Krista Tippett, host: This hour, we'll pull back the lens on dramatic events in the Middle East and North Africa. My guest, Scott Atran, offers bracing context on the promise of this moment and the response it asks from the watching world. For the past decade, he's been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. As an anthropologist, he's sought to understand the human impulses that drive them into, as well as away from, religious and political radicalism. What if, he asks, the clash of civilizations is really a crash of cultures — what if we're living through a fundamental rearranging of human cultures, hopes, and dreams? To respond to this wisely, Scott Atran says, we will need to let go of sweeping views of Muslim mindsets and terrorist threats that took root a decade ago but do not reflect the way the world has continued to change.
Dr. Scott Atran: I think never in human history has so few people with so few actual means caused such fear in so many and is blinding us to the possibilities of political change in a world — and political change which really could bring the world forward in an interesting way.
Ms. Tippett: From American Public Media, I'm Krista Tippett. Today on Being, "Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams."
Scott Atran holds appointments at the University of Michigan, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and at France's National Center for Scientific Research. Of dual American and French citizenship, he began his career as an anthropologist under Margaret Mead. He studied human cultures and behavior among the Mayans of Guatemala and the Druze people of the Middle East. Then a decade ago, he turned his attention to global Islamist terrorism. He tells some of this story in his 2010 book, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. Scott Atran has interviewed people connected to the 9/11 attack and later attacks in Madrid and London. And he's done fieldwork across the world, involving political leaders as well as extended circles of friendship and family beyond the radicalized young.
Ms. Tippett: As we begin, I'm interested — I mean, you have spent a lot of time in recent years studying the power of religion and sacred values in human life, and I did wonder was there any kind of religious background to your life?
Dr. Atran: Oh, not much. I mean, I had a Jewish upbringing and I'm pretty much nonreligious myself. But I was always interested in religious and ethnic conflict, so I started especially — actually I first started working on this stuff in the Middle East within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and then sort of branched out across the world as my interests became more general in terms of how human beings think more broadly and what brings them to the ideas they have. I mean, why are there certain universals and general patterns of reasoning and behavior across the species?
Then I discovered that these notion of sort of transcendent or sacred values is really what drives people forward, what frames who they are, what their existence is all about. It's not really about struggle over economic possibilities or resources. Those are secondary to the fact that you need them to create who you are. And even more interesting was the who you are, the groups that are created, human groups, are so different from other animals in that they're mostly groups of genetic strangers. I mean, take the notion of the nation. It's a really imagined group of fictive kin and yet people are willing to make the greatest sacrifices, to die and to kill for these groups of genetic strangers that are bound together by these preposterous beliefs.
Then I started thinking about our own society's preposterous beliefs. I mean, think of something like the Declaration of Independence, where they're taking on the mightiest empire in the world at the time and they say they're pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I mean, that's crazy. If you look at all of human history up until then, and they say that we're endowed by the creator, it's all natural, and it worked. I mean, they actually engineered this through different laws and mores and wars, and they changed the world.
Ms. Tippett: You know, as you apply this mindset, right, this approach, these core questions that you named basically, you know, how do human beings think, how do they act, how are they capable of change over time, you've been applying that to this phenomenon of global terrorism or breeding grounds for terrorism.
Dr. Atran: Right. So if you take, you know, these polls if you put any credence in them, like the Gallup and Pew polls, you find that about 7 percent of the Muslim world has some sympathy for bin Laden. That's about 100 million people out of 1.3 or .4 billion Muslims in the world. But then if you look who actually is willing to do something violent, you find that it's an extremely, extremely small number of people. But when you look at of those thousands out of the 100 million who actually do anything, you find that the greatest predictor has nothing to do with religion.
