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Who is the enemy?

Consider the following.

One: In the last decade or two, anthropologists have become increasingly concerned about their apparently limited role as public intellectuals. Where are the Margaret Meads (or even Bronislaw Malinowskis) for our troubled times? In response to this concern, the University of California Press launched a special series in “Public Anthropology” in 2001, the Wenner Gren Foundation hosted a workshop on Anthropology and Engagement in 2008, and the anthropological blogosphere has worried away at just what it is that renders our important insights so marginal in the discussion of public issues.

Two: The post-9/11 “War on Terror” has animated anthropologists like no other issue since the end of the Vietnam War. After the initial blunt US reaction – “They can run but they can’t hide” – the realities of apparently intractable insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan sent the military in search of new expertise and new solutions. A different kind of military figure emerged at this point: trained up to PhD level in social science and with a touching confidence in social science’s capacity to provide relatively straightforward solutions to complex problems of counter-insurgency. David Petraeus (PhD International Relations, Princeton, former commander of forces in Afghanistan and currently Director of the CIA) is the best-known example of this new military type, but a younger ambitious Australian, David Kilcullan (PhD Political Science, University of New South Wales, seconded to the State Department in 2005-06) also played a key role as advisor and consultant. Kilcullan’s PhD had explicitly drawn on political anthropology as a tool to understand conflict dynamics in Indonesia. For anthropologists, especially in the US, the most significant issue was the emergence from 2006 onwards of the Human Terrain System initiative. The aim of this initiative was to provide ”an enduring, sociocultural knowledge base” in support of military units working in varied environments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Specific teams, with trained social scientists and members knowledgeable about local society and culture, were to be deployed at brigade or regiment level. Anyone who has opened a copy of Anthropology Today or the AAA Newsletter in recent years, will be familiar with what followed: an uproar from concerned anthropologists, who detected a return to the Cold War era instrumentalization of anthropological methods and anthropological research, followed by an official enquiry and a statement of unequivocal condemnation by the AAA.

What is relevant in this context is not the condemnation as such, or even the somewhat inglorious history of the HTS initiative itself. It is the final paragraph of the AAA Executive Board statement:

The Executive Board affirms that anthropology can and in fact is obliged to help improve U.S. government policies through the widest possible circulation of anthropological understanding in the public sphere, so as to contribute to a transparent and informed development and implementation of U.S. policy by robustly democratic processes of fact-finding, debate, dialogue, and deliberation.  It is in this way, the Executive Board affirms, that anthropology can legitimately and effectively help guide U.S. policy to serve the humane causes of global peace and social justice.

This sounds fine, but it leaves unexplored the question of just what kinds of activity are defensible in efforts to “guide” US policy on such a deeply divisive issue.

Three: One anthropologist would seem to have played an exemplary role in carrying through the spirit of this part of the AAA statement. He has contributed frequent op-ed pieces to the New York Times, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. He has published a substantial book which makes the eminently anthropological case that so-called “terrorists” are in the end just other human beings, and as such we would be better off talking to them in order to understand what motivates their actions, rather than demonizing them and engaging in futile attempts at blind eradication. The biggest predictor of potential terrorist action, he argues, is not ideological background or social structural position, but simply who a person’s friends happen to be. If young men end up playing soccer with other young men who happen to have jihadist aspirations, then they are more likely to join them. The book carries a warm endorsement on its jacket from Noam Chomsky and has been unusually widely and generously reviewed (for a book by an anthropologist) in the mainstream media. The author has been profiled in the broadsheets, interviewed on NPR and the BBC, and allowed 10 minutes to set out his arguments in the august presence of Sir David Frost on Al-Jazeera.

As they say: what not to like? And yet, although this particular intervention would seem to check all the boxes for those concerned about anthropology’s lack of purchase in public argument, it seems to have gone completely unnoticed by fellow anthropologists. I may be missing something, but I find no discussion or response either in anthropology journals or newsletters, or, perhaps more strikingly, on anthropology blogs. The anthropologist in question is Scott Atran. The book is called Talking to the Enemy and was first published in 2010. (Trade paperback editions are now available in the US and UK.) In the rest of this review I will explore Atran’s story and what it might tell us about the rather puzzling problem of anthropology and its potential engagement with policy-makers and the military establishment.

* * *

Before reading Talking with the Enemy, I harboured the illusion that anyone aspiring to engage a larger non-academic readership needed to crack the problem of brevity: short chapters, bullet points, and a subtitle which tells you exactly what you will learn by reading the book. Of course this is not so at all. Niall Ferguson’s populist (and preposterous) history block-busters usually weigh in at 400 pages plus, Jared Diamond’s Collapse tops 600 pages, Steven Pinker’s latest is over 800 pages. The reading public, it seems, craves substance; weighty matters require weighty books. Atran’s book, with endnotes, just tips 500 pages. The print is large, there are pictures in places, and enough white space to qualify as padding – but even so, I found myself struggling to stay focused in places, not least as the narrative wanders, with the author, as he makes his way from Madrid suburb to Pentagon briefing to Indonesian prison cell. Atran himself is a constant presence throughout, in equal parts garrulous, engaged, smart, and irritating. Much depends on how taken the reader is with Atran’s authorial personality: love it or hate it, it provides the glue that – just about – holds the story together.

