Feature Articles About Scott Atran

“The Tsarnaev Brothers: The Road to a Modern Tragedy by Masha Gesse,” The Guardian, 30 May 2015 

“The War Against Terror is another moment in this continuing saga of our species toward an unpredictable somewhere between All against All and One World,” writes Scott Atran, attempting to place terrorism in the context of the evolution of human identities: While economic globalisation has steamrolled or left aside large chunks of humankind, political globalisation actively engages people of all societies and walks of life – even the global economy’s driftwood: refugees, migrants, marginals, and those most frustrated in their aspirations. For there is, together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmented, and divisive world, as people unmoored from millennial traditions and cultures flail about in search of a social identity that is at once individual and intimate but with a greater sense of purpose and possibility of survival than the sorrow of here today, gone tomorrow … Jihad offers the group pride of great achievements for the underachieving….

“5 Important Facts About Young ISIS Recruits,” Jesse Singal, NEW YORK magazine, May 6, 2015 

The anthropologist Scott Atran is one of the leading researchers on the question of why people turn toward violent extremism. He’s spent a great deal of his career interviewing members of radical movements all over the globe, most recently Islamic State (also known as ISIS) members in Kirkuk, Iraq, and aspiring members in Barcelona and Paris. He recently addressed the United Nations Security Council on how to counter ISIS’s disturbingly potent appeal to some people, and he provided some key insights, some of them a bit counterintuitive.

“Faith versus Facts,” NEW YORK TIMES Sunday Review, T.M. Luhrmann, April 19, 2015 (

[S]cholars have determined that people don’t use rational, instrumental reasoning when they deal with religious beliefs. The anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have shown that sacred values are immune to the normal cost-benefit trade-offs that govern other dimensions of our lives. Sacred values are insensitive to quantity (one cartoon can be a profound insult). They don’t respond to material incentives (if you offer people money to give up something that represents their sacred value, and they often become more intractable in their refusal). Sacred values may even have different neural signatures in the brain. The danger point seems to be when people feel themselves to be completely fused with a group defined by its sacred value. When Mr. Atran and his colleagues surveyed young men in two Moroccan neighborhoods associated with militant jihad (one of them home to five men who helped plot the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and then blew themselves up), they found that those who described themselves as closest to their friends and who upheld Shariah law were also more likely to say that they would suffer grievous harm to defend Shariah law. These people become what Mr. Atran calls “devoted actors” who are unconditionally committed to their sacred value, and they are willing to die for it. One of the interesting things about sacred values, however, is that they are both general (“I am a true Christian”) and particular (“I believe that abortion is murder”). It is possible that this is the key to effective negotiation, because the ambiguity allows the sacred value to be reframed without losing its essential truth. Mr. Atran and his colleague Jeremy Ginges argued in a 2012 essay in Science that Jerusalem could be reimagined not as a place but as a portal to heaven. If it were, they suggested, just getting access to the portal, rather than owning it, might suffice.

“How to Spot a Martyr in Search of a Cause,” AEON, L. Ostashevsky, April 14, 2015 )

In November 2014, Atran published The Devoted Actor, Sacred Values, and Willingness to Fight for the US Department of Defense, profiling those likely to join the Islamic State, with a focus on two neighbourhoods in Casablanca in Morocco associated with militant jihad. One neighbourhood had produced five of the seven Madrid train bombers in 2004 and another produced tens of volunteers who perished in suicide bombings in Iraq and now Syria. So far, more than 2,000 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups. For their research, Atran and his team went into those neighbourhoods and met with the families and friends of the militants. They got to know them, how they lived, and gained insight into their beliefs. Atran found that young men tend to join in a group of three to four friends who recreate a family unit through their camaraderie. They are brothers in arms, devoted to one another. Instead of giving up family and close relationships, as Carleton’s Caouette suggested a martyr must do, Atran sees a family-like unit emerge. With martyrs willing ‘to fight unto death with and for genetic strangers’, Atran’s report suggests, there must be some inspiration, and family-like relationships could be it. Members of human communities routinely sacrifice their own lives so that the community can go on But believing in the cause itself was a profoundly important factor, too. Atran found that the volunteers had to believe in the sacred value of the Islamic state, including both sharia law and the caliphate, a government led by a literal successor to the prophet Muhammad. In an email, Atran explained: Just about every Muslim kid knows a gazillion stories about the first three Caliphs and Companions of the Prophet – the fatherly Abu Bakr, the kindly (except to Islam’s enemies) giant Omar, the benevolent billionaire Othman – who in less than 30 years brought together a bunch of fractious desert tribes under a codified consensus of what Mohammad was aiming for, to forge the then-largest empire in the history of the world … people are yearning for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals … That is key to understanding what is going on. In March 2014, when the self-proclaimed emir of ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first floated the idea of the caliphate through thousands of Twitter hashtags and then on 30 June, he declared the caliphate, he did so to specifically address the major criticisms, concerns, gaps, fears and yearnings of the relevant audience, and he outlined a strategy against his opposition. The symbols found in these messages could inspire martyrs for years to come. It might sound trite to say that symbolic understanding is enough to corral a formidable army, but some evolutionary thinkers believe that such symbolic reasoning is the key to the success of Homo sapiens as a species. The fossil expert Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History, for example, has argued that the ability to think symbolically is what made our ancestors different from their cousins, the Neanderthals. This could include the ability to make future plans or conjure the idea of a divine being, but it can also refer to sharing a common cause. Atran reminds us that just as the conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s sowed the seeds for the terrorist attacks on the West in the early 2000s, so too the conflict with the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or ISIS) today will engender future attacks by providing sacred values and a fighting spirit around which brothers-in-arms can rally.

“Radiografía del cerebro terrorista,” EL MUNDO, 24 Jan 2015, Clara Marín 

Aquí destaca especialmente el trabajo del antropólogo Scott Atran, profesor e investigador en la Universidad de Michigan. Este periódico ha contactado con él para que, en la medida de lo posible, intente definir el perfil de estas personas. “La mayoría son jóvenes que están en una etapa de transición en sus vidas -estudiantes o inmigrantes en una época de cambio entre trabajos o pareja -que han dejado a su familia y buscan otra que dé sentido a su vida”, cuenta Atran en conversación con EL MUNDO. Preguntado por cómo es el terrorista típico, si es que tal cosa existiera, cuenta que “tres de cada cuatro personas que se unen a la yihad lo hacen a través de amigos. El 15% a través de familiares”, y enfatiza: “Muy pocos son captados en las mezquitas”. Sin embargo, es obvio que ser un adolescente perdido no te convierte en terrorista. “Las personas marginadas son especialmente susceptibles a los cantos de sirena de la yihad, pero también lo son los jóvenes de clase media que quieren dejar su huella en el mundo”, cuenta Atran. En Europa, explica, “las redes criminales cuentan con un gran porcentaje de musulmanes marginados que acaban convirtiéndose en delincuentes de poca monta por las pocas oportunidades que le ofrece la sociedad”. “El problema es que ahora la yihad está ofreciendo a estos jóvenes gloria, aventura e importancia, y son precisamente ellos quienes menos tienen que perder, y quienes son más propensos a arriesgar su vida”, explica a este periódico este especialista en terrorismo y política internacional. Sentirse parte de un grupo Aprovechamos que estamos ante uno de los mayores expertos mundiales en lo que a la psicología de la violencia se refiere, para preguntarle algo que a cualquier mortal se le pasa por la cabeza cuando ve las imágenes de las masacres que estos grupos ocasionan: ¿Están los terroristas absolutamente desprovistos de sentimientos? ¿Cómo justifican ante sí mismos sus acciones? Para Atran, la clave está en la satisfacción de sentirse parte de una comunidad: “Estas personas tienen un sentimiento moral muy fuerte hacia el grupo, por el que sienten verdadero amor. Sin ese sentimiento y sin la percepción de que el grupo le necesita para defenderse, no sería posible matar a tanta gente inocente”.

“Psychologists seek roots of terror,” by Sara Reardon, NATURE, 20 Jan 2015 

Anthropologist Scott Atran studies terrorists, seeking to understand what drives people to join groups such as the Islamist terrorist organization ISIS. The answers are sometimes surprising. One French Muslim extremist who sought to blow up an embassy traced his radicalization to a childhood incident: his sister bumped into a man on a Paris street and the man spat on the ground and called her a “dirty Arab”. “That’s when I knew what I was going to become,” the terrorist told Atran, a researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor…. Even identifying which individuals might become terrorists is a difficult task. For instance, millions of people support the kind of militant Islam espoused by organizations such as al-Qaeda, but only a small percentage would be willing to kill for it, says Atran. Two studies that he published last month suggest that extremism arises, in part, when membership in a group reinforces deeply held ideals, and an individual’s identity merges with the group’s (S. Atran et al. Cliodynamics 5, 41–57; 2014; S. Atran et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111,17702–17703; 2014). “They can be low-lifes, but once they lock into these values it doesn’t matter, because they become heroic warriors,” says Atran. His team interviewed a random sample of 260 people in two communities in Morocco that have produced an unusually high number of terrorists — including five of the main plotters of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191 people. Many residents said that they wanted to fight to establish an ISIS-backed caliphate, a kind of Islamic government, in Syria. Those who believed in sharia, the Islamic code of law, said that they were willing to sacrifice for it in some way, but the degree of potential sacrifice increased dramatically if an individual had fused with a group with the same beliefs. In extreme cases, residents were willing to use violence or to allow their children to die to uphold their values.