The greatest predictor is whether they belong to a soccer club or some action-oriented group of friends. In fact, almost none of them had any religious education whatsoever. They're all born again, sort of between the ages of 18 and 22. So if it's not religious inculcation, if it's not religious training, if it's not even religious tradition, what could it possibly be? And again, it's first of all who your friends are. That's the greatest predictor of everything. Then there's a sort of geopolitical aspect to it. I mean, people talk about a clash of civilizations. I think that's dead wrong. There's a crash of territorial cultures across the world.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I want you to talk about that. I think that's a very intriguing distinction you draw that it's not a clash of civilizations, but you've also said a crash of civilizations. So tell me what you're describing there.
Dr. Atran: Well, globalization, of course, has provided access to large masses of humanity to a better standard of living, better health, better education. But it has also left in its wake many traditional societies that are falling apart, that just can't compete. So what you have is young people especially sort of flailing around looking for a sense of social identity. These traditional territorial cultures and their influence disappears and it's happening across all of this sort of middle attitudes of Eurasia and they're trying to hook up with one another peer to peer.
And this is paralleling another new development in history of humanity and that is this massive media-driven global political awakening where, again, for the first time in human history, you've got someone in New Guinea who can see the same images as someone in the middle of the Amazon. And so you've got these young people paradoxically focusing in on a smaller and smaller bandwidth in this sort of global media trying to hook up with one another and make friends and give themselves a sense of significance. And the Jihad comes along.
I mean, the Jihad — you know, I interviewed this guy in prison in France who wanted to blow up the American Embassy and I asked him, "Why did you want to do this?" and he says to me, "Well, I was walking along the street one day and someone spit at my sister and called her sale Arabe, a dirty Arab, and I just couldn't take it anymore and I realized that this injustice would never leave French society or Western society, so I joined the Jihad." I said, "Yeah, but that has been going on for years." And he goes, "Yes, but there was no Jihad before."
So it's a sort of receptacle. You find it's especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives — immigrants, students, people in search of jobs or mates and between jobs and mates, and it gives a sense of empowerment that their own societies certainly don't. I mean, the message of the Jihad is, look, you, any of you, any of you out there, you too can cut off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter. That's what we did. We changed the world with paper cutters. That's all you need. All you need is will and truth and meaning, and you will correct injustice in the world and you'll be heroic and you'll have the greatest adventure of your lives. That's surely powerful.
Ms. Tippett: And are you drawing connections between this scenario you just described of hopes and dreams and also skewed hopes and dreams with this ferment that's now happening that started in Tunisia that's moved on to Egypt and Yemen and perhaps Jordan?
Dr. Atran: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, you just have to listen to these young people for two seconds and realize that finally they are seeing the possibility of their own hopes and dreams at least having some breathing space. And this is such a terribly exciting time for them and they're the ones who are driving it. I mean, I think with the sort of adults out there, that is, the ones who have been struggling for human rights despite the fact that they've been oppressed for all these years, they can and are trying to come together to build a way forward that's both idealistic, that talks to their hopes and dreams, and is realizable.
Dr. Atran: So let me just sort of give you two anecdotes that come out of my work with the Madrid bombing. So I went to trial and I interviewed, you know, the surviving plotters and their families and their friends. Then what I discovered was that of the seven plotters who, when cornered by police blew themselves up, were actually from a little barrio in a northern Moroccan town, Tétouan, called the Jamaa Mezuak. So I went there and found out they all grew up within about 200 meters of one another, and then some more of their friends all went to the same elementary school. You know, this elementary school had Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and they all went to the same high school except for one who was brilliant and then went to train with the Moroccan Royal Air Force. Then when they blew themselves up, some friends and kinsmen, other young people — went to Iraq to blow themselves up.
While I'm in this neighborhood, two things struck me. First, all of those kids, none of them had a religious education to speak of. They all came into religion quite late. In fact, some of them right before the plots. And they were involved in Spain in petty criminal activities, drug activities, drug trading. It's these guys who were killing themselves. Now what that means is they're sacrificing the totality of their self-interests, which goes against all economic theory, and giving up their lives for an idea. Why? Because all of a sudden, they are telling themselves we really don't want to be criminals. We want to be somebody. We want to be something significant in this world and this is our chance.
