Can We Construct A Counter-Narrative To ISIS's End Goal? What exactly is the ISIS endgame? NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Scott Atran, co-author of the New York Review of Books post "Paris: The War ISIS Wants."

Can We Construct A Counter-Narrative To ISIS's End Goal?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Since 9/11, we've heard how moderate Muslims need to speak out against extremism. Moderate Muslims need to create a counter-narrative to the one peddled first by al-Qaida and now by ISIS. Our next guest has spent a lot of time talking with former ISIS fighters. And he says moderation is not the answer. Scott Atran is an anthropologist. And this past week, he co-authored an article for The New York Review of Books, entitled "Paris: The War ISIS Wants." He said in order to understand ISIS, you have to look at how they define their mission. Their goal, he says, as stated in their manifesto, is to inhabit places in chaos and then breed that chaos everywhere else.

SCOTT ATRAN: So they go into places like Africa or Central Asia, which is inherently chaotic, and they try to establish their brand of Islam there and their rule. And they come to Europe and, if possible, the United States, to create chaos. And the purpose of creating chaos is to destroy what they call the gray zone. The gray zone is the area where most of us live. It's the area between the true believer and the non-believer - and to force a polarization so that all Muslims will go with the true believers and the Islamic State and they will fight a war to the end with the non-believers. And they argue that the way to do this is to appeal to the inherent rebelliousness of youth and to hit targets like tourist places, stadiums, concert halls, that cannot be possibly defended worldwide, to force the host populations to detest Muslims. And Muslims, in reaction, will join the Islamic State.

MARTIN: ISIS and it's central tenet of creating a caliphate, which is a powerful motivation - they actually want to inhabit a state. It is meaningful to people to be part of a movement like that that feels significant. How do you create a counter-narrative to create alternative meaning for people who feel disaffected by mainstream Western society?

ATRAN: Let's back up just a little bit. They don't just want to create a state. They want to create a world system and New World Order. Now, the caliphate is an exciting idea. As one imam in Barcelona told us, we reject the violence of ISIS, but we didn't even exist in Europe. The people of Europe were blind to us. They put us on the map. Now, I would never support the kind of violence. But the caliphate - well, now it's here. And I hope it's here to stay. Not in their version, maybe as a European Union of Muslim peoples. Now, how do we combat that? Well, so far, the counter-radicalization or counter-narratives proposed in our societies have been pathetic. First, they preach things like moderation. I often tell them, don't any of you have teenage children? When did moderation do anything? And they're all often repetitive, mass messaging and lecturing at young people, whereas the Islamic State takes a very intimate and personal approach. They look at each individual and sometimes spend hundreds, even thousands of hours drawing out their personal grievances and frustrated aspirations and trying to link it to a larger story of how the world should be and what they can do to contribute to it.

MARTIN: Since 9/11, there has been one school of thought that this can be combated through economic incentives. If you just create enough jobs and economic opportunity in this part of the world, they won't be as vulnerable to radicalization. You say that's not true. Why?

ATRAN: The process of radicalization is a path. If you can give people a sense of identity and a sense of economic security and social status at the very beginning of this path, sometimes it works. But once people lock in to a set of sacred values, a belief that this new way of doing things in the world cannot be bought off, then the lure of jobs not only fall flat; they backfire. Now, people don't want to hear this because jobs and education and things like that are the standard fare of social and financial aid. But they don't work.

MARTIN: Then what can Western governments do if it's not about creating economic programs? You say it's not about military intervention because that feeds the narrative that ISIS propagating. Are Western governments and their allies in the Gulf area to just sit it out?

ATRAN: Well, the coalition of Western allies is a joke. I mean, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have knives in each other's backs. But that doesn't mean military means are out. Now, how do we stop it in the long term? Well, we've got to provide young people the possibility for some other mode of life that's hopeful, adventurous, glorious and provides significance. Again, we don't provide much of anything except belief in things like shopping malls. We don't even listen to young people. There are no programs that I know of that really allow the ideas of youth to bubble up and cultivate an alternative that comes from them.

MARTIN: When you were talking to members of ISIS - reformed, captured or otherwise - did they give you any belief or any reason to believe that a counter-narrative can be created by the West?

ATRAN: Yes, but as I've always found that the most persuasive means, once people have locked into these sorts of views of the world, are arguments from people closest to them. As one imam from the Islamic State told us, he left the Islamic State because he couldn't stand the Islamic State just killing willy-nilly any foreigner who happened to be in Syria and Iraq. But he said the people coming to us aren't witless, as your propaganda makes it. They aren't brainwashed in any sense. They're compassionate. They're looking. And the Islamic State has a powerful and positive message, even though what's recorded here is mostly the negative message. We've got to - and this is the, again, an imam from the Islamic State telling me - we have got to come up with a positive message within our religious idiom that can attract these young people and track them away from violence and killing.

MARTIN: Scott Atran is the director of research at France's National Center for Scientific Research. He also holds positions at John Jay College, Oxford and the University of Michigan. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ATRAN: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.