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Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human Hardcover – 4 Nov 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 558 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; 1st edition (4 Nov. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846144124
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846144127
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.8 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 483,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


This deeply researched, wide ranging, and very timely study provides a compelling and often surprising account of what lies behind the jihadi phenomenon . . . . It should be read carefully, and pondered (Noam Chomsky )

Scott Atran is one of the very few persons who understand religion and have figured out that religion is not about belief and cannot be naively replaced without severe side effects (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Author Of The Black Swan )

A riveting account of the motivational basis of terrorism and field material of rare quality. Dismantling the myths that guide the so called war on terror, he provides the tools to address a global problem rationally and effectively (Carlo Strenger, Graduate Chair Of Clinical Psychology, Tel Aviv University, And Columnist For Ha'aretz )

The political implications of [Atran's] well-grounded analysis are profound but conveyed in an accessible style which left me excited and hopeful (John, Lord Alderdice, Chairman Of The Liberal Democrat Party In The House Of Lords, Former Speaker Of The Northern Ireland Assembly And President Of Liberal International )

Atran’s intellectual reach is prodigious; his analysis of the underpinnings of terrorism is instructive, if often unconventional; and his provocative prescriptions merit debate and consideration (Publishers Weekly )

Atran explores the way terrorists think about themselves and teaches us, at last, intelligent ways to think about terrorists. He puts the threat in perspective and provides keys to winning the fight against violent zealotry (Christopher Dickey, Newsweek Middle East Editor )

The stories Atran brings back from talking to jihadists and their supporters are gripping, and the result of his experiments that probe their sacred values are compelling. The insights he gains tell us more than we knew before about what it means to be human (Robert Axelrod, Walgreen Professor For The Study Of Human Understanding At The University Of Michigan )

Atran is one of the world’s most important thinkers on the local and global dynamics of violent Islamist extremism ... required reading for those trying to understand the problems of terrorism in the 21st century (Juan Zarate, Center For Strategic And International Studies, Deputy Assistant To The President And Deputy National Security Advisor For Combating Terrorism 2005 - 2009 )

Atran deploys his formidable knowledge ... to dissect the various dynamics that have helped form human individuals into groups, warbands, hunting parties or armies over the millennia ...Even more impressive is Atran's field research... research that underpins his vision of radical Islamic militancy as an adaptive social movement... A very useful addition to other, more mainstream understandings of what "al-Qaida" might be. (Jason Burke Observer )

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. (John Gray Literary Review )

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. (Richard Phelps Financial Times )

Talking to the Enemy is an important book, by turns fascinating, dense, scientific, debatable, illuminating. (David Aaronovitch The Times )

In this baggy, passionate and occasionally, but justifiably overwrought book... Atran breaks from the conventions to tell us that we have all got it wrong, especially when it comes to suicide terrorism. (Bryan Appleyard The Sunday Times and New Statesman )

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. (Michael Bond New Scientist )

What can be done to undo future jihadist networks? Renowned anthropologist Scott Atran has carried out a very thorough study with surprising findings on what motivates those who kill and die. (Luis Miguel Ariza El Pais )

Atran has given us a remarkably honest book, demonstrating that down-to-earth field work can give us a far superior understanding of what makes terrorists 'tick' than whole armies of armchair counter-terrorist 'experts'. (Alex Schmid Perspectives on Terrorism )

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. (David Shariatmadari Guardian )

Talking to the Enemy sets us – and our governments – straight about a long list of dubious assumptions…. He is sure that we should ‘talk before we shoot’, that the torture chamber is the wrong place to have this conversation, and that we must learn to distinguish real threats from imagined ones. (Jeremy Harding London Review of Books )

Overall, Talking to the Enemy is a captivating read that carries you from the most personal aspects of terrorists’ lives to the socio-historical determinants... despite the study’s unparalleled empirical evidence, it reads more like an adventure or mystery novel, than an academic book. But, then again, it might just be that this more captivating presentation of the subject makes us think deeper about it, breaking our stereotypical understanding of violent extremism. (Clara Volintiru LSE )

About the Author

Scott Atran is a director of research in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also a research associate and visiting professor in psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan, a Presidential Scholar in Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and cofounder of ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling.

Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've followed Atran's scientific studies on the cognitive foundations of religion over the last few years as well as his New York Times opeds on the kinds of people and events that keep Al Qaeda and its associates going. Although there are glimmers of how the two lines of research coalesce in these previous accounts, they give no hint of the richness of the connections explored in this book.

Where before there was "only" a general description of the the psychological structure and evolutionary underpinnings of all religions, now we have also an historical account of how history and circumstance molded these universals into the particular religions we know today, including their relation to the history of war and violence, as well as the development of modern civil and human rights.

Within this context, terrorism and violent extremism, including suicide bombings and genocide, are not so much bizarre exceptions to human behavior as infrequent but recurrent phenomena that punctuate and shape a course of human history that, while contingent and not foreseeable in advance, now looks as coherent and inevitable "as a gathering storm in a video run backwards."

But the most politically important and intellectually intriguing aspect of the book is the way the author weaves these initially disparate lines of thought into a practical program to end wars, including the so-called war on terror, by reframing each side's sacred values (such values, unlike material values, cannot be bargained with or compromised in a "business-like" negotiation sense and so must be managed in other ways).
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By F Henwood TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 3 Mar. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Scott Atran is a French-American anthropologist whose academic research is on the cognitive basis of religion. He has spent many years doing field work among violent jihadists - those whom we call the enemy - in Palestine, Indonesia, Pakistan and Morocco and elsewhere to find out what makes them tick. He brings back what he has found in this book.

And what has he found? What make terrorists and suicide bombers tick?

First of all, violent jihadists have not been brainwashed by their leaders into blowing people up. The sorts of things we know motivate young men to fight and kill throughout history also apply to them: the `band of brothers' syndrome, idealism, righteous indignation, a desire to make a difference, a discounting of the future, a need to feel one's life matters in this world. Young jihadists are radicalized from the bottom up: networks of young men, linked by kin and friendship, drive each other to do evil things: `terrorist networks are generally no different than the ordinary kinds of networks that guide people's career paths. It's the terrorist career that is remarkable, not the mostly normal individuals who become terrorists (pp 138-139).'

What we recognize as very ordinary motivations, rooted in peer pressure, can be applied to terrorists' motivations. Atran takes the example that of obesity: your chances of becoming obese increase by 57 per cent if a friend of yours becomes obese. Terrorists are band of brothers - `the key difference between terrorists and most people in the world lies not in individual pathologies, personality, education, income or in any other demographic factor but in small group dynamics where the relevant trait happens to be jihad rather than obesity (p. 233).
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Talking to the Enemy is an extended critique of current responses to Islamic terrorism by the American government from an anthropologist/evolutionary psychologist on the basis that (to simplify greatly) it currently focuses too much on 'hard power' and not enough resources devoted to winning over hearts and minds of their enemies, or at least understanding those hearts and minds. As Atran puts it 'if someone wants to kill you, its better to know why they want to kill you, so as to improve your chances of stopping them." 

Scott Atran walks a mile in the shoes of those who grew up in the same neighbourhoods of those who produced the Madrid and Bali bombers and reports that 'terrorist networks are generally no different than the ordinary kinds of social networks that guide people's career paths. Its the terrorist career itself that is most remarkable, not the mostly normal individuals who become terrorists..... The key difference between terrorists and most other people in the world lies not in personality, education, income or any other demographic factor, but in small group dynamics where the relevant trait just happens to be Jihad.... Small group dynamics can trump individual personality to produce horrific behaviour in ordinary people.'

Atran embeds this insight in a wealth of research concerning the evolutionary origins of religion in humans as an answer to the puzzle of how large-scale co-operative societies emerged in the first place when we have 'selfish genes.' Atran is thus critical of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and others who posit religion itself as the source of terrorism. Atran notes that 'we are a cultural species, evolved to have faith in culture.
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