Then I started interviewing the little kids. Well, first I tried interviewing the 18-year-olds. I would ask them, you know, "Who's your hero?" and they'd tell me, "George Bush" or "Dick Cheney" or "Don Rumsfeld." They were just pulling my leg [laugh]. The younger ones don't lie, right? So they're all playing soccer — their world is sort of divided between the Barcelona soccer team and the Real Madrid soccer team — and I'm asking them what they want to be in life. The answers were sort of stunning.
I mean, the first little kid, eight years old, he tells me, "I want to be an archaeologist." I say, "Why? You want to get treasure?" He goes, "No, I want to find out who we are." Then the next kid says, "I want to be a doctor, a surgeon." Then I say, "OK, who're your heroes?" Number one hero, Ronaldinho, who's a Barcelona soccer player. Number two hero, The Terminator — no idea he's related to the past governor of California. And number three was Osama bin Laden.
Then I went back a week after Barack Obama's election and I did the same survey in a few towns. Number one was a sort of tie between soccer guys, Sergio Morales from the Real Madrid team, Eto'o, a striker from Barcelona. Number two now was Terminator II, and number three, just beating out bin Laden, was Barack Obama.
So what is that telling us? It's telling us that these young people are looking for something important and they're looking around for role models in life and where are they finding them? Well, they're finding them in soccer, which is exciting; they're finding them in action figure heroes, which is also exciting. And these political figures would seem to agitate everything that's going on. I mean, it's mostly in barbershops and fast-food restaurants and cafés and on the streets that peoples' images of society are formed. Barack Obama suddenly appears on the scene and is a hope for these young people. They just look at the guy's face, you know, and the color his skin and they say, if he can do it, we can do it.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams." I'm with anthropologist Scott Atran. Members of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood have been part of Scott Atran's fieldwork of recent years across the world. So have members of al-Qaeda. But he points out that the al-Qaeda of 2011 is not the al-Qaeda of 9/11 that became synonymous with global threat and has remained so in much of media and popular imagination.
Ms. Tippett: You're right. I mean, there tends to be this generalized view of terrorism and it's all al-Qaeda, right? And it's not even what al-Qaeda is, but something that we imagined on September 11, 2001.
Dr. Atran: Al-Qaeda was a specific group and they were a specific group of bad guys that got lucky. They got lucky, but they pretty much don't exist anymore as a group. I mean, there are about a hundred of them left hiding from predator drones on the frontier of Afghanistan, Pakistan or in cities like Karachi and Lahore. There hasn't been one successful attack against the United States since 9/11. Most of the plots are sting plots by our law enforcement agencies.
All the plots in Europe were not al-Qaeda directed. None of them were except for a sort of indirect one in the London underground bombings. They're completely homegrown. I think never in human history has so few people with so few actual means cause such fear in so many, but it's not an existential threat to our society and it's blinding us to the possibilities of political change in a world and political change which really could bring the world forward in an interesting way.
Ms. Tippett: One of the observations you've made is that organizations that are effective in bringing off these kinds of things awaken this instinct of family and tribe that's so strong in us as human beings, right? That we're biologically hardwired. I mean, I think that's a really interesting point that it's no accident that the names of organizations will be something like the Muslim Brotherhood or, you know, Bands of Brothers. We think of that when human beings are capable of things that we wouldn't normally do, for those who we consider to be part of our family.
Dr. Atran: Yeah, that's sort of the — you've sort of got the essence of what I'm actually interested in. I know of no political movement or territorial movement or even transnational movement — that is, no large grouping of human beings that don't consider themselves in terms of brotherhoods or sisterhoods or fatherlands or homelands or motherlands.
Ms. Tippett: All that family vocabulary.
