French-American anthropologist Atran (In God We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, 2002, etc.) travels widely interviewing terrorists and jihadists to uncover the driving force motivating religious violence.
Wildly ambitious and meandering, the book is at once frustratingly ill-focused, historically keen and astutely humanistic. The author has conducted tremendous fieldwork over the years, studying “tribal” groupings from Muslim fighters in Sulawesi, Indonesia, to suicide bombers in Palestine, and delving into the root of sacred beliefs. Jihad is not necessarily “nihilistic and immoral,” as Americans tend to believe, with their “constant diet of individualism” and dislike of looking to group action for justification of behavior. Atran’s studies show rather that “imagined kinship—the rhetoric and ritual of brotherhood, motherland, family, or friends and the like”—has sharpened the religious instinct with its expression in irrational and illogical belief. Curiously, the author discovered that five of the seven suicide bombers of the 2004 Madrid train attack—as well as various “Iraq-bound martyrs”—spent formative years growing up in an ancient Moroccan barrio of Tetuán called Jamaa Mezuak, where the vanquished Moors had retreated after the defeat of Grenada in 1492. Atran wonders if these Mezuak soccer buddies were still playing out after all these centuries a “triumphant resistance to Christian conquest.” The author examines in vivid detail the kinship among the Madrid bombers, and, earlier, the October 2002 Bali bombings masterminded by Indonesian militants. He attempts to establish how a terrorist network is formed—by attending the same madrassah, living in the same village family, and so on. Atran also traveled to Pakistan to inquire about clan loyalties and the Taliban, and looks at how the availability of resources and the intense competition for them dictate social structures. Though often scattered, the author’s deep penetration into anthropological explanations of evolution, teamwork, blood sport and war attempt to define what it means to be human—and he does an admirable job in the face of far-flung research.
Messy but revealing and passionate—enlightening for patient readers.