Scott Atrain in DamascusI love it when we can find a way into a story that is blanketing the news — and open it up in a revealing, humanizing way. I feel that listening to Scott Atran this week does just that.

I first heard him on the BBC in the middle of the night a few months ago. I wrote down his name in a kind of fog. He was talking about his book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

He has spent the last decade listening and conversing across a range of Muslim cultures with people implicated in suicide bombing attacks as well as political leaders and extended circles of friends and family beyond the radicalized young. The perspective he has gained is not uncontroversial, and not comfortable. But it is challenging in the best way: mind-opening and eye-opening.

And that is the kind of insight we need right now. For if there is any universal reaction I’m hearing to events on the streets of Tunisia, Yemen, and especially Egypt, it is the surprise of them. Behind that surprise, we’re aware that little of the last decade’s profusion of facts, news, and analysis about “the Middle East” and “the Arab world” prepared us to expect this very human democratic eruption. Nor do we know how to respond to it, it seems, either at the highest political levels or as citizens.

Talking to the Enemy:  Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists by Scott AtranScott Atran offers deep context for this picture of social upheaval. He came to study anthropology under the late great Margaret Mead, and spent the first part of his career studying Mayan Indians and the Druze people of the Middle East. Then a decade ago he turned his attention to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism from Indonesia to Europe to the Middle East.

He sought to understand why some young people become radicalized, asking: Why do some of them become terrorists and suicide bombers? What makes young people in the extended circles of family and friendship around these people susceptible or immune?

What he has learned is a fascinating backdrop for hearing and seeing the young who are at the heart of the movement in Cairo and elsewhere. For their energies, anger, and dreams — fueled by the same frustrations that political analyses have labeled as breeding grounds for terrorism — are now surfacing as breeding grounds for democratic reform. They are doing so with impressive courage and civility.

Scott Atran also offers some sweeping ideas that become food for thought as we rearrange our view of how our world might unfold. Without denying the danger and devastation of terrorism, he points out that American minds, in particular, became convinced of a magnitude of terrorist threat that hasn’t been borne out beyond the 9/11 attacks.

Al Qaeda, he says with certainty, is not what it once was. More importantly, as Atran would have us see, this focus on Al Qaeda blinded us to the human and democratic possibilities alive in other cultures just as they are alive in our own. The “clash of civilizations” that so many feared, he offers, may really be a crash and potential rebirth of territorial cultures — a fundamental rearranging of societies, hopes, and dreams.

And surely one of the most galvanizing qualities of the voices from Tahrir Square is how they are echoing quintessential themes of American history. As someone who also knows the Muslim Brotherhood well, Scott Atran would have us resist catastrophizing about the unlikely possibility that they might come to power. At the same time and just as fervently, he would have us attend to the range of Muslim people and organizations that will help weave the fabric of a new democracy, if indeed a democracy emerges in Egypt — just as a whole range of fervently Christian people and organizations were integral threads in the fabric of American civil society from the very first.

About the top image: Scott Atran in Damascus to do follow-up interviews with Middle East leaders on the role of sacred values in seemingly intractable conflicts. (photo: Scott Atran)


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Being / Speaking of Faith has presented many phenomenal shows with thoughts and ideas rarely heard elsewhere, and this show is one of the best of all.

Fascinating interview that I want to listen to more than once. One thing I did not hear in Mr. Atran's vocabulary was "corporate economics." He is astute on political "buggy whips" and modes of thought, but I would ask him how the increasingly interconnected world that excites him will overcome large interests that wish to bend the technology to their profit, and that view all social media as modes of marketing to a broader consumer base desiring the same old things, rather than to a deeper matrix of thought and vision of the new.

I think that Scot Astra has a good idea about violence actually creating more violence rather than stopping it and that the thing to do is to change others minds and often times those who are angry or who appear angry may have actually justifiably good reasons to be and just need someone to listen to them and actually hear them and get to the root of what the problem is and do something, anything to actually help them in a way that can change that for them on any personal level. In this world that we live in of stress and fear it is so easy to lose hope, to want to give up, to begin not to care, to say things we do not mean, to think differently than others according to our own perspectives. I wish I could know this man because I think he could also help me to be able to work on my own message that open communicatons and dialogs are the only way to get any thing to change, and when we take that away, then we lose it all. We cannot fix what we cannot talk about in any diplomatic way. We as a society find so many ways to take that ability away from people, and so the truths are never really known. We do have big lobbiest groups and interests like medical groups and NAMI that affect the way our country thinks or does not think. It goes further than the internet, it is mass produced through every form of media including the internet which is simply another form of it. Scot is right though and he is on target, I see where he could broaden it and maybe help to make some real and needed changes in our country. Even if I may not agree with everything he has to say I think what he has to say is worth hearing, and I think it could be useful, so I wanted to thank you and him for your program.

apples