Dr. Atran: And it's very strong. All the sort of rites of passage and oaths people say are all couched in terms of these families. Now these families, they're biologically weaker, of course, than real genetic families. But how in the end do they become stronger? Well, there are evolutionary reasons why human beings who are absolutely the weakest of all primates physically bond together with strangers to survive. We got into competition with larger and larger groups and we needed mechanisms to build these larger and larger groups, and that's what these sacred and transcendental values are all about.
Now here's the interesting thing. Monotheism created something completely new in the history of the world. The Jewish notion of a chosen people under God and the Greek notion of universal laws merged in these universal religions along the Silk Road, along these Eurasian commercial networks, and they started the notion that human beings could be saved, that there was good — those who were saved — and there were evil, those who were bad. No cultures before that actually thought in terms of good and evil.
Ms. Tippett: They thought in terms of the other? I mean, the tribal other, but not …
Dr. Atran: … the tribal other. But now with the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, these universal monotheisms became secularized and brought down to earth. But if you think about it, these secular ideologies, all modern secular ideologies, all the isms, fascism, communism, socialism, anarchism, colonialism, democratic liberalism, are all variants on this monotheistic them, however secular they are in appearance. They're salvational Messianic ideologies which believes the world must be saved and should be saved whether they like it or not, and that's what drives us.
Ms. Tippett: So tell me what you've learned in these past years as you have been out there talking to suicide bombers and potential suicide bombers. I mean, as you say, there are layers of this and you can go farther and farther away from it. What have you learned about how people get out, how they walk away from that, how that longing and that passion can be transferred in more positive directions? What's powerful enough to take them away?
Dr. Atran: Well, as you sort of implied, it's a pathway to violence, and it depends on where along this pathway you catch these young people. It usually happens like this. There's sort of a larger counterculture out there. For whatever reason, people are not happy. They believe there's injustice in the current state of things, so they protest and they want change.
Now, then usually what happens is that a small group, for whatever reason, maybe one or two individuals in this small group break away from this sort of counterculture and they say, "You guys haven't been doing enough. You've been talking and talking and talking and nothing has happened and we're going to do something." When they break away, we find they move into a sort of parallel world. That is, they usually get a place together or go out into the country together and live their sort of isolated life or lock themselves up in an apartment or somehow withdraw and build this world that they think is better and will be better through their actions.
Now once they're in this mode, it's a lot harder to get to them because they're sort of locked in. They've built this sort of sacred view of one another and they've locked it in to their own personal friendships so that the notion of the cause and their friendship is almost inextricably bound. And once they're in that stage, the only people I've found that can bring them out of it are those very, very close to them that haven't made this move. So the only groups that I …
Ms. Tippett: … so, again, it comes down to this relational, the friendship circle somehow.
Dr. Atran: Yeah. For example, the only groups that I've ever — I was in Sulawesi with a bunch called [unintelligible] suicide bombers, attackers, against Christian militia. The only ones who could get them out were a group of Salafis who talked to them and said, "Look, I understand what you want. You want to reduce injustice in the world. You want Islam to prosper. This isn't the way to do it. This is a better way." And they got them to do it.
Now when I hear our people or president of France — I'm also French — talk about, you know, we're going to have moderate imams and preach the true nature of religion to these people, I ask what world are these leaders living in? First of all, moderate, you got to be kidding. When was the last time you told your kids to be moderate about their boyfriends or choice of career? I mean, they basically say, "Right, Mom; right, Dad, OK," and then they become — as far as true message of religion, the whole thing about religion is it has no true message. It is true for people in a certain time in a certain context. Otherwise, religions would have disappeared, you know, after 2,000 years once conditions changed.
So it can't be about some eternal message and it can't be about moderation. It's got to be, again, about things that are exciting, thrilling, hopes and dreams. If we go back to that poll I took where Obama beat out bin Laden, that was in November 2009. But look what happens now. We just did a poll, comes out in 2010. He comes out dead last. Ahmadinejad beats him out, Nasrallah beats him out, bin Laden beats him out.
Ms. Tippett: OK, so what's that about?
