The anthropologist Scott Atran is one of the leading researchers on the question of why people turn toward violent extremism. He’s spent a great deal of his career interviewing members of radical movements all over the globe, most recently Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members in Kirkuk, Iraq, and aspiring members in Barcelona and Paris. He recently addressed the United Nations Security Council on how to counter ISIS’s disturbingly potent appeal to some people, and he provided some key insights, some of them a bit counterintuitive.
Atran’s entire address is worth watching here or reading at Psychology Today, but here are five important findings he shared with the Security Council:
There’s nothing all that unusual about ISIS members.
Perhaps understandably, people like to sweep members of groups like ISIS into undesirable categories, saying that they’re all crazy or psychotic, for example. But time and time again, research has shown this to be false; normal-seeming people join radical movements all the time and do remarkably vicious things once they’re there.
The same holds for ISIS members. “Most foreign volunteers and supporters fall within the mid-ranges of what social scientists call ‘the normal distribution’ in terms of psychological attributes like empathy, compassion, idealism, and wanting mostly to help rather than hurt other people,” Atran told the U.N.“They are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives: students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance” (all the hyperlinks there and throughout are from Atran via Psychology Today).
ISIS’s young recruits aren’t religious in the ways you might think.
ISIS obviously drapes itself in a harsh brand of Islamic fundamentalism. But while the organization does have, among its founders and higher-ups, members with in-depth knowledge of the Muslim faith — albeit an interpretation of that faith that most Muslims find horrific — Atran said that the ins and outs of religious practice weren’t a major motivating factor for the ISIS members he spoke with.
“None of the ISIS fighters we interviewed in Iraq had more than primary-school education; some had wives and young children,” said Atran. “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.”
Real-world events make it more likely that young recruits will be susceptible to apocalyptic ISIS propaganda.
When you’ve already lived through a lot of horrific violence, it’s easier to buy into these narratives of worldwide persecution, said Atran — the idea that there’s a worldwide plot to kill Muslims, or Muslims like you, starts to seem a bit less crazy. “This isn’t an outlandish proposition in their lived circumstances,” he explained. Iraqis in Kirkuk told him about “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.”
In Europe, a divide between parents and their children exacerbates the problems of radicalization.
Whereas in places like Syria and Iraq the lived experience of violence can propel young ISIS recruits toward the group, Atran said that “in Europe and elsewhere in the Muslim diaspora the recruitment pattern is different.” About 75 percent of ISIS and Al Qaeda members from these regions join the groups “through friends, most of the rest through family or fellow travelers in search of a meaningful path in life,” he said. “It is rare, though, that parents are ever aware that their children desire to join the movement: In diaspora homes, Muslim parents are reluctant to talk about the failings of foreign policy and ISIS, whereas their children often want desperately to understand.”
It’s something of a truism about teenagers everywhere: When they can’t access certain information or satisfy certain types of curiosity at home, they’ll look elsewhere, into forums where their parents have far less influence.
The rise of ISIS is part of a much broader global trend.
While specific, recent events help animate the fanaticism of ISIS members — most important, the notorious human-rights abuses of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — Atran explained that larger, more gradual forces can also explain the group’s appeal.
“Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory,” he said. “This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi [in Indonesia], far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam.”