Scott Atran on changing the heroes of Islamic terrorists


At 6:52am this morning, American anthropologist, Scott Atran, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about what shapes and forms Islamic suicide bombers. What he said fascinated me. In his work with jihadist terrorists all over the world he has looked at social networks and friends rather than religious ideology as the source of the problem. He concludes that religion doesn’t shape people so much as who they know and associate with. The suicide bombers, says Atran, are ordinary people looking for social identity, dreams, heroes and significance.

Atran asked the kids who became caught up in the jihadist movement in Morocco “who do you most respect, who is your hero?” The list of names was topped by the footballer Robinho, second the Terminator and third Osama Bin Laden. He then asked, how can we move the potential suicide bombers away from their narrow mindset and social networks? Militarisation has failed. It is a disaster. We’ve created a global threat. Bombs and bluster don’t work.

Atran’s proposed alternative policy is to provide alternative heroes and hopes. The idea is to break into social networks with a different kind of dream, a new hero, working from the community level up.

That’s where the interview ended. There were no suggested heroes, only the idea of using comic books to convey a new message. I was left wondering what kind of hero and dream could possibly replace the distorted heroes and dreams Atran has discovered and bring about peace?

The hero would have to be one with global appeal. No parochial, tribal hero, but one for all. To be a worthwhile substitute for the jihadist’s false hope of happiness through martyrdom, he would have to offer the prospect of eternal life. He’d have to be a martyr himself. But he couldn’t be a man of war, he’d need to be a peacemaker, with a royal title, perhaps, the prince of peace. He’d need to teach a life of self control, discipline, prayer, fasting, self sacrifice and giving to the poor. He’d need to be greater than the little heroes, not only human but divine. He’d need to grow from the grass-root level, providing  a new social network, a new family of like minded brothers and sisters. Which hero could possibly fit that bill?

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