22 March 2016

The Anthropology of Terrorism: Learning about threat, fear, and community building in times of loss and anguish

I chose today to write about terrorism as another bomb blast rocks the European world, not because it was any more important than the blasts that rocked Ankara just last week but because the media coverage, and backlash, will be much more pronounced here in Canada and North America in general than what came of the former (see Rhiannon's previous post on who and what makes the news to understand why). It is also another event in a series of terrorist threats and actions that seemingly culminates around the terrorist group ISIS.

Let me ask, do any of the words in the above title of this post strike you as odd? While I'm sure the words threat and fear will be used in media coverage over the next week, as well as loss and perhaps anguish, community building might wait to surface until the aftermath of this event. That is, what happens in everyday life in Brussels after the alarm and urgency of this tragic event have passed (and just a note here, I speak for both myself and Rhiannon when I write that we are both deeply saddened by the loss of life and the wounds inflicted by this event - it is not my intention to only use this event as a set of circumstances to discuss anthropology but instead, to write and discuss the very real and pertinent way this event will/has affect(ed) us all, and how an anthropological perspective can help us make sense of such events that connect local lives with global processes).

In January 2015, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who interviews "would-be and convicted terrorists about their extreme commitment to their organizations and ideals," was interviewed for an article in Scientific American in order to help answer questions that juxtapose religion, European culture and influence from terrorist organizations. Atran is noted as one of the few anthropologists studying in this area and uses this article to try and describe what events could lead human beings to decide to carry out a terrorist attack.

Below are some of the highlights from this interview:
1. ISIS cultivates would-be terrorists by appealing to feelings and experiences of social inequality. They tell them: "Look, you're on the outs, nobody cares about you, but look what we can do. We can change the world."
2. Terrorists must be self-motivated - "Even if people buy into the [ISIS or Al Qaeda] ideology, buy into the values, it’s far from a sufficient condition [to carry out an attack]". Instead, these actions are cultivated over time through a network of similarly-minded individuals: "The best predictors turn out to be things like who your friends are and whether you belong to some action group".
3. Mosques are not fertile ground for terrorist plots. Atran states (and was questioned in relation to the Paris attacks): "In the case of the Kouachi brothers [who committed the Charlie Hebdo attack], [they] had the greatest bonding experience - prison [Atran notes earlier in the article that "France has about 7.5% Muslims and [they make] up to 60–75% of the prison population. It’s a very similar situation to black youth in the United States"]. But it could be soccer, it could be whitewater rafting". This follows what Atran stated earlier in the interview: "Plots never occur in mosques: you have to be quiet in a mosque. They occur in fast food places, soccer fields, picnics and barbecues".

There is a lot of emotion surrounding any terrorist attack (I've been using the word 'event' above as a means to think through what is happening in a less emotional manner). As an anthropologist, one might take a step back to look at events holistically: What is happening at this moment in Belgium or the EU that would lead to the culmination of these events? What would lead these attackers, on a societal level, to commit such acts?  

One might also think about the specificity surrounding such an event. In the news articles coming out of Brussels, many of those interviewed noted that they heard 'yelling in Arabic' before the bomb exploded. An anthropologist might make note of the following:

All Arabic speakers are NOT terrorists
All Muslims are NOT Arabic speakers
All terrorists are NOT Muslims
Individuals commit terrorist acts. Full stop.

Thinking about these perpetrators as individuals committing actions on behalf of a small group (even if they act on behalf of ISIS) is important to remember when thinking about the potential fall out this event could have for those living in Brussels and in greater Belgium (including Muslim Belgians).

As Robb Willer has recently argued, terrorist events drive up feelings of nationalism, particularly in presidential elections. Although it likely comes as no surprise, demagogue Donald Trump has already phoned into right-wing news houses to lay blame at Brussels' feet, he has linked these attacks to the recent refugee crisis, and whipped up more terror and fear among the American public. Willer goes on to note that terrorist attacks not only bring national communities together but create a more sharp dividing line between who is and who is not a part of the national community.

It's with an anthropological lens, and other critical social science theories and approaches, that one might think not only of the short term but long term effects of the actions following such an attack.

My heart and thoughts are with those in Brussels today.