Scott Atran, co-founder of Artis International and author of “Talking to the Enemy,” is an anthropologist who also holds positions at the University of Michigan, University of Oxford and France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
The violence in Charlottesville last weekend may seem new to some Americans: A white supremacist terrorizing protesters with his car, killing and maiming nearly at random. But in fact, the scene is painfully familiar, recalling recent attacks by vehicles in London, Nice and Berlin — all inspired by the Islamic State.
In the days since, members of the Charlottesville community have grappled with what could have been done to prevent the incident. As the attacker’s former high school teacher said: “I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country.”
Indeed, the values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical Islam — similar to attacks on republican values by fascists and communists in the 1920s and 1930s.
But this is not a “clash of civilizations”; it’s a collapse of communities. Ethno-nationalist violent extremism — as well as jihadi terrorism — represent not the resurgence of traditional cultures but their unraveling. Young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory.
This is the dark side of globalization. Individuals radicalize while seeking identity in an increasingly flattened world. We have replaced vertical lines of communication between generations with horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe, but paradoxically within ever-narrower channels for information. Without broad awareness and serious effort at guidance, we risk fanning violent passions to our likely detriment and that of others across the world.
The “creative destruction” of our market-based economy, which forces people to gamble on innovation and change, often comes at steep social cost, especially for communities and regions that have little time to adapt. New institutions eclipse spiritual values of traditional communities, long-standing cultures and religions. Anxiety and alienation along prevailing political fault lines often erupt in the form of redemptive violence.
Religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called this the “dizziness of freedom.” Humanist philosopher Erich Fromm argued that social disruption leads people to seek stability in authoritarian systems, such as Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism.
My research team’s ongoing work on radicalization among young people seems to confirm those theories. In Hungary, we find that youths today strongly support the government’s call for restoring the “national cohesion” of the country’s former fascist, pro-Nazi regime. And in Iraq, we find nearly all young people we interview who are coming out from under Islamic State rule in Mosul initially welcomed it for stability and security amid the chaos following the U.S. invasion. In Eastern Europe, people increasingly reject democracy as a competition of values that divides “The Nation,” and in the Middle East, people view “God’s Law” as the value that keeps person and society whole.
In the West, left-leaning working-class communities disadvantaged by economic globalization and right-leaning defenders of cultural ideals threatened by multicultural globalism have joined populist movements that reaffirm the primacy of the nation-state. They reject international alliances and abhor political correctness and the push for cultural diversity. In other parts of the world, transnational terrorist movements have enabled violent groups to reach increasingly marginalized immigrant communities, destabilizing host societies in Europe and elsewhere.
Fearful of the chauvinism and xenophobia that fed two world wars, many Western leaders and members of the media simply denounce as “bigoted” or “racist” the concern with national identity or cultural preference. Instead of seeking alternatives to leaving defense of heartfelt patriotism and value preference — including traditional religious values — to political fringe groups that increasingly encroach on the mainstream, there is an ostrich-like blindness to panhuman preferences for one’s own.
But across cultures, the strongest forms of primary group identity are bounded by sacred values, such as an unwillingness to sell out one’s religion or one’s country at any cost. Such devotion — whether religious or attached to a secular ideological “-ism” — leads some groups to prevail despite having considerably less firepower and manpower than the state armies and police forces they oppose.
The resolution of these seemingly intractable conflicts requires intimate and long-term commitment to exploring the limits of one’s own tolerance and respect. As one imam who formerly recruited for the Islamic State told me: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; we have to give them a better, positive message.”
We need a strategy to redirect radicalized youth by engaging with their passions, rather than simply ignoring or fearing or satisfying ourselves by denouncing them.