Atran has a number of points to make about religion, violence and the ways in which we respond to religiously-inspired violence. He firmly positions himself within a neo-Darwinian framework, but equally firmly distances himself from the militant atheists associated with that intellectual tendency. Religion bonds groups together and this, he says, provides crucial adaptive advantage in the long history of human evolution. The first part of this claim will be familiar to anyone with nodding acquaintance of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The second part would be more striking if we could think of examples of human societies without either religion, or religion-like structures of ritual and value, and having identified a suitable example then found ways to trace its evolutionarily ordained decline and fall. In the absence of such examples the appeal to natural selection begins to look somewhat tautological. “Islamic terrorism” is not the product of a tightly-knit, hierarchically structured organization with a master-plan for world domination. Rather we are confronted with local clusters of enthusiasts, usually in tightly bound networks of kinship and friendship. Playing soccer together is important, especially if your goalie happens to have volunteered to fight in Chechnya or Afghanistan at some point in the recent past. As such, official concern with the malign influence of particular preachers or ideologues is misplaced: policies aimed at bolstering “moderate” religious leaders – “good Muslims” – simply miss the point.

Parts of the argument draw heavily on earlier work by Atran’s colleague and occasional comrade-in-arms, Marc Sageman (Columbia PhD in Sociology and CIA posting to Islamabad in the late 1980s), especially his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks. Another key intellectual point of reference is the French doyen in the study of political Islam, Olivier Roy. Anthropological writing on Islam, frankly, doesn’t get a look-in. The one context in which ethnographic knowledge is drawn on, is a short discussion on customary law in Afghanistan, in which Thomas Barfield, Fredrick Barth and Richard Tapper are all cited. (The discussion in question follows several pages of dubiously relevant soft focus reminiscence of the author’s hippie-era visit to Afghanistan in the mid 1970s.) So, although sacred values in general are important to Atran’s argument, there isn’t a lot of interest in particular sacred values and the different kinds of hold they may have on their adherents. And, as Jeremy Harding pointed out in a perceptive review in the London Review of Books, politics is of marginal concern too.[1]

* * *

Shortly after the shock of 9/11, Ghassan Hage published a provocative essay in Public Culture. Hage’s article was prompted by a tetchy exchange with a colleague who had objected to what he took to be an overly sympathetic approach to the Palestinian use of suicide bombers in the second Intifada.[2] The essay itself is at once an exploration of the academic politics that make it so difficult to take a clear eye to the intellectual and ethical issues raised by the use of suicide bombing, and the setting out of an agenda for a hypothetical project seeking an anthropological understanding of suicide bombing. He notes:

An anthropology of the practice of suicide bombing is of course a highly unlikely endeavour. It would require the anthropologist to go into the technical and institutional processes of the practice and would involve fieldwork within such organizations as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (Hage p. 69)

In many ways, Atran’s book is precisely a record of this “highly unlikely endeavour”. Trips to Indonesia, Spain, Morocco, Israel/Palestine, and Pakistan, supply the “being there” passages that drive the book along. What is less clear is just how much the field engagement affected the broad conclusions of the book. The most detailed section is probably the one which unravels the links and connections among those involved in the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Maybe I’m losing my lust for anthropological detail, but I had some difficulty deciding what if anything Atran had learnt in Madrid that he didn’t know already. Sageman’s initial work on “terror networks” was entirely based on documentation already available in the public domain, as is Faizal Devji’s fascinating discussion of the 2005 London bombers in his recent The Terrorist in Search of Humanity. What Atran’s travels and conversations add to the discussion is, perhaps, simply the fact that travel and conversation of this kind is possible, and potentially worthwhile.

Which is not to belittle his accomplishments. Getting to these places and meeting these people can’t have been entirely easy, and there is just a touch of Indiana Jones in Atran’s account of his adventures. His research was supported by the National Science Foundation, but also by a number of US government defence agencies, and clearly his official connections have helped negotiate access to some potentially difficult parts of the world. But, the problems were not simply logistical. In his London Review piece, Jeremy Harding drew attention to an arresting moment in the narrative when Atran realizes that someone he has just met in Syria is on the FBI most-wanted list: “so I related our discussions to US authorities” (p.396). Harding, noting Atran’s acknowledgement of funding from the same authorities, suggests some readers might wonder about his independence at a moment like this. This drew an immediate response from Atran himself, who pointed out that his official funding only supported “theoretical research”, implying that the direct field research was primarily self-funded – something by no means evident from the book itself.[3] Moreover, he pointed out, the US agencies concerned require the same levels of human subject protection as the NSF and other public bodies.

The issue of research ethics is explicitly confronted in an earlier section of the book. Atran explains how anxieties about protection of human subjects makes research into topics like terrorism all but impossible at times, but he also quotes his own evidence at a 2010 Senate hearing against initiatives like the Human Terrain System which run the risk of alienating academic researchers once and for all: what is needed is not “embedded’ social scientists, but rather “independent, publicly transparent, science-based field research” (p. 289). Atran has written a longer piece on the Kafkaesque response of the University of Michigan Institutional Review Board to his proposed project to talk to the jihadis.[4] What if he inadvertently uncovered a plot to carry out a suicide mission, alerted the authorities and stopped someone blowing themselves up: wouldn’t that infringe their inalienable right to choose the moment of their own self-destruction? How could imprisoned jihadis in Indonesia speak freely to him; even if they signed all the consent forms in the world, the very fact of being in prison introduces elements of coercion into the exchange? In this, presumably unwitting, comic invocation of the ghost of Habermas’s ideal speech situation, in which partners exchange entirely free, undistorted communication, the IRB members are of course depriving Atran’s imprisoned interlocutor of yet another freedom, the freedom to tell a researcher what motivates him.

* * *

Atran’s response to the IRB is somewhat unexpected. If individual IRBs can’t handle potentially tricky research into highly sensitive topics, perhaps what we need are higher level – national? – boards which could draw up guidelines for handling non-typical research subjects. Maybe? Well, maybe not. Maybe there is something wrong with the way IRBs imagine social research must be conducted in the first place. But issues of coercion and the fetishization of informed consent also lie at the core of the anthropological furore over the HTS initiative. How can an informant give free consent to a researcher who is accompanied by armed soldiers? It sounds like a good question until one starts to try to think of research situations free from issues of power and coercion – a train of thought which trundles off in the direction of Habermas’s ideal typical la-la-land. Extracting signatures on consent forms – the ethical band-aid de nos jours – does nothing except provide a skein of legal protection to the researcher, and more importantly, to the powerful institutions which provide his or her funding and employment. It is a curious paradox, that while the emerging anthropology of ethics has been explicitly hostile to the codification of ethics-as-rulebook, anthropologists’ professional associations – or the AAA at least – should place so much emphasis on this kind of codfication in order to draw a line between virtuous ‘us’ and non-virtuous ‘them’. The danger of course, is the strong possibility of political irrelevance, albeit irrelevance dressed up in an appropriately lofty moral tone.

My sense of mild disappointment at the content of Atran’s book may be missing the point. This is not a book written for readers like me. Atran wants to address both a wider general readership – and he seems to have succeeded, which must be a good thing – and also a narrower, and more specific readership: the people who make the decisions about what our governments and our armies do and don’t do in response to the perceived threat of global terrorism. Another narrative thread that runs through the book places Atran in Senate hearings and Pentagon briefings and occasional one-on-one conversations with the likes of Tzipi Livni. There is an especially good moment early on, when a Cheney advisor suggests that what is needed is for people to learn that if they choose to attack us, “we’re going to bomb them”. “Who are you going to bomb?” Atran responds, “Madrid? London? Morocco?” Anyone who has shouted back at Cheney (or Blair or Bush or countless others) when they present their deadly platitudes on television will identify with this moment – and admire Atran’s chutzpah in getting himself in the room to challenge these people and their certainties. To get there in the first place requires serious conviction about the potential value of rational argument in what has been a less-than-rational political arena. This, I think, is where Atran’s scientism comes in. He has left a trail of interlocutors across the globe, bemused by his insistence on subjecting all and sundry to versions of the “switched-at-birth” scenario – that well-known source of cognitive certainty for a certain kind of anthropologist. But this epistemological commitment has enabled him to make the arguments he makes – without the apologetics and qualifications many of us would wrap them in – in the places he has made them. It is hard not to admire him for that, even if it leaves the reader with the nagging doubt that maybe the world is less rational than Atran wants it to be, and the political and ethical issues involved in trying to speak truth to power a bit more complex than he allows.

  1. [1]Jeremy Harding ‘Where the Jihadis Are’ London Review of Books 33(4), 17 February 2011, 17-19.
  2. [2]Ghassan Hage,’ “Comes a Time We Are All Enthusiasm”: Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia’, Public Culture, 15(1): 65-89 (2003).
  3. [3]S. Atran, Letter, London Review of Books, 33(6), 17 March 2011.
  4. [4]Scott Atran, “Research Police – How a University IRB Thwarts Understanding of Terrorism” Institutional Review Blog, May 28, 2007,

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