I 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 know that readers of this newsletter have heard about my nocturnal BBC consumption before! 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 Cairo, 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.
Scott 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. And 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 seeing the 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 an impressive courage and civility.
Scott Atran also offers some sweeping ideas that become food for thought as we rearrange our view of how the 21st century 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-Qaida, certainly, is not what it once was. More importantly, as Atran would have us see, this focus on Al-Qaida 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 in the fabric of American civil society from the very first.