“Chi semina morte,” Il Sole24 Ore, by R. Casati, 9 Jan. 2015 

Il lavoro del gruppo di Scott Atran, svolto in parte sotto l’egida del Centro per la soluzione dei conflitti intrattabili dell’Università di Oxford, ha prodotto diversi studi e alcuni rapporti pubblici che meriterebbero l’attenzione della stampa e delle autorità. La loro ricerca – basata su interviste online, studi sul campo, e analisi storiche – mostra che i volontari dell’Isis sono tipicamente giovani adulti “alla ricerca di se stessi”, immigranti, studenti, spesso alla fine di una relazione sentimentale, e in cerca di nuovi amici….

“ISIS Targets Afghanistan Just as the U.S. Quits,” DAILY BEAST, Sami Yousafzai & Christopher Dickey, 19 Dec 2014

According to anthropologist Scott Atran, who has conducted extensive studies of jihadist ideologies, Baghdadi outlined his strategy clearly in what’s been called his “Volcanoes of Jihad” speech on November 13: “Glad tidings, O Muslims, for we give you good news by announcing the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of [Saudi Arabia] and Yemen, to Egypt, Libya and Algeria” Baghdadi said. “We announce the acceptance of bayah [allegiance] … the announcement of new wilayat [provinces] for the Islamic State, and the appointment of [leaders] for them.” With the naming of governors outside of Syria-Iraq, Baghdadi “was telling the world that the Caliphate was going global,” says Atran. These stretched from Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah splinters in the Philippines and Indonesia to al-Maqdis in the Wilaya of Sinai, Egypt, to Jun al-Khalifa in Algeria. In Libya, three wilayat were declared: Tripoli, Fazzan and Barqay (which contains Darna, where whole neighborhoods of young men had earlier joined the jihads in Iraq). Thus ISIS “is preempting al Qaeda’s claim to be the vanguard of global jihad,” says Atran. Baghadi is creating what amounts to an ideological archipelago “where associated jihadi insurgencies in geographically distant and separated regions can fight for the Caliphate under one supreme leader, with an eye toward eventual unification of all territories.”

“Jordanian Prince hails progress at Christian-Muslim summit,” Vatican Radio, 9 dec 2014 

During the Summit, a Shia representative from Iran proposed the reexamination of sacred texts in a historical context – something that Prince El Hassan described as “courageous.” “There was a commitment in the conference to reexamining the text, heritage and history of the ‘other’ and I think that is the most morally courageous thing that you can do,” the Prince stated. “So that if you have a timeline, you can identify as Scott Atran, the author, has done in his spectacular book ‘Talking to the Other’ …. So I think it is absolutely essential that we analyze our actions: past, present and future.”

“ISIS Has a Message. Do We?”, The Daily Beast, Jamie Dettner, 8 Dec 2014 )

Anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues at Oxford University’s ARTIS Research & the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, warn that there’s been a failure to understand the ISIS “vision” and, most importantly, “the sacred cause of the caliphate.” “This is often viewed in Western military, policy, and popular media circles as simply bizarre and opaque to reasoned analysis,” when “it is precisely the power of messianic values and ideals that enables ISIL to exercise extreme violence, and even suffer it, without remorse or fear and with utter confidence in eventual victory, however improbable,” Atran and his colleagues concluded in a paper prepared for a U.S. Defense Department project. “That belief and commitment is likely key to why a hodgepodge of people of mixed nationalities and mostly strangers to one another is able to defeat police and armies with an order of magnitude greater firepower and manpower.” …. “The heroes, armies, and sacred ideals needed to defeat ISIL, and radical Islam in general, will very likely have to come from within the Muslim communities threatened by ISIL,” the ARTIS report concludes. “Currently, there are many millions of Muslims who vehemently oppose ISIL and the brutal current in Islam that it represents.” But whoever takes on the task of attacking the caliphate’s vision will have to come up with a message that’s better than same-old same-old.

“How ISIS Governs Its Caliphate,” Newsweek, Simon Cordall, 2 Dec. 2014 

Scott Atran, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at Oxford University, recently submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress on the difficulty of fighting the ideology of such a state. “The caliphate as an idea has never gone away,” Atran says, “And now that it is here again after a hiatus of nearly 100 years, as a concrete matter of fact, it will focus the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people. The critical question is not, ‘How can we thwart or destroy the caliphate?’ because attempts to do that will likely backfire. Rather the question is, ‘How can we live with and transform the idea and reality of a caliphate – and one that will be nuclear-capable probably sooner rather than later – into something that does not threaten other peoples’ ways of life?’ That is a question for everyone, but it is not even on our political radar.” …. Throughout the captured grounds of Syria and Iraq, ISIS is showing every indication of building a functioning state out of the prevailing chaos. For the millions of families and their children lost amidst Iraq and Syria’s brutal sectarian conflicts, the importance of the stability that accompanies such a proposition can be hard to understand. Put simply, “If it gets governance right, it wins the ball game,” says Atran.

“Why Westerners are Dirven to Join the Jihadist Fight,” Michael Bond , NEW SCIENTIST, 10 Sept. 2014

Those who study terrorist behaviour claim that the vast majority of fighters originating in the West are radicalised at home, influenced largely by their own circle of friends. “The brainwashing theory is baloney,” says Scott Atran of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. This is more about “young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission”.

“ISIS, Hip-Hop Jihadists and the Man Who Killed James Foley,” Chris Dickey, THE DAILY BEAST, 25 Aug. 2014

Anthropologist Scott Atran, who is frequently consulted by the U.S. government, has long argued that a jihadist’s motivations cannot be fit within a purely rational framework of costs and benefits, nor can they be understood as utterly irrational. Instead they work within the context of what they come to see as “sacred values,” which may be religious or may have to do more with honor and respect and, perhaps, what the 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke called “the sublime”: that “quest for greatness, glory, eternal meaning in an inherently chaotic world,” as Atran says. “It seems like volunteers for ISIS are surfing for the sublime,” Atran wrote to me on Sunday. They are escaping “the jaded, tired world of democratic liberalism, especially on the margins where Europe’s immigrants mostly live.” As Atran notes, “many are just ‘vacationers’ for Jihad, going to Syria over school breaks or holidays for the thrill of adventure and a semblance of glory, and returning to tolerably easy but somewhat soulless lives in the West, driving taxis, cooking in fast food joints, going to computer classes, or whatever. But the successes of ISIS are drawing in greater commitments now. The beheadings are doing what the images of the collapsing towers did for al Qaeda, turning terror into a display of triumph…In Burke’s sense, a display of the sublime.”

What the jihadists who bought “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon tell us about radicalisation, by Mehdi Hasan, NEW STATESMAN, 21 Aug 2014 

For more evidence, read the books of the forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman; the political scientist Robert Pape; the international relations scholar Rik Coolsaet; the Islamism expert Olivier Roy; the anthropologist Scott Atran. They have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of gun-toting, bomb-throwing jihadists and they all agree that Islam isn’t to blame for the behaviour of such men (and, yes, they usually are men). Instead they point to other drivers of radicalisation: moral outrage, disaffection, peer pressure, the search for a new identity, for a sense of belonging and purpose. As Atran pointed out in testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “. . . what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world”. He described wannabe jihadists as “bored, under­employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer . . . thrilling, glorious and cool”.

“Don’t Mess With My ‘Sacred Values’,” by Frank Rose, New York Times, 17 Nov 2013 

ACCORDING to news reports, a key factor in last weekend’s diplomatic impasse over Iran’s nuclear program was Iran’s insistence on what President Hassan Rouhani has called its “right” to enrich uranium. “National interests are our red line,” he declared, echoing earlier statements by other Iranian leaders. Western officials appear flummoxed: Why would Iran refuse to budge, even when offered the considerable financial incentive of lessened sanctions? They shouldn’t be surprised. Researchers who study “sacred values” — moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on, be they political, religious or personal — have detected just such a pattern of intransigence. When sacred values are in play, studies show, any proposal of economic incentives to make a deal is liable to backfire. And for the Iranian leadership, nuclear power has evidently become such an issue. Not every issue can be so easily finessed — but whatever the circumstance, money seems a subject best avoided. When Scott Atran of the French National Center for Scientific Research and Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research asked people in the Middle East about potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they found that the mention of money frequently incited moral outrage. Among Palestinian refugees, those who were open to compromise responded favorably to the idea of giving up their right of return to Israel in exchange for financial support for the new state of Palestine. But when moral absolutists among the refugees were offered this solution, they greeted it with anger, disgust and increased support for violence. Symbolic gestures — like Israel’s giving up of its claim on the West Bank — had the opposite effect. The same pattern held with Jewish settlers in the West Bank. As the West Bank is to Israelis and Palestinians, nuclear power is becoming to many Iranians. Powerful figures there have linked the issue to the history of foreign exploitation of Iran’s oil resources in an effort to reframe it as a matter of national pride. A recent online survey led by Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California suggests that this may be working: 14 percent of Professor Dehghani’s respondents treated nuclear power as a sacred value.