Dr. Atran: It's because these young people were looking to him for hope and they found their hopes in him. And then, for whatever reason — and it's quite understandable from our domestic political agenda that he couldn't really deliver in a short time on those hopes — nothing was done. And when they look around, they see things like Israel and Palestine or Afghanistan and things get just way worse, then they think that they have been taken down the garden path and they become angry and it's almost better as if he said nothing at all.
Now, again, you know, I often try to talk to even leaders in these different countries and say, "Look, the American political establishment is such that if a president tries to do too much on intractable foreign conflicts, especially in his first administration, then he's out, so you usually have to wait until the end of the second administration where a president can really concentrate on these intractable issues." But, again, those people live in their own world and their own priorities, so they see this as hypocritical rather than …
Ms. Tippett: Well, Americans don't even have patience [laugh].
Dr. Atran: Yeah, but they're a little more understanding.
Ms. Tippett: This conversation with Scott Atran is part of our effort to give some much-needed context to the flood of news from Cairo and beyond. And our blog is another inviting space in which we trace current events and learn from you. Right now, you'll find an original rumination, titled It's an Honor to Watch Your Truth Stand Up. Also, arresting images of Christians protecting Muslims during prayer in Tahrir Square; our read on the latest Pew poll; a helpful primer on the Muslim Brotherhood; and how one of our past shows, with Douglas Johnston of the International Center on Religion and Diplomacy, is helping us grasp the possibility in current events. Find it all at onBeing.org. And while you're there you can, as always, download this program and my unedited interview with Scott Atran.
Coming up, how the history of American democracy might inform the role of Islam if and as civil society builds in Egypt. Also, what Scott Atran believes those young people on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere are asking of the watching world — of citizens, not just policymakers.
I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from American Public Media.
I'm Krista Tippett. Today, on Being: "Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams." We're seeking context, trying to make deeper sense of the human dynamics unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. For the past decade, my guest, Scott Atran, has been listening to the hopes and dreams of young people from Indonesia to Egypt. As an anthropologist, he's sought to understand the human impulses that drive them into as well as away from religious and political radicalism. And he sees some of these same impulses now finding expression in movements for democracy.
Ms. Tippett: Something that comes up in your writing and is very much on my mind is we have no memory in the United States of how important religiously based, very deeply religiously based civic organizations were in the beginnings of American democracy — the YMCA, the YWCA, the Boy Scouts — and even well into the 20 century. Do you think about how Islamic Muslim religious organizations could be a very constructive part of what will be young democracies if things unfold peacefully?
Dr. Atran: Yes, they could well be, and there are actually elements of the Muslim Brotherhood who could fit right into that. But there are other Islamic organizations I think that are much more powerful than the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in terms of their relations with society in places in Egypt. You know, most people on the outside give you this sort of dichotomous view of the Muslim Brotherhood. They're either al-Qaeda in the waiting or they're sort of soup kitchen guys who do only nice charity work. Both are equally sort of nutty. I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood …
Ms. Tippett: … you mean both of those characterizations?
Dr. Atran: Yeah. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda can't stand one another. And as far as soup kitchens are concerned, if you actually count the number of soup kitchens by the Muslim Brotherhood in a city of 16 million by day and 20 million by night Cairo, there are six, exactly six Muslim Brotherhood clinics, right, out of thousands. But most of the thousands are also Islamic. Now the reason they're Islamic is because people are Islamic. Egypt's a religious society. Now if you look at the history of the United States, you're right. I mean, when de Tocqueville, even Engels, when he goes to California, he's writing back to Marx and saying, "Look, we got this all wrong. We've got to change the Communist Manifesto."
Ms. Tippett: It's not the opium after all. I didn't know that Engels wrote to Marx. [laugh]
Dr. Atran: Yeah. Marx says, well, we'll deal with it when we — he goes, "We got this all wrong." I mean, these people are very progressive and lively and seem to have free exchanges, and they're basing their lives in these community churches and things like that. He goes, "We've just got to reconsider here." It was America's community-based religious establishments that were the basis of things like credit. I mean, the Americans virtually — I mean, the Jewish community introduced credit, but the Americans were the first nation that were based on credit. And credit, which made the economy flow and produce, was strictly a church-based, family-based community affair.
