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#NPRreads: Jihadist Culture, Turkish Delight And A Christian Abortion Provider

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the #NPRreads hashtag. On Fridays, we highlight some of the best stories.

This week, we bring you four items.

From foreign digital editor Hannah Bloch:

This is a fascinating look at the study of "jihadist culture," a little-known but growing area of study for those seeking to understand what makes people embrace Islamic extremism. We're so used to coverage of radical Islam that focuses on politics and violence, but this story takes us into a realm of research whose findings about the more emotional and softer side of violent, militant hardliners will surprise many people. Author Ursula Lindsey writes that Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment and other scholars have "come to believe that what jihadists do in their spare time — the jokes they tell, the poems they compose and recite, the ways they interpret each other's dreams and cry publicly — is equally important to gaining a deeper understanding of militant groups." Yes, you read that right: Jihadists tell jokes, write poetry (Osama bin Laden frequently recited poems in his speeches), take their dreams seriously and are not ashamed of weeping in front of each other — though only in certain circumstances (not, for example, for comrades who die in battle).

Gaining insight into the cultural roots of jihadism can help improve understanding of what makes it attractive to those who are susceptible. It also recognizes complexities not commonly acknowledged about the lure of Islamic extremism. Lindsey writes: "Implicit in the focus on jihadist culture, [Hegghammer] says, is 'a criticism of those who view terrorists as monsters and crazy people, and those who view them as victims of marginalization, poverty, racism' — of simplifications by observers on the right and the left of the political spectrum. 'Both approaches ignore the appeal of leading the jihadi life,' he says."

From Weekend Edition producer Sarah Handel:

What did you think Turkish Delight was when you first read C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe? I remember thinking it was probably some sort of crunchy, whipped confection, kind of like a meringue. I imagined it probably had walnuts in it, which I didn't like because I also didn't like Edmund and figured he'd be into them.

These days, I know I was wrong, and as it turns out, I wasn't the only kid who didn't know what it was. Jess Zimmerman dug into this culinary mystery for Atlas Obscura, and polled her friends about what they knew about Turkish Delight as children. They were mostly way off, just like me. Zimmerman "imagined it as a cross between crisp toffee and halvah," and many of her friends also based their understandings of the treat on what they'd have most liked to eat, say, "just layers and layers of marshmallows kind of smushed together, like a marshmallow cake" or "something nutty and chocolatey." I mean, this is the candy that led a boy to betray his family — go big or go home, right?

But I'm with Kevin Doherty, who thought Turkish Delight was like marzipan, which he hated. "I ... may have been subconsciously judging Edmund," he told Zimmerman. "Like, 'What a tool, I bet he likes marzipan, too.' "

From Annie Johnson, editorial researcher in the office of the ombudsman:

I found this piece via a Twitter user who credited this story and others like it with softening her strictly anti-abortion perspective. Esquire contributor John H. Richardson puts a personal face on the front lines of the right-to-life/right-to-choose debate in this piece. It follows Dr. Willie Parker, one of the doctors at the only women's clinic in the state of Mississippi that will still provide abortions. Though Parker endures threats and public taunting, he flies in each week to perform a service that "so few doctors are willing to provide." This profile explores his background, his "come to Jesus" moment, the diverse range of women he treats, and how he grapples with his own beliefs as a Christian abortion provider.

"The protesters say they're opposed to abortion because they're Christian," Parker says. "It's hard for them to accept that I do abortions because I'm a Christian."

From Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes:

In a week of grim news, here's a bright read from Wired. Classic video games are being used to teach computers to learn.

The piece explores a world I don't know much about ­— artificial intelligence. And a world I used to know a fair amount about (decades ago) — Space Invaders and Video Pinball. A Google subsidiary called DeepMind and other startups exploring AI are teaching machines to master the games of my youth.

It sounds frivolous, but it seems that this is serious, complex stuff. The process may eventually lead to robots that learn from their mistakes and function at higher levels in the human world.

DeepMind has already developed software so good that it's beating human players at Space Invaders.

A fact that brings to my mind another relic of the 1980s: the movie WarGames.

"Greetings Professor Falken. Shall we play a game?"