Talking to the Enemy
Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human
by Scott Atran
Talking to the Enemy is an extremely interesting study, providing a (certainly to me) new viewpoint to jihadi behaviour and Islamic extremism. It is generally consistent in the quality of writing and information provided, so much so that the rare non-sequitors and poorly drawn conclusions stand out by comparison. The latter couple of chapters are an exception to this – I felt these to be rather chaotic and filled with poor conclusions. It was also these latter chapters that felt more political in nature, and more like a pulled-together collection of subjects that the author hadn’t been able to shoe-horn elsewhere.
The overall argument in the book is that our understanding of jihadi behaviour and aims is often incorrect and furthermore that as we act on these erroneous conclusions our actions are often dangerous and counter-productive; the standard problem of rubbish-in/rubbish-out. It is generally believed that Al-Qaeda and similar organisations have relatively strong hierarchies, and convince people to become suicide bombers through brain-washing; Atran makes a cogent and thoughtful argument that we are in fact foisting our western prejudices on foreign cultures, and that instead most jihadis self-radicalise in small friendship groups and act with minimal or no command-and-control from formal extremist organisations.
This argument is well supported and I found it rather convincing. It also presents a point of view that is not normally given in the mainstream press. Atran doesn’t fall into the easy trap of just lumping all Islamic terrorists and extremists into one category or grouping – the history, aims, reasons, and methods of Al-Qaeda, other AQ-related organisations, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Palestine, and several other places and organisations are all broken out and discussed separately.
The book is hard reading in many places, however this is more due to the subject matter than the writing. Scott Atran is an experienced and successful anthropologist, and has obviously fought against his scientific training to attempt to make his work accessible, whilst keeping it well-argued and referenced. Indeed, a plethora of evidence is offered throughout the book, with extensive referencing. The root cause of the difficult readability is simply that subject matter is very complex and broad.
Overall I believe Atran has succeeded in producing an excellent work, which should be read by anyone looking for alternative views on Islamic fanaticism. It is well argued and challenges many dangerous preconceptions of the western world, offering alternatives to the current firepower-focussed efforts (mis)used worldwide.
Ease of reading: 2/5
Value for money: 4/5