I mean, there's this wonderful anecdote of Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology at the turn of the last century. He was in a train going through the South of the United States and he's sitting in a car with an undertaker and a sawmill owner. And they're talking for two days about their families and the church. Then just as the undertaker's about to get off, he asked for so many million board feet from the sawmill guy. Weber goes, "Well, what the hell happened here? I mean, you guys have been talking for two days. You never mentioned business and, all of a sudden, you make this huge business deal." The undertaker says, "Well, sure. I mean, if he didn't care for his family and his church the way I did, then I wouldn't give a plumb nickel for the value of the deal."
So it is and it was still and still is to a great deal a part of what made America, America. Now that's falling apart. I mean, Robert Putnam in this wonderful book called Bowling Alone describes how that is breaking apart and that, as a result, we're into a different culture based on, you know, sort of legalistic lawyerly contracts and transactions and where personal notions of trust, especially with strangers, increases inordinately. And I think that also feeds into our political system. It makes us less able to understand what is happening in the rest of the world.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I remember right after the war in Iraq started and ended, back when we were still talking about building civil society, you know, before it just turned into this entrenched conflict. I spoke with a young Iraqi American who'd been over there with the Coalition Provisional Authority consulting on how to rebuild the school system. He was saying, "Why isn't the U.S. government helping create Muslim Chambers of Commerce?" Because that's exactly the kind of organization that was the glue, again, of early American democracy for hundreds of years. I mean, Christian-based Chambers of Commerce, that kind of thing.
Dr. Atran: Because one of the things is that the reaction to 9/11 has created this notion of Muslims as an alien force to the United States and a rival in the world. But the idea that, you know, Islam is very similar to Christianity or anything else, I mean, it's a broad-based social movement. It gives a sense of significance to people. It runs the gamut just like all religions do basically from good to bad.
Ms. Tippett: There's huge diversity.
Dr. Atran: Everything good you can think of has been religiously inspired from creativity in art and music to intellectual endeavors. And everything bad from war and genocide and murder to torture. But that's also been the case with secular governments as well. I mean, there are modes of being, of how people reconcile the contradictory yearnings and aspects of their human nature. We need them.
We can't exist in a logical world because we can't even accept things like death and deception, which are inevitable, because our brains don't accept it. I mean, if they did, then we'd spend our entire time trying to struggle against it. So there's a reason that we have these transcendental ideas, however secular in appearance, and unless we find a way to reconcile ourselves with these changes in the world, then I have a feeling we're going to be left in the lurch.
Ms. Tippett: So it's easier to draw implications of this kind of insight to how foreign policy might change, how diplomats might behave. I wonder how you think about how ordinary citizens might take in some of the larger perspective that you and others offer and, you know, is there a way in this technologically connected world also for American citizens to weigh in more positively, you know, let's say just taking this premise of yours that so much of our thinking and acting has to start with what it means to be human and take that into account in all its fullness?
Dr. Atran: Well, it's hard because people are constantly reminded of their sort of tribal aspects, that there's an enemy out there. And we seem as human beings to need enemies to drive us forward as well. I think that there is a place for spontaneous movements of our people, especially our young people, in forging new ideas and perhaps eventually weighing in on our society. But I had an interesting dinner with someone very close to the president and his administration. I went through my sort of shtick about never before have so few people cause such hysteria in so many.
He posed an interesting question to me. He said, "OK, maybe the president agrees with you. Maybe the president does agree that the threat of terrorism and the reaction of the United States to it has been outsized, that we have overreacted, but now what do you do? What would you advise the president to do to help convince the American people that the political landscape has changed and we should deal with the rest of the world in a different way?" The way policy works, it's like turning a giant aircraft carrier in a small port. You cannot give, as most people do on their blogs or in op-eds, these grand sudden changes and expect them to be meaningful at all. It's got to be by small steps and what small steps?