“The Five Myths of Terrorism,” by Michael Shermer, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, July 19, 2013 

University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran has demonstrated that suicide bombers (and their families) are showered with status and honor in this life and the promise of women in the next and that most “belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause but for each other.” Most terrorists are in their late teens or early 20s and “are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure and glory,” he adds. Busting a second fallacy—that terrorists are part of a vast global network of top-down centrally controlled conspiracies against the West—Atran shows that it is “a decentralized, self-organizing and constantly evolving complex of social networks.”

“Las consecuencias alarmantes del moderno terrorismo solitario,” Juan Arias, EL PAIS, 29 April 2013 

Si cualquier ciudadano legal puede ser hoy un terrorista potencial, también deberá ser un “vigilado potencial”. Lo ha dicho claramente el antropólogo americano Scott Atran: “Parece cada vez más difícil estar totalmente seguro, no importa lo mucho que se gaste en seguridad o lo que sean sacrificadas nuestras libertades individuales. La inminencia de ese tipo de acción terrorista no cabe ya en las antiguas respuestas y alertas de seguridad global”.

“Despite all attempts, it’s still hard to smoke out the bad guys,” Paul McGeough, Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2013 

Using President Obama’s declaration that “Americans refuse to be terrorised” as his starting point, University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran wrote: “Never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many … the response [in Boston] is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorise…. Atran said overreaction to sporadic terrorist acts has turned ”the somewhat marginal phenomenon of terrorism” into a primary preoccupation of the US government and American people”. “In this sense, Osama bin Laden has been victorious beyond his wildest dreams – not because of anything he has done, but because of how we have reacted to the episodic success he inspires.”

“Peace plan: Scott Atran talks to terrorists”, Mery Jane Smith, THE HOOK (Charlottesville) , March 21, 2013

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….

“Social evolution: The ritual animal,” v. 493 (7433), 23 Jan 2013, by Dan Jones, NATURE 

Atran thinks that rituals could feed conflict by turning the opinions and preferences of groups into ‘sacred values’ — absolute and non-negotiable beliefs that cannot be traded against material benefits such as money. For many Israelis, for example, one such value is the right to occupy the West Bank, whereas for many Palestinians it is the right to return to the villages from which they were expelled. In fact, Atran has found that financial offers to compromise on these sacred values makes them even more entrenched. As an example of how rituals can cause values and preferences to become sacralized, Atran points to his studies showing that, in the United States, people who attend church more frequently are more likely to consider the right to bear arms a sacred value.

“Studying the Sacred,” Andrew Sullivan/Mathew Sitman, The Daily Beast, Aug 12, 2012

In an age of resurgent religion, Scott Atran urges academics – especially scientists – to turn their attention to the sacred. He believes that science can help us “understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe,” and that such knowledge will be vital for grasping the dynamics of world affairs in the coming decades. Atran especially focuses on how the scientific study of religion can aid in explaining the causes and duration of war and violence. For example, he argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, religion has been behind only a very small fraction of history’s bloody conflicts….

“Sacred Conflicts,” THE DAILY BEAST, Andrew Sullivan, 27 May 2012

This research, supported by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, shows that backfire effects occur both for sacred values with clear religious investment (Jerusalem, Shariah law) and those with initially none (Iran’s right to nuclear capability, Palestinian refugees’ right of return). For example, a 2010 study of attitudes toward Iran’s nuclear program found that, for most Iranians, having a nuclear program has nothing sacred about it. But it had become a sacred subject through religious rhetoric for about 13 percent of the population. This group, which tends to be close to the regime, now believes a nuclear program is bound up with the national identity and with Islam itself, so that offering material rewards or punishments to abandon the program only increases anger and support for it….

“What Your Brain Looks Like When You’re Selling Out,” David Berreby,” BIG THINK, 25 May 2012 

For some time now the anthropologist Scott Atran (a co-author on this paper) has been pointing out that … People defending a sacred value will not trade its incarnation (land, nuclear fuel rods, a city) for iPads, or even for peace. They may be more moved by an apology or some other symbolic concession that brings no economically measurable benefit, but which speaks to their transcendental needs. So a rationalist, supposedly realist, approach, which seeks to find their price, will fail. (And by the way, such people need not be a majority on either side, as even people who would not die for a sacred value will feel themselves bound to honor it when the true believers demand.) On the other hand, if the rationalist model is right, then “sacred values” are just rhetoric and emotion, covering the usual game of incentives and disincentives. Atran, a resolutely empirical anthropologist, has been gathering evidence for the sacral theory. That’s part of the context for this experiment, which was published last March in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

“Guerre di religione”, di Daniela Ovadia, LE SCIENZE (Di Scientific American), 23 maggio 2012 

Finalmente dopo qualche giorno piuttosto convulso sono riuscita a leggere con calma il numero monografico di Science appena uscito e dedicato alla guerra vista con gli occhi della scienza (un riassunto generale lo trovate in questo articolo di Gianbruno Guerrerio su questo stesso sito). Un compito non è facile perché, come spiega l’editoriale che accompagna la pubblicazione, la guerra è fondamentalmente irrazionale e la scienza cerca di ricondurre i fenomeni più complessi a un disegno logico. L’articolo di Scott Atran e Jeremy Ginges dedicato al ruolo della religione nei conflitti merita un po’ più di attenzione, se non altro perché associare il fanatismo alle guerre non mi pare una novita che meriti di finire su una rivista tanto prestigiosa. La revisione, però, (perché di questo si tratta) offre alcuni spunti di riflessione nuovi e propone un nuovo filone di studi….

The good and bad of religion: How faith is a potent force for BOTH co-operation and conflict , ” Eddie Wrenn, DAILY MAIL, 18 May 2012

– Religion has helped us have wide-spread co-operation across the globe without warfare – But religious arguments can also lead to deep conflict and anger which are difficult to resolve rationally – However showing sincere respect can lead to flexibility in even the most hardened fundamentalists

“Katalysator des Guten und Schlechten,” Robert Czepel, science.ORF.at (Austria), 18 May 2012 

Scott Atran: Religion ist irrational in dem Sinn, als ihr Glaubenskern Aussagen über Götter, die Welt und das Leben nach dem Tod macht, die weder logisch noch faktisch Sinn haben. Allerdings kann sie aus meiner Sicht sowohl fortschrittlich als auch fortschrittsfeindlich sein. Nehmen Sie etwa die Heilige Inquisition oder irgendwelche andere Formen fundamentalistischer Bigotterie: Sie haben zweifelsohne zum Leid der Menschheit beigetragen. Aber die Religion war auch wichtig für die Entwicklung der Bürger- und Menschenrechte, die das Leben der Menschen verbessert haben. Marx sagte, Religion sei das Opium des Volkes, was sie zu gewissen Zeiten wohl auch war. Benjamin Franklin wollte, dass das Motto der US-amerikanischen Republik laute: “Der Widerstand gegen die Tyrannei ist der Gehorsam gegenüber Gott.” Und auch dieser Satz traf zu manchen Zeiten wohl zu. Ähnlich verhält es sich mit dem menschlichen Wissen. Zu manchen Zeiten hat die Religion es unterdrückt – wie bei Sokrates, Galileo oder Darwin. Zu anderen Zeiten war sie der menschlichen Schöpferkraft und Erkenntnis dienlich. Denken Sie etwa an die Kunst von Michelangelo und Da Vinci und die Idee der Menschlichkeit…. Glauben Sie an Gott? Ich glaube an kein intelligentes, immaterielles Gottwesen, das den Fortlauf der Welt oder das Leben der Menschen lenken kann – so, als würde ein Regisseur in ein Bühnenstück eingreifen. Götter sind Schöpfungen des menschlichen Verstandes. Als solche kann ich aber Götter ebensowenig bezweifeln wie die Existenz von Steinen, Sternen oder Sex.

“Religion Deserves More Study by Scientists, Say Researchers,” Lee Dye, ABC News, 17 May 2012

Two scientists who have met with would-be terrorists and cruel dictators in some of the world’s hottest trouble spots have issued an unusual challenge to their colleagues: Focus your labs and your brain scanners and your cognitive skills on religion. They aren’t trying to convert anyone. They just think it’s high time for scientists to stop ignoring something that plays a critical role in the lives of billions of people around the world. “Religion is not something that scientists study very deeply,” anthropologist Scott Atran, lead author of a study published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, said in a telephone interview…. “Science can help us understand religion just as much as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe,” Atran said.

Scott Atran : « Il est devenu plus difficile de défendre les libertés individuelles », La Croix, 9 septembre 2011 (

Pour Scott Atran, anthropologue américain (1), les dix années écoulées ont montré combien il était difficile de trouver un équilibre entre la quête de sécurité et la protection des libertés.

