Peace plan: Scott Atran talks to terrorists

Scott Atran runs with a rough, international crowd– jihadis, mujahideen, and lashkars– otherwise known as Islamic fundamentalists, otherwise known as terrorists, who have invited Atran into their worlds. As we know all too well, their worlds can be dangerous, even for a westerner with an invite.

Atran visited Kashmir after the earthquake in 2005 to look at relief efforts, as well as to investigate jihadi groups, who were riding around on military trucks and using loudspeakers to announce that people had turned away from God, and that the way back to God was to join the jihadi movement. Shortly after arriving there, Atran, hosted by Kashmiri Nationals (neither pro-Indian, nor pro-Pakistani), was told that Lashkar-e-Taiba (an Al Quaeda-affiliated group operating mainly out of Pakistan) was looking for him, a search, he says, that equated to a death threat. He had to hide under the floor-boards of a mosque.

In Sulawesi, Indonesia, he was interviewing a jihadi commander by conducting an anthropological experiment, which involves asking the question: If a child is born to Zionist parents but is raised by jihadi parents, will the child grow up to be a Zionist or a jihadi?

Atran claims he has asked this question in many countries all over the world and never feared for his life afterward, but his experience in Sulawesi was different. The commander replied: "The child would grow up to be a jihadi." Then he looked at Atran and asked, "but, are you a Jew?" It was at that point Atran excused himself for a "bathroom break," then received a text from his interpreter saying there were plans to "get rid of me in the evening." He had to climb out the bathroom window to escape. Atran claims that, since the advent of the Internet, he averages about an "hour on the ground" in these exotic places before someone Googles him and his life is in jeopardy. Seems like a movie, doesn't it?

Speaking of movies, a reporter asks Atran his thoughts on the movie Zero Dark Thirty, which he calls a "good movie, except for the torture stuff," which is "baloney." Why? "Because I know how they got some of that [information], and it wasn't through torture," he answers. Further, he claims that the Western interpretation of Bin Laden as he's portrayed in the movie– as living poorly, sitting on the floor with a blanket around him– is incorrect. Mohammed himself was called "the blanketed one" and lived very austerely, says Atran, so Bin Laden's appearance in the movie actually worked to bolster his standing with Muslim audiences.

Atran, 61, is an anthropologist and research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, while also keeping offices at the University of Michigan and John Jay College, feels that empathy, and trying to understand who terrorists are and why they do what they do– but not necessarily sympathizing with their cause– is the antidote to terrorism. And that's the subject of his most recent book, Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

"It should be read carefully, and pondered,” advises famed intellectual Noam Chomsky.

Atran will discuss "Can We Make Peace With Terrorists?" at noon Friday, March 22, in Charlottesville City Council Chambers.

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