Well, I went to the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan and I posed this to, you know, foreign policy people. I said, "So what would you suggest?" It's fascinating. They all come with data-driven, evidence-based arguments for what's wrong and what we should do. I sort of said, "Look, guys, that's not going to work. First of all, outside of the economy, people are not interested in evidence and data or even truth. People are interested in persuading, in victory, and confirming what they believe in or love. Second, you haven't addressed any of the emotional aspects of this which really drive people — revenge, revenge and fear. You haven't even touched on those."
How do you lessen that? Why is it that an earthquake or what was called back in the 1920s in an old study by Henry Ford, the "jerk effect" when all of a sudden you hit a pothole, why is that so much more powerful emotionally than real threats? You know, if you look at the data, you'd find that even frequent flyers have a better chance of being killed by a lawnmower than in a terrorist attack. People aren't worried about dying by lawnmower.
Ms. Tippett: Didn't you tell a story in one of your books about, even at the height of the Cold War, that some American president said that, if only we were attacked by Martians, all of our differences would disappear?
Dr. Atran: Right. That's Reagan to Gorbachev when walking in the woods.
Ms. Tippett: Reagan to Gorbachev, right, right.
Dr. Atran: See, here's what I think is the greatest political challenge of all. In addition to dealing with fear and revenge, there's something which I like to call sort of the principle of enmity. Human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Just look at novels. Look at the news. No one's interested in happy, good-feeling cooperative things. I mean, when they're tired of war and they're tired of conflict and competition, then they'll go back on it. But what really drives interest and passion is competition and conflict. So the question is, can we actually lessen conflict without having enemies? Well, there are two answers to that. One is the sort of Reagan's proposal to Gorbachev. We can come up with some kind of enemy, maybe an …
Ms. Tippett: … yet another common enemy.
Dr. Atran: And the enemy of my enemy, right? Or we can change it to a sort of abstract enemy like poverty or killing or something like that. That sort of reminds me of how I actually ended the book. You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he's describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.
An elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln says to the woman, "Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" If you think about it, wars are truly won only in two ways. You either exterminate your enemy or you make them your friends. I think that we have not thought very deeply about the latter alternative, especially when I see how we're reacting to these young around the world.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today: "Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams," with anthropologist Scott Atran.
Ms. Tippett: This does present a moment of opportunity, doesn't it? I mean, you have been writing about this restlessness and rootlessness that defines a lot of young peoples' reality in the world today and, in some cases, has led them to be receptive to this terrorist message. But right now, that restlessness and rootlessness is expressing itself in a very hopeful and powerful way. I mean, this could present an opportunity for us, right?
Dr. Atran: It does. I mean, it's like those little kids who are between Obama and Osama. I mean, the ones right now who are out in the streets of Cairo and Oman are hopeful that a democratic change is possible and that they can, for the first time in their lives, not only achieve some kind of modicum of economic security, but hopes for their political aspirations, whatever they may be, and they see this as an opportunity. And the United States, regretfully, is not seeing that, or at least not seeing it in their terms. They're seeing it through the old lenses of how the political structure of the world appeared to them on the even of 9/11 or before.
Ms. Tippett: You have even talked about us being — not with regard to very recent events, but they may be an expression of it — talked about humanity being on the cusp of the second great tipping point in human history. Tell me what you mean by that, pulling the lens way back?
Dr. Atran: Well, I sometimes see myself, you know, sort of among the ancient Maya or in ancient Sumaria when writing is first coming onto the scene. If you think about writing, what it did. I mean, establishing words and records and memory for all time, augmenting the memory that human beings have, establishing things like contracts, making long-distance trade possible, even making things like the building of roads possible.