Review of “Talking to the Enemy,” TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION, 2 June 2011 

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln upbraided a critic by asking “do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Scott Atran wants the US to follow Abe’s example by, if not actually befriending its enemies, at least talking to them, or trying to discover what moves them to give up their lives to attack it…. Sadly, the US has, as he says, consistently preferred to “wipe out” its enemies rather than talk to them. His book is clearly intended to change the nation’s mind, and it certainly brings those enemies to life more vividly and perceptively than almost anything else currently in print….

TIME, The Psychology of Dictatorship: Why Gaddafi Clings to Power, By John Cloud Thursday, May 26, 2011

Scott Atran is a University of Michigan psychologist who has studied strongmen around the world for two decades. He has spoken with Khaled Meshaal of Hamas; Abubakar Ba’asyir, erstwhile emir of the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah; Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that operates from Pakistan; and William Pierce, the late leader of the white-supremacist movement in the U.S. None of these stateless men can accurately be described as dictators, but all have led organizations that valorize a muscular and often brutal leadership style. Atran’s main conclusion is that an impulse toward morality, not sadism or greed, drives the strongman personality. Hitler, he points out, refused the contemporary equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars in payoffs to reclassify a small group of Jewish Austrians as non-Jews. Similarly, Atran and his team have recently published papers mounting evidence that the Iranian regime ignores substantial offers of aid to end its nuclear program out of a “sacred value” of independence that trumps the practical concerns of its people.

“Where the Jihadis Are,” by Jeremy Harding (review of TTE), London Review of Books, 17 February 2011 & author’s reponse 17 March 2011

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….

“‘Sacred’ rules of engagement defeat rationality in war,” by Michael Marshall, NEW SCIENTIST, 16 February 2011

Do you believe that some principles are sacred? If you do, it could make you a hawk rather than a dove in time of war. A new study suggests that most societies have “sacred rules” for which their people would die rather than compromise. If people perceive one such rule to have been violated, they may feel morally obliged to retaliate against the wrongdoers – even if the retaliation does more harm than good. Psychologist Jeremy Ginges of the New School for Social Research in New York City and anthropologist Scott Atran of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, France, presented…

“Survey Says: War is Irrational Choice,” by John Bohannon, SCIENCE magazine news, 15 February 2011

How many lives would you be willing to sacrifice to remove a murderous dictator like Saddam Hussein? Most of the models that researchers use to study conflicts like the Iraq war assume that civilians and leaders make a rational calculation: If the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But according to a new study, those models are wrong. Surveys of people in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other violent situations suggest that participants consistently ignored quantifiable costs and benefits, relying instead on “sacred values.” The finding could lead to better predictions of when conflicts will escalate to violence…

“Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human by Scott Atran – review,” THE GUARDIAN, 12 February 2011 )

David Shariatmadari is impressed by an anthropologist’s study of political violence…. In a world where one set of killings merits a medal from the president and another death by firing squad, anthropology is a useful leveller. Through its field glasses we can see exactly what a US commando in Afghanistan and an Indonesian bomb-plotter have in common: a willingness to use violence to defend what they hold dear, with those caught up in the killing either fair game or collateral damage. For those involved in the fight, of course, this approach is hard to stomach. It means abandoning political certainty, exceptionalism, the smugness of civilisation – or at least recognising that these things usually boil down to pride in the tribe. That’s perhaps why Scott Atran gets so many blank looks when he gives presentations to intelligence officers and defence staff working in counterterrorism. Some, like the woman from Dick Cheney’s office, remain convinced that the way to stop young people from becoming radicalised is simply to “bomb them in their lairs”. A much-garlanded field anthropologist, Atran knows better, because he’s done the dirty work: listening to jihadists, firebrand preachers, the families of suicide bombers, hiding out in Kashmir and hanging around checkpoints in the Occupied Territories. Talking to the Enemy is Atran’s impassioned call for evidence-based policy, but it’s also an ambitious survey of culture and violence. Research is the trump card here, played often and well….

“The Privilege of Absurdity” (Talking to the Enemy), by John Gray, Literary Review, December

Talking to the Enemy is about far more than violent extremism. One of the most penetrating works of social investigation to appear in many years, it offers a fresh and compelling perspective on human conflict. No one who reads and digests what Atran has to say will be able to take seriously the faith-based claims of the ‘new atheists’. As he notes, some of his fellow scientists may ‘believe that science is better able than religion to constitute or justify a moral system that regulates selfishness and makes social life possible … [But] there doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit of historical or experimental evidence to support such faith in science’. The picture of human beings that emerges from genuine inquiry is far richer than anything that can be gleaned from these myopic rationalists…. The true lesson of Atran’s account is that intractable conflicts go with being human. As he puts it himself: ‘Our biology and our history say that permanent peace is about as improbable on earth as unending day.’ The readiness to kill and die for one’s group is not a human frailty that can be remedied. Linking us with our evolutionary kin, it expresses our animal nature, but it also reflects what is peculiar about our species. Unlike other animals humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they kill not in order to preserve their own lives or those of the people they love, but for the sake of an idea – the conception they have formed of themselves. This is the ‘privilege of absurdity’ of which Hobbes wrote, a human trait that will not change.

“taking to the Enemy – A review,” by David Shariatmadari, THE GUARDIAN, 12 February 2011 )

In a world where one set of killings merits a medal from the president and another death by firing squad, anthropology is a useful leveller. Through its field glasses we can see exactly what a US commando in Afghanistan and an Indonesian bomb-plotter have in common: a willingness to use violence to defend what they hold dear, with those caught up in the killing either fair game or collateral damage. For those involved in the fight, of course, this approach is hard to stomach. It means abandoning political certainty, exceptionalism, the smugness of civilisation – or at least recognising that these things usually boil down to pride in the tribe. That’s perhaps why Scott Atran gets so many blank looks when he gives presentations to intelligence officers and defence staff working in counterterrorism. Some, like the woman from Dick Cheney’s office, remain convinced that the way to stop young people from becoming radicalised is simply to “bomb them in their lairs”. A much-garlanded field anthropologist, Atran knows better, because he’s done the dirty work: listening to jihadists, firebrand preachers, the families of suicide bombers, hiding out in Kashmir and hanging around checkpoints in the Occupied Territories….

“Talking to the Enemy,” Review by Richard Phelps, FINANCIAL TIMES, Nov. 22. 2010 

Please use the link to reference this article. Do not copy & paste articles which is a breach of FT.com’s Ts&Cs  and is copyright infringement. Send a link for free or email ftsales.support@ft.com to purchase rights. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/573ab4ea-f363-11df-b34f-00144feab49a.html#ixzz16EAb2PI1 Millions of people consider the 9/11 attacks to have been a good thing, yet a mere fraction of them ever get around to undertaking acts of violence. Of those who do, most tend to be young, male and know each other. So begins anthropologist Scott Atran in his highly readable round-the-world examination of the jihad and its adherents. Atran pieces together the lives and the backgrounds of extremists, offering insightful perspectives by placing contemporary Islamist dissent into a deeper context of human evolutionary history….

Interview with Scott Atran, THE TIMES (London), by David Aaronovitch, 13 Nov. 2010 

Scott Atran has spent a lot of time in the past few years talking to terrorists and would-be suicide attackers, or to the people who love and support them. Now he’s in the Waldorf Hilton in Covent Garden talking to me. It’s his book tour, so I get to be the anthropologist, asking him questions and observing his behaviour. Atran is a wonderful guy to spend a morning with. Now in his late fifties but mistakable for 45, he started in the anthropology business in 1969, when he embarked on what can best be described as a gap decade….

THE SUNDAY TIMES, “Talking to the Enemy,” Review by Brian Appleyard, 7 Nov. 2010 

On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, Scott Atran asked his friend, companion and bodyguard Farhin if, in the name of jihad, he would kill him. “No problem,” replied Farhin. “Yes, I would kill you.” They were good friends, too; Farhin called Atran habibi — my beloved. As he said it, the author noticed “the heavy-lidded look that I had seen in the eyes of killers before, in Guatemala, and would see again in Pakistan”. Farhin would also have been happy to blow himself up, had the call come. Suicide bombing is, in the popular imagination, an Islamic phenomenon. In fact, it’s a novelty in Islam. In the modern era, atheists have more commonly resorted to it: Sri Lanka’s Marxist Tamil Tigers and the anarchists who, from 1870, launched a reign of terror that climaxed in 1901 with the assassination of William McKinley, the president of the United States. What we should be looking at, therefore, is not any particular theology or ideology but, rather, the deeper, less explicit roots of the impulse. This is what Atran does in this baggy, passionate and occasionally, but justifiably overwrought book. He is an anthropologist, a usually unreadable discipline. But here he breaks from the conventions to tell us that we have all got it wrong, especially when it comes to suicide terrorism….

