Will to Fight: Facing the Islamic State Revolution

The Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict

Media:  Talk   

7 October 2017

Byens Lys

Scott Atran

Scott Atran is a cognitive anthropologist. He is tenured as Research Director in Anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Institut Jean Nicod − Ecole Normale Supérieure, in Paris. He is a founding fellow of the Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Harris Manchester College, and Department of Politics and International Relations and School of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford. Scott also holds positions as Research Professor of Public Policy and Psychology, University of Michigan; and he is Director of Research, ARTIS Research. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders. He has repeatedly briefed NATO, HMG and members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House. He has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East. Homepage

M. Rexen

"Over​ ​the​ ​last​ ​few​ ​years​ ​I​ ​have​ ​dedicated​ ​my​ ​time​ ​to​ ​visiting​ ​neolithic​ ​sites​ ​around the​ ​world.​ ​Through​ ​these​ ​adventures​ ​I​ ​have​ ​begun​ ​to​ ​regard​ ​these​ ​sites​ ​as​ ​healing centers​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​tombs​ ​or​ ​religious​ ​sites;​ ​places​ ​where​ ​the​ ​lethargy​ ​imbedded​ ​in our​ ​modern​ ​bodies​ ​evaporates​ ​effortlessly.​ ​Pyramids​ ​especially​ ​rock​ ​my​ ​world.​ ​Our world,​ ​I​ ​should​ ​say." - M.Rexen Homepage

Why do ordinary people become terrorists? What drives normal people to abandon their family and friends and join a group of people that perform inhumane acts in far away countries? Why are people willing to die for a cause? Is this a rational act, compatible with Darwinism and the survival instinct? Do western societies uphold the values of democracy and liberty as strongly as jihadists uphold their values of fraternity and glory?

For more than a decade now that the media has covered the wars in the Middle East and the atrocities committed there. As the years passed, the world has witnessed the surge of a new social and anthropological phenomenon: ISIS, a militant group, has revolutionised the wars in the Middle East. Contrary to the world expectations, ISIS attracted an enormous amount of young people from the United States and Europe who left their homes and family to join their cause in far away countries.

Are these people just crazy? Scott Atran does not think so.

When ISIS launched an attack on Mosul in 2014, they were outnumbered by almost 40 to one. Nevertheless ISIS took the city. ISIS will to fight stems from their belief in core values. But this is not a new phenomena. Since World War II that insurgent and revolutionary groups were on average able to beat police and armies with 10 times more firepower and manpower. How is this possible? Is it because ISIS, for example, has strong beliefs while the opposing forces are only motivated by money, punishment, promotion or obligation?

Scott Atran and his team of researchers have worked on the frontline in Iraq for the past two years and analysed what motivated people to fight. Using a series of methods common in anthropology, they conducted several in-person interviews with ISIS members (including some of those that pulled the trigger but the bomb did not go off), army fighters from opposing forces, Kurdistan fighters and just plain normal people in order to understand what motivates people to fight and to abandon their families. What values do each of the groups uphold the most?

With a series of outstanding articles and results, such as a recent article in Nature (see also an article in Videnskab), Scott Atran and his team have understood what values are upheld by these so called “devoted actors”. He claims that the strength of commitment to a group, to sacred values and the perceived strength of a fighter’s commitment have a strong role to play.

There is no way of stopping such conflicts without understanding this social phenomenon. The youth needs values and dreams, says Scott Atran. (Check out a recent interview with Scott Atran)

Afterwards, anthropological understanding of parts of the world is reflect on a self anthropological study aided by brand new cocktail experiences specially crafted for Science & Cocktails. Michael Rexen will be introducing his new project M.Rexen - a musical experience with 12 musicians. Nothing can express it better than this:

Entrance to the event is free. Event held in English. No registration is necessary. Doors open at 19:00.

The talk: