Where the Jihadis Are

Jeremy Harding

  • Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What It Means to Be Human by Scott Atran
    Allen Lane, 558 pp, £25.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 84614 412 7

Scott Atran’s book about jihad and the wilder fringes of Islam is ambitious, noisy, scuffed at the edges. The Maghreb, Palestine, Syria, Kashmir, Indonesia: Atran has been there, brought home the findings and done his best to explain what turns people into suicide bombers and jihadis in Muslim countries, where mostly they are tiny slivers of the population, and non-Muslim countries, where they are rarer still. Atran is interested in ‘sacred values’ and especially those that are heightened by the intrusion of profane systems: ‘shock and awe’, occupation, settler colonialism, the idolatry of markets. Many Muslims, Atran believes, may experience these things, but very few take up arms or sacrifice their own lives in the name of the struggle. What is it that propels them? Equipped with a good interview technique, a sheaf of psychological questionnaires, support from the US air force, navy and army research offices, and an unwavering faith in the social sciences, Atran has set out to engage ‘the enemy’. In conversation.

The narrow appeal of jihadism means that Talking to the Enemy is not about a collective sense of the sacred so much as secluded, secretive worlds where small groups of people espouse very large ideas involving honour, martyrdom and faith: worlds where the sacred is a choice, rather than a set of beliefs on which a society agrees. Others may be oppressed by an enemy (Israeli occupation, the Coalition, Western ‘decadence’), and may applaud jihad, but as Atran shows, their efforts to negotiate a path between the sacred and the profane – a compromise that jihadists reject – leaves them in a difficult position. The enemy traduces their humanist values but so does the martyr. The mother of a dead suicide bomber, surrounded by neighbours, dignitaries and the press, may well endorse her son’s cause, but Atran has ‘never … heard a shaheed’s parent say, in private, “I am happy” or even “I am proud.”’

Self-selecting groups who decide what is sacred and what is not are often at odds with the communities from which they’re drawn. Atran has spoken to sources in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza, where Islamist movements enjoy broad support, but he’s only skirmished with Egypt and Tunisia, where largely secular uprisings have pointed up the limits of the West’s security concerns about jihad and signalled that our post-traumatic stress disorder after 9/11 is a hindrance to millions of people in Arab states who mean to have democracy on their own terms. Popular political struggles are of limited interest to Atran. His speciality is the minimalist network or the self-styled cell that settles on a set of values, secures funds, makes a connection to an arms or explosives supplier, appropriates a name (al-Qaida, Islamic Jihad, Party of God), and perhaps has one or another link with training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan. He uses the word takfir to describe the ‘insular delusion of defending one’s own group prejudice as humanity’s high duty’.

Takfir is normally translated as ‘excommunication’, though unlike the sanction against an offending individual or group that comes from a high religious authority, this is righteous self-excommunication: the excommunicant lays the offence at the door of the congregation he once belonged to and strides off alone up the true path. The standard example is Takfir wal-Hijra (‘excommunication and withdrawal’), a small movement whose members retired to caves in Upper Egypt in the 1970s to put the final touches to their plans for world domination. Their leader, Shukri Mustafa, an agricultural engineer, was executed in 1978; his followers were jailed and tortured, but the movement survived and its name is on loan to all kinds of aspiring takfiri groups.

It’s said that in 1996 Takfir wal-Hijra planned to murder Osama bin Laden on the grounds that he was an ineffectual softie. Which gets to the crux of takfiri doctrine: once you decide that your co-religionists are not true Muslims, you can take their lives. Takfiri ideology played a frightening role at the radical margins of Islamism in Algeria during the civil war of the 1990s, and although 9/11 caused many more non-Muslim deaths than Muslim, Atran sees that crucial little cell in Hamburg – Mohammed Atta and the others, all from the Middle East – as a hermetic, takfiri project, which held itself aloof not only from Germans but also from other Muslims in the city, who were mostly of Maghrebi and Turkish extraction. Not all jihadis are takfiris; the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance, has denounced takfir. But Atran’s research with jihadist groups in Indonesia – 86 per cent Muslim – suggests that there are overlaps and alliances between individuals with different beliefs, who tolerate one another for the purposes of a mission or a brief stretch of the long war they imagine lies ahead.

The town of Poso on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi ‘probably contains more violent Islamist groups per square metre than any other place on earth’. Jihad in Sulawesi has been a run of the mill communal affair, confined mostly to the killing of Christians, who reciprocate as best they can. But it’s also been a place for individuals with more ambitious ideas. In 2005 in Sulawesi, Atran conducted an interview with an Islamic militant Farhin bin Ahmad, who had once funnelled fighters into Poso. Farhin was closely associated with the Indonesian radical movement Jemaah Islamiyah, a big presence in Poso when Atran was conducting his research. At JI’s behest, Farhin and his brother drove a truck full of explosives that went up at the Filipino ambassador’s residence in Jakarta in 2000. Farhin tells Atran he has never been a ‘member’ of JI (‘I’m not an official member of anything’), thus confirming one of Atran’s points: jihad is not a story of assiduous card-carrying and party discipline; it is about contact, conversation, shared environments, deals and disagreements, informal bonds that allow a jihadi to have fingers in several pies (in Farhin’s case, both JI and a group called Kompak). Even the rivalry between different groups may be more of a technicality than a reality, if people move readily from one to another, pursuing their own opportunistic paths.

Jemaah Islamiyah is associated with several bombings in Indonesia, including the nightclub blasts in Bali in 2002, to which Atran seems to be referring when he asks Farhin whether it was right that ‘people who are a part of Jemaah Islamiyah, friends of yours, have killed civilians … including Muslims.’ Farhin tries haplessly to duck the issue: ‘I don’t know all of the conditions. Some say the bomb was an Israeli or American bomb.’ When Atran presses him, he admits he would still join a fighting organisation but adds, sensing the judicious answer: ‘But not to kill Muslims or civilians who do not fight us.’ (The Bali bombings killed 202 people, nearly 40 of them Muslims.)

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