“How to Catch the ‘JihadiBug’,” M. Bond, NEW SCIENTIST, 25 Oct 2010 

The anthropology of terrorism makes for compelling fieldwork. In his quest to understand what makes people kill and die for a cause, Scott Atran – an astute analyst of social, psychological and cultural issues – has met with the Hamas high command in Damascus, Syria, interviewed the plotters behind the 2002 Bali bombing, unpacked the web of connections behind the 9/11 and 2004 Madrid train attacks and been forced to flee for his life from militants in Indonesia and Pakistan unsettled by his probings. His main finding is that terrorist organisations tend not to be the sophisticated, well-ordered hierarchies that we commonly suppose, but loose networks of friends and family who die not just for a cause but for each other. Who gets radicalised is often quite random: “Someone gets the jihadi bug, and friends follow, gathering force from sticking together.” Understanding these social dynamics, Atran believes, is key to tackling terrorism. Talking to the Enemy is recommendable not just for its vivid insights into the motivation of terrorists, but also for its study of Islamic radicalisation and the anthropology of religion in general. It is worth reading for its demolishment of many of the simplistic ideas put forward by self-declared “scientific atheists” such as Sam Harris, Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, who see religion as the root of intolerance and campaign with missionary zeal for its eradication. Dawkins has argued, for example, that suicide bombers are brainwashed in religious schools. Yet none of the 9/11 hijackers or the Madrid train-bombers attended a religious school, and the one London Underground bomber who did so attended only briefly. Indeed evidence shows that in Muslim communities the deeper a person’s religious scholarship, the less likely he or she is to be involved in jihadist activities. The suggestion by Harris and others that the world would be less violent without religion – and especially without Islam – also looks hollow when you consider the crimes against humanity committed by atheists. Prior to 2001, for instance, one of the most prolific dispensers of suicide terrorism was the secular Tamil Tigers. In trying to understand, or predict, terrorist activity, it makes scientific sense to look beyond religion, such as to the social dynamics of particular friendship networks and the recruitment strategies of jihadist organisations whose agendas are usually avowedly political. The scientific atheists’ disregard of evidence when making their case “makes me almost embarrassed to be an atheist”, says Atran. He is on strong ground: gathering data first-hand is not something Atran seems shy of, even if it means risking his own life.

“Talking to the Enemy by Scottt Atran,” Jason Burke, Guardian / Observer, 25 Oct 2010 

Atran deploys his formidable knowledge of social anthropology to dissect the various dynamics that have helped form human individuals into groups, warbands, hunting parties or armies over the millennia. Although this historical background is mostly fascinating, even more impressive is Atran’s field research, in places ranging from Palestine and Spain to Tétouan in northern Morocco and remote Indonesian islands. It is this research that underpins his vision of radical Islamic militancy as an adaptive social movement. The 2002 Bali bombs, he writes, “were largely planned and executed through local networks of friends, of kin, neighbours and schoolmates who radicalised one another until all were eager and able to kill perfect strangers for an abstract cause”. Terrorist networks, he points out, are “generally no different than the ordinary kinds of social networks that guide people’s career paths. It’s the terrorist career itself that is the most remarkable, not the mostly normal individuals who become terrorists.” Take Jemaah Islamiyah, the organisation behind the Bali bombings. Atran shows how the few in the broad organisation who had contact with the likes of Bin Laden were barely involved in planning the bombings and demonstrates, through painstaking reconstruction of the timeline of the attacks, that key decisions on targeting and timing were reached at a very low level and often in a chaotic and disorganised way. The picture of Islamic militancy as composed of nodes of personal associations coalescing to form groups that are self-radicalising, self-sustaining and self-motivating is further reinforced by Atran’s meticulous work on the Madrid bombings of 2004. He lays out the exact role and relations of the small group of key conspirators, their wider circle of associates and the appalling failures of the Spanish police to stop them. Perhaps to compensate for their incompetence, Spanish authorities insisted that the plotters had been carefully managed by some “terror central organisation”. In fact, it was because the plot was so anarchic, fluid and improbable that it succeeded in evading detection. Atran lists four key elements of the “organised anarchy” that he suggests typifies modern violent Islamic activism: goals are constantly ambiguous and inconsistent; modes of action are decided pragmatically on the basis of trial and error or based on the residue of learning from accidents of past experience; the boundaries of the group constantly change; and the degree of involvement of members varies over time. The result is not a hierarchic, centrally commanded terrorist organisation but a decentralised and constantly evolving network based on contingent adaptations to unpredictable events. In the world of al-Qaida studies, this is still a relatively extreme position. But Atran’s suggested vision of militancy is a very useful addition to other, more mainstream understandings of what “al-Qaida” might be.

“En la mente del terrorista,” by Luis Miguel Ariza, EL PAIS Semanal (Spain Sunday Magazine), September 26, 2010

¿Conocemos el ambiente y los pensamientos que rodean a un terrorista suicida? ¿Existen organizaciones rígidas capaces de lavar el cerebro a sus miembros para que se inmolen? ¿Qué se puede hacer para desactivar futuras redes ‘yihadistas’? Scott Atran, prestigioso antropólogo del Centro Nacional de Investigación Científica de París, ha realizado un minucioso estudio que defiende sorprendentes hallazgos sobre las razones por las que mueren y matan…. “Mi hijo no solo murió por el bien de una causa, él murió también por sus primos y amigos. Murió por la gente que amaba”, respondió su padre. En una sola frase sintetiza la motivación que impulsó a Atran a escribir su último libro, Hablando con el enemigo (en inglés, Talking with the enemy, HarperCollins), que saldrá a la luz este noviembre en Estados Unidos, y que investiga los mecanismos que operan en la mente de un terrorista suicida…. Juan Carlos Zárate, experto del Centro Internacional de Estudios Estratégicos, trabajó en el Consejo de Seguridad Nacional para asesorar al presidente Bush entre 2005 y 2009. Según relata a través de correo electrónico, el trabajo de Atran es “una investigación de primera. Nos muestra que la radicalización y violencia no pueden entenderse sin comprender primero el ambiente local, las condiciones y las experiencias que motivan a los terroristas. Erosiona algunos clichés rígidos y banales sobre la mentalidad monolítica, las motivaciones y el trasfondo de los terroristas”…. Sus hallazgos han recibido elogios de pensadores como Noam Chomsky. “Su obra es un compendio excelente, y creo que muestra de una manera convincente que los terroristas mueren y matan por cada uno de ellos, de la misma manera que los soldados mueren típicamente en una batalla”, asegura Chomsky a El País Semanal en un correo electrónico…. Como buen geólogo, hay que patear el terreno y desmenuzarlo entre los dedos. Al igual que los etnobotánicos que entablan conversaciones con los chamanes de las tribus amazónicas y terminan siendo aceptados como integrantes de esas comunidades, el antropólogo urbano debe poseer la habilidad para confundirse entre la gente, entablar conversaciones casuales, sentarse, observar y escuchar….

“Why Obama Isn’t Talking to America’s Enemies,” by C. Dickey, NEWSWEEK, July 9, 2010 

One informal interlocutor in the Middle East is anthropologist Scott Atran, author of the forthcoming Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, and he has found himself and his colleagues caught right in the middle of this judicial mess. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Atran and political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote about meeting “with violent groups in order to find ways out of intractable conflicts.” “In our fieldwork with jihadist leaders, foot soldiers and their associates across Eurasia and North Africa, we have found huge variation in the political aspirations, desired ends and commitment to violence,” they wrote. And as Atran testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, “these differences can be used as leverage to win the cooperation of the next generation of militants, who otherwise will surely become our enemies.” So when I asked Atran how he felt about the Obama administration’s record on talks, I wasn’t surprised at his disappointment. “Of course, the bigger obstacles to talking with the enemy are in Washington than in the field,” he said. “In the field anyone (besides Al Qaeda) will talk to just about anyone. When I tell people in Washington this, and provide evidence that this is indeed the case, they still think I’m from planet fruitcake. Reminds me of an angry child who thinks that just by folding arms and huffing and puffing, others will surrender or at least back off.”

“Why Islamists Love the World Cup,” Newsweek, July 6, 2010 (print edition July 19, 2010) 

“It’s on the whole their favorite thing after jihad,” says Scott Atran, an American and French anthropologist who has studied the interplay between terror groups and soccer…. But the true cradle for jihadist football was Afghanistan and Pakistan, where fervent Islamists traveled to fight the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to locals. One byproduct was a de facto mini-World Cup between mujahedin, with fighters forming teams to represent their countries of origin. For those fighters, soccer was a useful and even necessary way to break up the boredom of training and waiting to engage the enemy, because actual skirmishes were few and far between, Atran says. After the Russians left and jihadists returned home, soccer matches provided a forum to meet and keep in touch, particularly for the Indonesian mujahedin who formed the core of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah, he adds. More often, however, soccer leads to militancy rather than vice versa: “Our data show that a reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends. It’s surprising how many soccer buddies join together,” Atran told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. For example, most of the participants in the March 2003 Madrid bombings played soccer together. And in his forthcoming book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, Atran looks at the strange case of 10 Hamas suicide bombers from the West Bank town of Hebron over a period of several years. The young men, he writes, “reflect the strata of Hebron society: some were simple workers; some were from the middle class; some were well-established and educated.” What tied them together was that they had all played together on a soccer team organized by a local mosque. Israeli officials believe that when Hamas’s military commanders needed recruits for operations, they looked to the squad, which was already a tight-knit group with clear religious ties—making it a sort of farm team for violent operations.

