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Date: 13:00-14:00, Wednesday 16th May 2018
Location: Committee Room 4, House of Lords,
Palace of Westminster, London, SW1A 0PW
Dr Scott Atran
Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Director Of Research and Co-Founder, Artis International
On the 16th of May the Henry Jackson Society had the pleasure of hosting Dr Scott Atran who has conducted extensive fieldwork with Islamic fundamentalists focusing his research on young people, devotion to values and social networks. The research team he was a member of was stationed at the ISIS frontlines, where the initial attack against Mosul was carried out. Dr Atran’s leading argument was that in order to understand the actions of terrorists and Islamist fundamentalists one must apply the ‘devoted actor’ theoretical framework.
Dr Atran described ‘devoted actors’ as individuals motivated to action by sacred values and group fusion, whereby the group identity becomes their sole identity. Their devotion to the group and the values it upholds translates into a willingness to make grand sacrifice, such as sacrificing their own lives, to further the group’s goals. A belief in sacred values has a specific effect on a person. Firstly, they become immune to material trade-offs, secondly they become resistant to social pressure, thirdly they become prepared to take action regardless of the chances of success, fourthly they become insensitive to temporal and spatial discounting.
Dr Atran drew a parallel between the behaviour of the Islamic State and a classic revolution, showing that the two are not dissimilar. The first similarity is the notion of terror which characterises, as advocated by Robespierre. Secondly, a classical revolution is similarly to the Islamic State characterized by a commitment to certain ideals which become beacons for the undertaken actions.
Dr Atran’s research has shown that the investigated group proved to hold spiritual force in a higher regard than material force. In general, they portrayed the US as materially strong but lacking in spirituality whereas describing IS fighters as spiritually superior. While conducting a post-Mosul research study involving a number of questions directed at the locals, Dr. Atran found that the average response was that people had initially supported the ISIS revolution as the living conditions in Mosul had temporarily improved, however that support had weakened when ISIS had turned to terror. A majority of people also held the view that the US or Iran were responsible for helping ISIS. Furthermore, the predominant opinion held by the interviewees was the supremacy of Sharia and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for it, while expressing a distrust for democracy. It is also worthy of noting that those who support the Sunni Homeland and Sharia were willing to make costlier sacrifices than those who support a Unified Iraq.
Dr Atran emphasized that even though ISIS has lost its Caliphate, it still holds the support of those who believe in Sunni and Sharia values. Young people in Mosul admire ISIS fighters as they see them as advocates of Sharia law, those chosen for martyrdom, as well as those who offer a joyous feeling of brotherhood and belonging. The jihadi recruitment framework consists of three main modes by which new volunteers are enrolled. The major way is via personal contact with militant group members. Secondly, new volunteers are acquired through social networks, such as family or friends. Thirdly, the internet provides a medium for recruitment.
Dr Atran emphasized that ideologies are not influential when they are abstract, they become powerful when they are embedded in a specific context. He concluded by asserting that today young people are often seen as a problem rather than a solution. Young people across the world need to become inspired by Western values otherwise this generation will be lost. Thus, Dr Atran called for an effort to engage youth at all levels, as in his opinion military power is insufficient to solve the region’s problems.