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The Boston Marathon bombings and the scientific study of religion

BostonMuch to the chagrin of the vast majority of Muslims around the world, the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing were Muslim. Once again, a fringe group within Islam has cast a dark shadow on all of Islam. While one should not associate Islam with terrorism, neither should one completely dismiss the role religion played in motivating the bombers. Aiming to shed light on the issue of the religious motivations of the Boston bombers, anthropologist Scott Atran (John Jay college) notes the homegrown, decentralized nature of modern Islamic terrorism.

That is, Islamic terrorists who target Western nations rarely belong to a wider, international coalition or organization. Instead, they tend to arrive to their new country as a family or tightknit group, and later develop plots of violence through family networks (as was exactly the case in Boston). This means that these Jihadists see themselves through the doubly heroic lenses of being willing to die for both Islam and family. While in the Boston case the older brother may have received specialized education from overseas, Atran’s research indicates that this is far from necessary—all that is needed for radicalization and for gaining the knowledge for committing acts of terrorism is the Internet.

That said, the Boston bombers did have much in common with the “typical” Islamic terrorist. Those most vulnerable to sliding into extremist Islam are those in a transitional period in their lives (for example, being a student or an immigrant). Those who do fall into extremism tend to have a secular education and join in their late teens or 20s. Jihad lures its young recruits with a meaningful life, fellowship, adventure, and victory. The radicalization process can take between just a few days to years.

Again, the entire process involves no overarching hierarchy but simply familial extremists and the Internet—what Atran calls “organized anarchy.” In other words, becoming a terrorist occurs locally, not globally—the Internet can provide motivation and know-how, but to hook someone requires already established intimate connections (for instance, a blood relative). The terror “network” that results consists merely of very small groups of young men who carry out their acts of violence without any real guidance or long-term planning. As seen in the Boston case, the younger brother went to school the next day, as if certain no one would figure him out.

Atran identifies three major characteristics of this “organized anarchy.” First, its followers adhere to vague goals that provide powerful rhetoric but little more (for example, the goal of seeking vengeance against all who treat Muslims unjustly). Second, these terrorists lack extensive training and so decide what kinds of acts of violence to commit from past experience and trial and error. Finally, disenfranchised young men seek out these terrorist groups, not vice-versa, and naturally familial connections provide a safe path to joining an extremist group. It cannot be emphasized enough that these groups are not part of a larger terrorist organization—at most, they derive inspiration and gain technical expertise from terrorist websites.

Facing the reality of Islamic terrorism’s less-than-overwhelming power (not to minimize those killed in Boston or on 9/11, but simply to compare the might of local immigrants to national military forces), Atran worries that the US media’s overreaction gives the terrorists the glory they desire. These terrorists see themselves as an oppressed minority fighting against impossible odds. The more attention they can stir and the more the media overplays their acts of violence, the more encouraged they feel that they have made a real difference in their struggle for Jihad. The media, of course, intends to show how despicable such acts are, but from the perspective of the people committing these “despicable” acts, the more the media harps on them, the more victorious they feel.

Without getting into politics, the scientific study of religion, as seen in Atran’s research, can provide helpful insights on how to address Islamic terrorism by dissecting the steps that leads someone to become an extremist. With a basic outline of the process and the likely candidates sketched, hopefully politicians can put the science to good use and prevent future attacks.

For more, see “Black and White and Red All Over” in Foreign Policy, as well as Atran and colleagues’ massive report (direct link to PDF) on the issue.

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