SCIENCE magazine, “Should Social Scientists Help the U.S. Fight Terror?” by John Bohannon, March 11, 2010

Among the military brass giving testimony about global terrorism at a Senate hearing yesterday was a single academic: Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Why invite an academic to speak to the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee? Because while the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions on terrorism research, including the creation of terrorism research institutions at the University of Maryland and elsewhere, the U.S. strategy against terrorism “is focused on technology, not understanding who violent extremists are and where the are coming from,” Atran told ScienceInsider by e-mail. In fact, he said, the only reason they invited him to the hearing is “because they were spooked by the [attempted] Christmas bombing and aware that their over-reliance on widgets isn’t doing the job. … They know I’m one of the only people around who works in the field with jihadis and wannabes and want to find out what makes them tick.” Atran leveled criticism at the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System, a program that has embedded social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive,” Atran told the senators. “Such efforts as these, small as they are, are potentially quite counterproductive. … The military and cultural reality of the terrain may favor having embedded social scientists be uniformed and armed, … but the possibility that social scientists themselves would have to fire their weapons and perhaps kill local people … is guaranteed to engender academia’s deep hostility.” While giving his testimony, Atran called on the U.S. government to engage social scientists more directly in open, peer-reviewed studies of terrorism, rather than relying on clandestine intelligence and antiterrorism technology. “Involve social scientists but not in [the military] theater,” Atran said.

“When Nukes Become Sacred: The psychology behind Iranian support for the country’s nuclear program,” NEWSWEEK, Sharon Begley, Jan. 8, 2010

As America and Europe wrestle with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, some policymakers have warned that imposing crippling sanctions on the mullahs’ regime would backfire, in that sanctions would cause Iranians to rally around their government in a show of solidarity against outside meddling. That isn’t the half of it. According to a new analysis, offering Iran carrots rather than sticks—fuller diplomatic engagement, for instance, or help developing civilian nuclear power—to cease uranium enrichment and other proliferation activities may also be doomed.The reason is that Iran’s nuclear program has, for many Iranians, become a “sacred value.” That term has a specific meaning in social psychology. Sacred values are those that trump rational cost-benefit analysis. Specifically, the more someone is offered in return for giving up a sacred value, the less he is willing to do so. That’s the opposite of how people treat other values, where the more we are offered for our old car, our house, an article of clothing, our place in a line, or any other “secular” holding, the more willing we are to give it up. With sacred values, this cost-benefit calculus is turned on its head, explains anthropologist Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who has studied Islamic terrorist groups.

“The global internet jihad: Web of terror,” THE GLOBE AND MAIL, by Margaret Wente,January 8, 2009 

“ ‘Happiness is martyrdom’ can be as emotionally contagious to a lonely boy on the Internet as ‘Yes, we can,’ ” writes anthropologist Scott Atran, who has been studying terrorism – and interviewing radical young men – for years. “That is a psychologically stunning and socially far-reaching development that scientists have hardly begun to explore.” Mr. Atran argues that we get a lot wrong about terrorists.

Times Literary Supplement, 18 September2009

“Atran and Medin’s book is a milestone in interdisciplinary work.” Nick Enfield reviews Atran and Medin’s The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature

“Can Admitting a Wrong Make It Right?” by Christopher Dickey, NEWSWEEK, June 1, 2009 

When the president of the United States of America stands before a huge crowd at Cairo University and makes his long-anticipated speech to the Muslim world Thursday, will he say that he’s sorry? Will he, for instance, offer to make amends for the blind support some of his predecessors have shown for Israel’s occupation of Arab lands? Will he ask forgiveness for the CIA coup in Iran that overthrew a democratically elected government there in 1953? Will Barack Obama try to talk directly to the people and apologize for the many decades Washington has spent supporting Arab dictators, including the one who rules in Egypt, the country where he is speaking? Probably Obama will say none of these things, and wise voices argue that he should not. “Discussions of who is going to apologize for what and how the apologies are going to be worded and what they’re supposed to convey is a prescription for getting sidetracked, bogged down and producing more antagonism,” former U.S. national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinksitold me a few weeks ago. There would have to be reciprocity, after all. Will we hear the Iranians apologize for their long history supporting suicide bombings, and the holding of American hostages in Tehran and Beirut in the 1980s? Or their training and equipping of militias that killed many American troops in Iraq? Would the Palestinians regret the repeated slaughter of innocent Israelis in blatant terrorist attacks? You see the problem. Yet there is a body of evidence to suggest that the most vital element in Middle East peacemaking may lie in questions of language and symbols–what social anthropologist Scott Atran calls a “moral logic” based on “sacred values.” And sometimes what that boils down to, essentially, is saying you’re sorry. As Atran sees it, this is not really a theological question. It’s more fundamental than fundamentalism. The need for dignity and respect—a craving for recognition and vindication—is at the heart of the region’s most intractable conflicts. Such issues defy conventional notions of cost and benefit, says Atran, who holds distinguished posts at the University of Michigan, John Jay College in New York and the National Center for Scientific Research in France.

“Somos buenos por naturaleza? La ciencia estudia si existe una moral innata,” por Cristina Saez, LA VANGUARDIA 

Para Scott Atran, antropólogo y director del Centro Nacional de Investigación Científica (CNRS) en París, esa idea tiene sentido: la moral nació como una especie de pegamento social. “Necesitamos cooperar para competir –afirma–. Hace 200.000 años, nuestros antepasados necesitaban mucha proteína para desarrollar su cerebro y tenían que cazar mucho y, además, tenían que defenderse de otros grupos –había mucha rivalidad– y animales más fuertes que ellos. El ser humano llegó a ser su mejor presa y también su peor enemigo, y tuvo que aprender a cooperar para sobrevivir”. Eso sí, remarca tran, “nuestra moral para cooperar está limitada al parentesco y al grupo. Si consideras que alguien no es de los tuyos, no lo ayudarás”.

“La ciencia es más efectiva que la política,” Toni Poli, lunes, 02 de marzo de 2009, Publico

Scott Atran (Nueva York, 1952) se ríe abiertamente de algunos procedimientos policiales. Y lo hace cargado de las razones que le da la ciencia. Este antropólogo, profesor de la Universidad de Michigan y del John Jay College of Criminal Justice de Nueva York e investigador del Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique de París, lleva años aplicando los conocimientos científicos a la lucha contra el terrorismo. Atran, que ha visitado Barcelona invitado por CosmoCaixa, advierte de que la aplicación del método científico a la lucha contra el terrorismo puede parecer extraña, pero asegura que no lo es en absoluto: “De una manera analítica y rigurosa, la ciencia puede confirmar teorías sobre religión, astronomía, biología, terrorismo Y, por supuesto, en este caso, es mucho más efectiva que la política, porque en política hay mucha especulación. La mayoría de las hipótesis de políticos y periodistas son falsas”, insiste el antropólogo.

“Darwin 200: Human nature: the remix – Universal religion,” by Dan Jones, Nature, February 11, 2009, v. 457, p. 782 

Whereas human individuals can be atheists, and an increasing number are, human societies are historically universally religious. The detailed beliefs that people have about the powers and roles of deities are not universal or innate. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t share a common cognitive basis. “There is no God part of the brain,” says anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “But there are many different kinds of universal process involved in religious thinking that converge to generate a set of family resemblances between religions across cultures.” Much of the evidence for this claim comes from developmental studies with children. “Supernatural thought is so ubiquitous in part because it is so readily accommodated by human cognitive systems from early childhood,” says Justin Barrett, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “Children seem naturally predisposed to accept the idea that there exist supernatural intentional agents, that the natural world is intentionally designed and purposeful, and that something of human identity is separable from human bodies, allowing for ready belief in some kind of afterlife.” But although supernatural beliefs may be in this sense ‘natural’, they also typically violate assumptions about how the natural world works that seem also to be hard-wired. A god, for example, has most of the properties of a human, with key exceptions; it may not, for example, have a body. Atran suggests that such violations can make certain supernatural concepts more salient and memorable. At the same time, too many violations can make them confusing. So the deities and supernatural agents that populate the world’s belief systems fall into a family, with each member being like a natural object in many respects, and decidedly unlike anything natural in a few others. Atran suggests that religious belief may have been particularly important in the cultural evolution of large-scale societies. As societies grow, it can be harder to enforce moral and altruistic norms, and punish free-riders on the public good. This in turn can make such societies less cohesive and less able to compete with other expanding societies. “Moral deities do lots of things,” says Atran. “Crucially, they define the sacred boundaries of societies and the taboo things you can’t do. If you really believe in these moral gods then the problem of punishment becomes easier, as you punish yourself.”

“Born believers: How your brain creates God ,” by Michael Brooks, NEW SCIENTIST, February 4, 2009

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30) The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. “I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion,” he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread. An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works.

