scott_atran's picture
Anthropologist; Emeritus Research Director, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris; Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford; Author, Talking to the Enemy
The Religious Politics of Fictive Kinship

I am an anthropologist who has traveled to many places and met many different kinds of people. I try to know what it is like to be someone very different from me in order to better understand what it means to be human. But it is only in the last few years that my thinking has deeply changed on what drives major differences between animal and human behavior, such as willingness to kill and die for a cause.

I once thought that individual cognition and personality, influences from broad socio-economic factors, and degree of devotion to religious or political ideology were determinant. Now I see friendship and others aspects of small group dynamics, especially acting together, trumping most everything else.

Here's an anecdote that kick-started me thinking about this.

While preparing a psychological experiment on limits of rational choice with Muslim mujahedin on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi, I noticed tears welling in my traveling companion and bodyguard, Farhin (who had earlier hosted 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed in Jakarta and helped to blow up the Philippines' ambassador's residence). Farhin had just heard of a young man recently been killed in a skirmish with Christian fighters.

"Farhin," I asked, "you knew the boy?"

"No," he said, "but he was only in the jihad a few weeks. I've been fighting since Afghanistan [late 1980s] and still not a martyr."

I tried consoling with my own disbelief, "But you love your wife and children."

"Yes," he nodded sadly, "God has given this, and I must have faith in His way."

I had come to the limits of my understanding of the other. There was something in Farhin that was incalculably different from me yet almost everything else was not.

"Farhin, in all those years, after you and the others came back from Afghanistan, how did you stay a part of the Jihad?" I asked.

I expected him to tell me about his religious fervor and devotion to a Great Cause.

"The (Indonesian) Afghan Alumni never stopped playing soccer together," he replied matter-of-factly, "that's when we were closest together in the camp." He smiled, "except when we went on vacation to fight the communists, we played soccer and remained brothers."

Maybe people don't kill and die simply for a cause. They do it for friends — campmates, schoolmates, workmates, soccer buddies, body-building buddies, pin-ball buddies — who share a cause. Some die for dreams of jihad — of justice and glory — but nearly all in devotion to a family-like group of friends and mentors, of "fictive kin."

Then it became embarrassingly obvious: it is no accident that nearly all religious and political movements express allegiance through the idiom of the family — Brothers and Sisters, Children of God, Fatherland, Motherland, Homeland, and the like. Nearly all such movements require subordination, or at least assimilation, of any real family (genetic kinship) to the larger imagined community of "Brothers and Sisters." Indeed, the complete subordination of biological loyalty to ideological loyalty for the Ikhwan, the "Brotherhood" of the Prophet, is Islam's original meaning, "Submission."

My research team has analyzed every attack by Farhin and his friends, who belong to Southeast Asia's Jemmah Islamiyah (JI). I have interviewed key JI operatives (including co-founder, Abu Bakr Ba'asyir) and counterterrorism officials who track JI. Our data show that support for suicide actions is triggered by moral outrage at perceived attacks against Islam and sacred values, but this is converted to action as a result of small world factors. Out of millions who express sympathy with global jihad, only a few thousand show willingness to commit violence. They tend to go to violence in small groups consisting mostly of friends, and some kin. These groups arise within specific "scenes": neighborhoods, schools (classes, dorms), workplaces and common leisure activities (soccer, mosque, barbershop, café, online chat-rooms).

Three other examples:

1. In Al Qaeda, about 70 percent join with friends, 20 percent with kin. Our interviews with friends of the 9/11 suicide pilots reveal they weren't "recruited" into Qaeda. They were Middle Eastern Arabs isolated in a Moroccan Islamic community in a Hamburg suburb. Seeking friendship, they started hanging out after mosque services, in local restaurants and barbershops, eventually living together when they self-radicalized. They wanted to go to Chechnya, then Kosovo, only landing in a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as a distant third choice. 

2. Five of the seven plotters in the 2004 Madrid train bombing who blew themselves up when cornered by police grew up in the tumble-down neighborhood of Jemaa Mezuaq in Tetuan, Morocco. In 2006, at least five more young Mezuaq men went to Iraq on "martyrdom missions." One in the Madrid group was related to one in the Iraq group by marriage; each group included a pair of brothers. All went to the same elementary school, all but one to the same high school. They played soccer as friends, went to the same mosque, mingled in the same cafes. 

3. Hamas's most sustained suicide bombing campaign in 2003 (Hamas suspended bombings in 2004) involved seven soccer buddies from Hebron's Abu Katila neighborhood, including four kin (Kawasmeh clan).

Social psychology tends to support the finding that "groupthink" often trumps individual volition and knowledge, whether in our society or any other. But for Americans bred on a constant diet of individualism the group is not where one generally looks for explanation. This was particularly true for me, but the data caused me to change my mind.