately recedes to the past (see John Lukacs on this topic). Political science and economics study distinct forms of life and thinking, but each has a limited scope. Anthropology, how we humans have lived from before history (as a written record of the past) through the present, can perhaps make the best imperial claim among the human sciences. It can poach grand theories as needed (rational choice, game theory, etc.), but perhaps best of all, anthropologists spend time with people, learning the languages, customs, and religions. 

And religions, modern predictions notwithstanding, have withstood the challenges of modernity. How we define and relate the the sacred, however we may define it, how we navigate meaning in the  world, and how we relate such meaning to our daily actions, raises fascinating questions. India, of course, provides a wholely different world of religious practice than anything than I'd ever experienced before. Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism (nearer its original form), even Christianity, are all practiced here. How these beliefs and practices affect (or don't affect) its adherents deeply affects how individuals and groups relate to their neighbors and even cultures on the far side of the globe. From the earliest indications of human kind through the present, religion has shaped human behavior in deep and persistent ways. 

I share all of the above as a prelimnary to a review of Atran's book because his work addresses these issues. Indeed, Atran has written several books in one. The most interesting aspect of the book comes from his conversations with those in the Muslim world who are "terrorists" or the family and friends of terrorists. Obviously putting himself at great risk on more than one occasion, he speaks to those who guide or have participated in acts of terrorist violence. We learn from Atran that persons who undertake such activities, including suicide bombers, do so because of a variety of factors. Some of the factors have to do with religious beliefs, but even more important are issues of respect, despair, and friendship. Atran makes human what we often try to dismiss as inhuman, but these behaviors, no matter how we may revile them, are human, all to human. 

In addition to his fascinating discussions with those professing violence in the Islamic world from North Africa to Indonesia, Atran spends a good deal of the book discussing the history and anthropology of religion. Atran writes not as a religious believer or practitioner (he apparently isn't either of these), but he writes as someone who knows from his vocation the role and importance of religion. Thus, his criticisms of the naive critiques of religion by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens hit the mark. (Atran gives Dennett, the fourth of the usual quartet, a partial pass because Dennett suports some serious interest in religion as a phenomenon. In this I think Atran is right.) War, killing, and religion (for good and ill) have been with us for the entire time of our species, and we'd better come to a better understanding of it if we want to protect ourselves from ourselves. 

Atran is the type of person that foreign policy decision makers should listen to. Instead, although he's spoken to national security types and Congress, one gets the sense that they don't want to listen. Bombs, and drones, the language of force as an abstraction, beguile them instead. Atran is far from naive, but he understands that concerns for dignity, respect, and revenge outweigh the economic rationality that too many foreign policy rationalists want to base their decisions upon. 

When you're done with this book you've learned an awfully lot, and you hope that someone who makes crucial decisions about life and death on behalf of the U.S. government has read it too. 


lost in the triangle said...

i'm personally inclined to think it is art history that is the master of all learning...

you are reading some fabulous works! i'm embarassed to look at my bookshelf now. i read one recently that *might* be worthy of your time: "ghetto at the center of the world" by gordon mathews. it is a long-term look, by an anthropologist, at chungking mansions in hong kong. some discussion of religion; mostly an examination of what mathews calls "low-end globilization." it may be worth your time.

enjoy your time--it is so nice to read about your adventures in india!

Stephen N. Greenleaf said...

Thanks for your comment. Art hx is hx! And this, BTW, gave away your ID before I got to the bottom line (which confirmed). Good to hear from you. Thanks for the reading recommendation, I'll check it out. Living here in India certainly gives us a different perspective. One difference, sunny & gorgeous here, while youngest daughter visiting @ 345 Magowan sent a photo of 3 deer in our snowy back yard. BTW, still a great buy available @ 345!