“No Melting in Gaza’s Ice Cream War,” by Alastair Macdonald, REUTERS, Janurary 29, 2009 

For those feeling it may all just be too depressingly intractable even for a new US president who shoulders as many aspirations as Barack Obama, an op-ed in the New York Times by an anthropologist, Scott Atran, and a psychologist, Jeremy Ginges, might offer an explanation, and even a glimmer of hope. “Diplomats hope that peace and concrete progress on material and quality-of-life matters (electricity, water, agriculture, the economy and so on) will eventually make people forget the more heartfelt issues,” they wrote. “But this is only a recipe for another Hundred Years’ War.” They went on, however, to indicate how apparently only symbolic concessions by the other side – say, an apology by Israel to Palestinian refugees, or a sincere embrace by Palestinians of the state of Israel’s rights – might yet begin to loosen the deadlock. There’s a thought.

“Obama’s outreach to Muslims laudable but passions lack reasonable solutions,” Susan Jacoby, Washington Post & Newsweek Blog, January 29, 2009

I mention a four-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department, of the views of 4000 Israelis and Palestinians. A common theme, reported by researchers Jeremy Ginges (an anthropologist) and Scott Atran (a psychologist) is that both groups reject ideas generally offered by diplomats–such as trading land for peace or sharing control of Jerusalem–because such proposals contradict “sacred” religious values.

“Doing the Right Thing Will Solve the Mid-East Crisis and is Good for Your Mental Health,” Lee Grant, Huffington Post, January 29, 2009

The back page of the New York Times, Week in Review section had an anthropologist and a psychologist claiming a solution to the mid-east crisis. It’s not land, or money, or oil, or resources, or peace that the Palestinians and Israeli’s want. It’s words. More specifically, apologetic words. Acknowledgment words. Validation words. Atran and Ginges argued that people on both sides of the divide would choose raging war over sacrificing their values and what they believe in…. The mid-east crisis is an extreme example, but I see this principle in action every day in my job. In the cancer hospital where I work, nurses and doctors will quit because of the unethical things they have no control over.

“Respect for Sacred Values is Key to Conflict Resolution,” National Science Foundation Discovery, January 7, 2009

A team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation is investigating the role of ethical and religious beliefs, or “sacred values,” in motivating human behavior. The team’s most significant finding is that individuals who hold sacred values are rarely willing to barter them for economic gain. “It’s easy to assume that all players approach the world with similar sets of rational choices but ignoring or disregarding the sacred value frameworks across cultures may exacerbate conflict, with grievous loss of national treasure and lives,” said Scott Atran, visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. Atran is also a presidential scholar at John Jay University and holds a tenured position as director of research in anthropology for the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris. The Michigan-led research team included members from Northwestern University, the New School, Harvard University and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

El Periódico (Spain, “Scott Atran: ‘A los terroristas les mueve el deseo de gloria’,” by Nuria Navarro, 27 November 2008)

–Lo pinta todo muy estructurado, pero son imprevisibles. –Solo un 7% de los 1.200 millones de musulmanes apoya la yihad. De esos 90 millones, hay 2.400 arrestados en Europa; 3.000, en Arabia, y 66, en EEUU. Es una cantidad ínfima. Y los mejores predicadores, según un estudio, son los amigos, los del equipo de fútbol, los colegas del cámping. –Total, los analistas yerran. –Los analistas del terrorismo miran a los tipos implicados en un ataque, y eso no es lo importante. No hay organización. No hay células. Llegan, entran, salen. ¿La solución? Se necesita un trabajo de abajo arriba. Hay que darles héroes, sueños que realizar. En EEUU, en el momento en que se producía la gran oleada de inmigración y el éxodo del campo a la ciudad, para canalizar la energía de los machos jóvenes fomentaron los boy scouts, por ejemplo.

“Coddling Human Guinea Pigs,” by Sharon Begley, NEWSWEEK, 9 August 2008 

A few years ago anthropologist Scott Atran, who has done pioneering work on what drives people to become terrorists, asked the panel at the University of Michigan, where he is a professor, to OK a study funded by the National Science Foundation in which he would interview terrorists, including jailed members of the group behind the 2005 Bali bombing. The panel balked. Prisoners are in no position to give informed consent, it said. There was grave concern that the prisoners might reveal plans that could get them in more trouble. The panel, which included a musicologist and a journalist, forbade Atran from asking the jihadis personal questions (even though a goal of the study was learning what motivates someone to become a terrorist); doing so would violate their right to privacy. Eventually Atran got a partial OK, but the experience made one thing crystal clear to him. “Most of this,” he says, “is nuts.”

“Jihadi Cool,” by Christopher Dickey, NEWSWEEK 15 April 2008 

Scott Atran is an anthropologist who studies the kids who keep Al Qaeda and its spinoffs going. They’re young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005 and hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006. Atran has looked at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them.

“Top 75 Questions of Science,” DISCOVER Magazine, special issue, Spring 2008 

LA VANGUARDIA (Spain) “El terrorista se inmola para ser admirado por su célula” 

intrevista con Scott Atran, par Lluis Amiguet, 30 january 2008

“Darwin’sGod,” New York Times Magazine, by Robin Marantz Henig, March 4, 2007 

God has always been a puzzle for Scott Atran. When he was 10 years old, he scrawled a plaintive message on the wall of his bedroom in Baltimore. “God exists,” he wrote in black and orange paint, “or if he doesn’t, we’re in trouble.” Atran has been struggling with questions about religion ever since — why he himself no longer believes in God and why so many other people, everywhere in the world, apparently do. Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, “belief in hope beyond reason” ….

“Discover Dialogue: Anthropologist Scott Atran,” by J. Glausiuscz 
Discover Magazine, October 2003

“Genèse de l’attentat suicide,” Courrier International, 8 août 2003 

“Suicide Terrorism: Seeking Motives Beyond Mental Illness,” by K. Perina 
Psychology Today, Sept.-Oct. 2002

“Researchers Study Suicide Attacks,” by M. Kelley 
Associated Press, 6 March 2003

“Professor Disputes U.S. View of Culprits,” by J. Laidman
The Toledo Blade , 7 March 2003

“Fast Food Und Fast Death,” A. Shrivastava
Netzeitung, 20 March 2003

“Suicide bombers made, not born: scientist,” by M. Fox
Reuters Wire – ABC – MSNBC, 7 March 2003

“Likely Suicide Bombers Include Profiles You’d Never Suspect,” by S. Begley
Wall Street Journal,4 April 2003

“L’énigme des bombes humaines”, by M. de Pracontal
Le Nouvel Observateur, 17April 2003

“Thinking Green,” by E. Benson
APA Monitor,American Psychological Association,April 2003

“Mind – The Adaptive gap,” by E. Russo
The Scientist, 1 March 2004

“The Terrorists Cast Their Votes,” by L. Pintak (
Detroit Free Press,18 March 2004

“Shining New Light on terror: Social Scientist Challenges Conventional Thinking,”
Ann Arbor News, 28 March 2004

“Al Qaida Revealed Spain Strategy Last Year” 
Geostrategy-Direct Intelligence Brief, 24 April 2004

“Alternative Peer Groups May Offer Way to Deter Some Suicide Bombers,” S. Begley
Wall Street Journal, 8 October 2004

“Mindblind,” by I. Hacking
London Review of Books, 21 October 2004

“Inside London Terrorists’ Minds,” H. Kennedy
New York Daily News, front page, Sunday July 17, 2005

Lessons of the London Bombings, 18 July 2005

Nation Journal Cover Story
“Counter-Terrorism at the Crossroads,” 15 July 2005

“Terroristes en quête de compassion – Interview de Scott Atran”
Pour la Science, Septembre 2005, no. 11

“Fundamentalists are Just Like Us,” Michael Brooks, New Scientist magazine, October 8, 2005, 

Article Preview Fundamentalists are just like usPremium * 08 October 2005 * Michael Brooks * Magazine issue 2520 We are all capable of thinking fundamentalist thoughts. It’s when like-minded people get together that the trouble starts SCOTT ATRAN knows a thing or two about fundamentalists, and as far as he’s concerned, they are nice people. “I certainly find very little hatred; they act out of love,” he says. “These people are very compassionate.” Atran, who studies group dynamics at the University of Michigan, is talking about suicide bombers, extremists by anyone’s standards and not representative of fundamentalist ideology in general (New Scientist, 23 July, page 18). But surprisingly, much of what Atran has discovered about suicide bombers helps to explain the psychology of all fundamentalist movements.

“Indonesia’s Terrorist Underground Mutates,” Marian Wilkinson, Sydney Morning Herald, October 8, 2005

“Web May Seal Suicide Bombers’ Fate,” AGENÇE FRANCE-PRESSE 29 Sept. 2005 

Islamic terrorism is being promoted by a phenomenal growth in jihadist Web sites, which have grown from fewer than 20 five years ago to more than 4,000 today, according to French and US researchers writing correspondence published in the September 29 issue of the prestigious journal Nature.