Then you see what's happening in the world today in Internet and Facebook and the media, and you realize that things like nations and libraries and the world as we have known it over the last 3,500 years is changing at an incredible pace. Now young people are beginning to — they're born into it now, so they grasp it right away and they're moving in a completely different space than us old geezers.
Ms. Tippett: And we're now seeing it has political power in a way.
Dr. Atran: Yeah, but unfortunately, most of our political guys are still in a completely different world. It's as if they're in a world of, you know, buggies and carriages and horses. Then I hear them come out with their political proposals and it's like saying, "Well, I have got a really good buggy stick. It's really the best one we can find." You ask yourself what is the relevance of a buggy stick in this new world?
I see the vast possibilities of this world, of a social brain. Just think about the networking possibilities of knowledge and access to knowledge that people have now. I mean, again, people now in New Guinea can link up with what people in New York are doing and work together with their different experiences and come up with new possibilities for human life. And this is happening at an incredibly fast rate and it's something that I don't think our traditional political establishments are at all capable of dealing with and I think there will be huge upheavals as a result, economic and social.
Ms. Tippett: You know, at the beginning of your book, which is called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, right before the table of contents, you have this absolutely beautiful picture of children. It looks like they're either coming out of school or going to school. They're beautiful children. It's kind of a heartbreaking picture in a lovely way.
Then I read underneath that it's a school that you mentioned early on. You say, school's out at this school in Morocco from which five of the seven plotters of the Madrid train bombing who blew themselves up attended, as did several volunteers for martyrdom in Iraq. Tell me why you put that picture at the beginning of your book and what you would like — and we'll put it up on our website — what you would like a reader or someone coming to these ideas to see in that picture.
Dr. Atran: Because those are the terrorists. Those are those who would be terrorists or would be us or our friends. And it is up to us and how we deal with the political world and the hopes and dreams that emerge in their own societies that will decide whether they go one way or the other. It's not, again, the fact that there are good or bad ideologies out there. It's not the fact of lack of presence of economic opportunities per se. It's whether there are paths in life that can lead them to something that's more congenial to the way we live in the world. I think we have many things to offer, but not in the way we're doing it.
I mean, I'm reminded very much of Maximilien Robespierre's statement to the Jacobin Club in the French Revolution, a statement he promptly forgot, which was, "No one loves armed missionaries." No one loves armed missionaries. No one loves the fact that we have troops out there in the world trying to preserve or push democracy or whatever. As Jefferson said, "The way we're going to change the world is by our example. Never, never can it be by the sword." Now sometimes you have to fight things. When people want to kill you, when people want to blow you up, then you have to fight them. There may be at the time no opportunity.
But that's not the case with the vast majority of people who could possibly become tomorrow's terrorists. That's where the fight for the world will be. It will be in the next generation of these young people, the ones caught between should we go the path of happiness as martyrdom or should we go to the path of yes, we can. They're both very enticing paths. I think one has a lot more to offer, but we have to show them it has more to offer, and we have to show them now. And that's what they're asking for right now.
Ms. Tippett: Scott Atran is a director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He's the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.
See that photograph of schoolchildren in Morocco that Scott Atran and I just discussed. It's at onBeing.org. There, on our website, you can always listen again to this conversation or any of our past shows. We will continue to follow events in North Africa and the Middle East on our blog, as we prepare for a production trip to Israel and Palestine in early spring. We're traveling and collaborating with journalism students from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Journalism. We'll be posting their work on our blog, as well as the things we're learning, the people we're interviewing, and the images and sound we're all capturing as we go. And we do take you with us wherever we go; that includes streaming live video of my conversation with Sylvia Boorstein in Detroit this month — taking on the theme of parenting and grandparenting in complex times. Stay with us through all this. You can "like" our Facebook page and subscribe to our e-mail newsletter. Find links to all this and much more — onBeing.org.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Shubha Bala, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I'm Krista Tippett.
Next time, the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, with original wisdom on the global balance between human and natural resources; and her sense of where God resides. Please join us.