“”La religion bouscule notre perception du monde” (interview de Scott Atran)” 
Science & Vie – N°1055 – août 2005, pp. 64-66

“Outside View: Bali Not Linked to Iraq,” United Press International, October 7, 2005

“A Chilling Message for Infidels”
The First Post Weekly Magazine, October 10, 2005

“Virtual Jihad,” Scientific American, January 2006

“The Internet as the Ideal Recruiting Tool,” by Luis Miguel Ariza (based in part on interviews with S. Atran)

Wall Street Journal Aug 25 2006

The Key to Peace In Mideast May Be ‘Sacred Beliefs’ August 25, 2006; Page A9 “If suicide bombings and intractable conflicts make you think the world has gone mad, Scott Atran can confirm your impression is correct: In many conflicts, reason and rationality have left the building….

“Al-Qaeda yields to the elusive cells of the chatroom,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 11 September 2006, by Edward Alden and Stephen Fidler

“Everything has changed,” says Scott Atran of the University of Michigan. US-led military action in Afghanistan deprived al-Qaeda of its operating headquarters soon after 9/11, along with much of its leadership. With them, the organisation led by Osama bin Laden and his chief ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, lost much of its capability to plan and direct sophisticated terrorist attacks. Now, it is best understood, he says, as “a media-driven transnational movement that has excited young people all over the Muslim world”.

The Tribune (India, “The Blunder that Cost the War on Terror,” Ashish Sen, 16 September 2006) 

Financial TImes, 6 July 2007, “From Alienation to Annihilation,” by Stephen Fidler 

Why do they do it? What is it that turns young men, some with good life prospects, into suicide bombers? Scott Atran, a US academic who has conducted scores of interviews with families, friends and neighbours of suicide bombers, points to one common factor: publicity. “The difference between terror and other forms of violence . . . is publicity,” he says…. Publicity helps to provoke governments into overreaction and turns terrorists into media stars, and heroes in their own milieux, he says. Mr Atran’s conversations with children in the poor neighbourhood of Mezuak in the Moroccan city of Tetuan, show they dream of becoming either Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballer, or Osama bin Laden.

“What Role Did Al Qaeda Play?,” The Guardian, by Jason Burke, 31 October 2007

It didn’t fund the Madrid bombings or provide the training; but its scant links to the bombers tells us a lot about the nature of modern Islamist militancy.

“The Worst Islamist Attack in European History,” The Guardian, by Paul Hamilos, 31 October 2007

Scott Atran, an American academic who has investigated the Hamburg cell connected to the September 11 2001 attacks in the US and numerous other terrorist attacks around the world, witnessed much of the trial and described it as “a complete farce”. There has been much speculation in the press that the al-Qaida leadership was involved in some form in the Madrid attacks, but Mr Atran dismissed this, and the investigation provided no evidence to support it. “There isn’t the slightest bit of evidence of any operational relationship with al-Qaida,” said Mr Atran. “We’re been looking at it closely for years and we’ve been briefed by everybody under the sun and … nothing connects them. “The overwhelming majority of [terrorist cells] in Europe have nothing to do with al-Qaida other than a vague relationship of ideology. And even that ideology is fairly superficial – it’s basically a reaction to what they see as a war on Islam around the world,” he said. But, argued Mr Atran, people needed to believe that something bigger was involved – it was hard to accept that a small, loosely connected group of young men could carry out an attack on this scale without outside assistance. “These young men radicalised themselves,” he said.

“Ronaldinho contra Bin Laden,” por ÁNGEL MARÍN 
ABC (Spanish daily, 8 December 2007)

“Jihadi Cool” (Arabic version of NEWSWEEK article by Christopher Dicky, 15 April 2008) 

“Terrorism Is A Social Problem, Not A Mental Health Or Criminal Problem,” Medical News Today, 4 July 2008 

“The battle of reconstruction,” by Paul Woodward, The Nationa (Arab Emirates), January 26, 2009

“Tenemos cerebros de la edad de piedra en la era espacial,” Muy Interesante (Spain), no 332, enero 2009

ANTROPOLOGÍA Raíces de la moralidad ¿Nacemos buenos o aprendemos a serlo? La ciencia trata de averiguar de dónde proceden las convicciones morales que guían nuestro comportamiento. Scott Atran lleva toda una vida dedicado a intentar entender por qué un buen día un persona decide subirse a un tren con una mochila cargada de bombas y sacrificar su vida en pro de una creencia. A través de las herramientas de la neurociencia cognitiva y la psicología evolutiva, analiza, disecciona y pone bajo el escáner religión, cultura y política para ver qué papel tienen a la hora de determinar las elecciones racionales de los individuos. Antropólogo, profesor de la Universidad de Michigan y del Colegio Universitario de Justicia Penal John Jay (Nueva York), dirige el centro nacional de investigación científica en París (CNRS). A finales de noviembre participó en Barcelona en las jornadas “Valores,empatía y barreras sociales: una aproximación neurocognitiva a la moralidad”, organizadas pro la cátedra del cerebro social de la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. Hay un experimento muy divertido en el que a un mono se le da un pepino y a otro, uvas. El mono al que le ha tocado el pepino mira su premio y el del otro mono y, enfadado, reacciona tirándoselo a la cara del tipo que hace el experimento; después se vuelve, se cruza de brazos y les da la espalda. ¡Es injusto! A él le toca un pepino y al otro… ¡uvas! De manera que el concepto de justicia no es exclusivo del ser humano. ¿Es algo innato o tenemos que aprenderlo? Hay bases biológicas para la justicia. Hace cerca de 100.000 años, el ser humano vivía en África, mientras los neardentales se expandían por todo el mundo. La población se redujo a unos 2000 individuos y estaba casi al borde de la extinción. Y para sobrevivir, tuvo que aprender a cooperar, a ayudarse unos a otros, a formar equipos tanto para cazar como para defenderse de animales más fuertes que él. Por eso el ser humano es ahora de forma innata cooperador. O sea que, cuando ayudamos a otros, no estamos siendo altruistas, sino que estamos mirando por nuestro propio bien. Así es, necesitamos cooperar para competir. Y eso lo hemos aprendido de la evolución. Cuando empezaron a producirse las primeras migraciones desde África hacia el resto del planeta, el hombre se convirtió en su peor peligro y en su mejor presa. Por eso aparecieron las religiones, la moral, y se convirtieron en una especie de pegamento social. La historia de la humanidad es la historia del auge de civilizaciones morales. ¿Sólo somos morales con ‘los nuestros’? Nuestra moral para cooperar está limitada al parentesco y al grupo. Tenemos valores sagrados, concepción de quién forma parte del grupo y si crees que alguien no comparte tus valores, no lo tratas con interés. Por eso las negociaciones políticas son muy dificiles, porque los grupos con valores culturales muy diferentes no se reconocen unos a los otros. ¿No hay unos principios morales universales? En occidente, tenemos una moral de nuestra sociedad, que, en cierta manera, es global, y procede del monoteísmo secular. Puede que no creamos en dios, pero sí en la legalidad, en los derechos de las personas, y pensamos que todo el mundo pertenece a esa moral, por lo que aplicamos los mismos principios tanto si tenemos delante a un español, un chino o un peruano. Pero en otras sociedades eso no es así. Una tribú del Amazonas peruano, por ejemplo, arranca la cabeza a los miembros de otras tribus como ritual para simbolizar el paso de niño a hombre, tanto da sin son bebés, ancianos, mujeres.Hasta que algo no pasa a formar parte de tus valores sagrados, no produce rechazo. Es lo que ocurrió con la esclavitud. ¡Hasta 2003 había esclavos en Mali! En Estados Unidos se prohibieron en 1863; en Europa, hacia 1830. Es relativamente muy reciente si pensamos en los dos mil y pico de años de historia que llevamos. Resulta duro pensar que sólo vamos a ser compasivos, a tener cierta moral y justicia con aquellos que son de nuestro grupo. ¡Pero es que eso es innato, universal! Como el racismo. La manera más rápida de distinguir entre tu grupo y otro, de saber si puedes confiar en el que tienes delante en un segundo es mirando si habla el mismo idioma, tiene el mismo acento, la misma piel. El racismo no es innato pero en todas las sociedades existe por esa razón, por el miedo a que nos hagan daño. Y requiere mucho trabajo y esfuerzo borrar esa tendencia. Es lo que como pasó con la esclavitud: hemos necesitado 200.000 años para escapar de ese peso de nuestra herencia evolutiva. Tenemos cerebros de la edad de piedra, en la edad espacial. (entrevista publicada en la revista Muy Interesante de Enero 2009)

“Universali umani a Parigi e New York » November 7, 2009 
Il Sole 24 Ore )Italy)

“Osama bin Laden and jihadists love soccer and the World Cup, use as recruitment tool,” A. Shahid, New York Daily News, July 7, 2010 

“Jihad vs. the World Cup? Not if Bin Laden has his say,” by R. Simioni, HA’ARETZ, July 9, 2010

“Thinking outside of the box about Hamas,” by Carlo Strenger, Ha’aretz, July 18, 2010