Dr. Atran’s Procrustean Bed of Radical Extremism

I have always admired Dr. Scott Atran.  That’s why I’m both shocked and puzzled by his new piece in Aeon magazine.  Because the Alt-right and islamic jihadists are hugely different.   Any superficial similiarities are dwarfed by scale, demographics, ideology and time and space.

Often when a researcher creates a model, they become overly invested in that model, eg:  when all you have is a hammer, the world is made of nails.  I think that this has happened with Dr. Atran and the idea that radical extremists can be unmade, that there is some universal recipe for radicalization.  The  hammer requires that all nails are morphologically and functionally similiar.  Dr. Atran has made a sort of ideological procrustean bed– he trims and stretches radical ideologies to get a uniform fit.  I violently disagree– but maybe that is my model bias–  because I think we are not the same.  If you doubt this consider Trump’s election and his voter base.  I think of Dr. Atran as a gaussian, smoothing the curves of radicalization, to get a uniform response template.  But I’m a fractalist, and I’m wildly bumpy.  It seems to me that a fractal representation of extremism is superior– the shape is the same, the scale is different.  And here is where we get to the scale problem– both islamic jihadists and alt-right neo-nazis desire a homeland.  The difference is the Alt-right white nationalists want a “white” homeland within culturally and racially diverse nation states and islamic jihadists want islamic nation-states within a vast islamic monoculture, Sunnistan.

To begin, the Alt-right has no analogy to the Quran.  In studying Quran and ahadith, it is apparent to me that jihad is in the memetic DNA of Islam.  Its easiest for me to think of jihad as a kind of cultural “gene expression” in response to environmental triggers.  The current explosion of jihadism represents a kind of gene drive, a “meme drive”, a reaction to environmental triggers.   Dr. Atran would have globalism and transition be the culprits– totally ignoring the endless war mono-culture of the unipolar power that creates the ongoing chaos fields blooming with hundreds of emergent islamic militias.  So no, Islam isnt separable into “radical Islam” and “moderate Islam” just as the Quran is not separable.  There is only one Islam.

The Alt-right has no analogy to global population dynamics– the youth bulge in Africa will deliver 1 billion youth to the global population by 2050, more than half will be Sunni muslim– we will likely see 100’s of millions moving North as economic and warzone refugees, and as victims of climate change.  Europe couldnt handle a million refugees– what will 20 million or 200 million do?  Dr. Atrans fragile outreach systems would be instantly overwhelmed.

This seems to me like the kind of  “whataboutism” so prevalent in the US– sure, Nazis, Proudboys and confederate revanchists are bad, but what about ISIS?  A very facile and superficial treatment of a horrific and burgeoning problem — that muslims are not allowed representative government since the collapse of the Ottoman empire.  Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, Turkey, all attempts to impose top down control on emergent, organic systems of islamic government by the west.  Jihadism is a reaction to injustice, while white nationalism is actually a reaction to justice, the representation of multicultural and multiethnic citizens in racially diverse societies.

What Dr. Atran proposes is the same sort of weak feel-good patching that has precipitated the building problem– democracy is not a solution.  In fact, I think democracy is a terrible lie.  He was much more accurate here:

One quarter of the global population is going to be muslim.  US has spent 5.6 trillion dollars over the last 15 years for nothing in Syria, Pak, Iraq, and A-stan.  We could have built a freaking moon-base for that.  How much more effective to take Dr. Atran’s original sound advice and shape emergent sunni nations.   I do not think that will happen.

I think instead collapse is coming.

NOTE:  Apparently Aeon picked that awful title for sensationalist purposes.

Dr. Atran: It is not a title I would have picked and I had no choice in the matter. The title I wrote was “the collapse of cultures” and I didn’t see the other title until it was published.

I’m all about Collapse of Cultures!

Graeme Wood’s Six Weird Tricks for Defeating ISIS

I started reading Graeme Wood’s The Way of the Strangers with anticipation.  After all, he initiated my foray into blogdom with his article in the Atlantic on “What Does ISIS Want?”

But with dawning horror I read the escalating error cascade of cultural chauvinism and institutionalized frat boy snark that Graeme decided to run with.

Here’s my first cut at correction:

  1. Wood appears to interpret Bukhari/Muslim “stranger” (the title quote) as being odd or weird.  Stranger in this context means one who has left his tribe for the tribe of the Ummah, for a wider memetic tribe.  Muhammed’s first act was to unite the warring tribes under the banner of Islam.
  2. I first noticed Cole Bunzel when he wrote Paper Caliphate– I asked him if he had read Naji’s Idarat al Tawwahush.  His response was “why would I be interested in a war manual”?  This is like a historian studying China’s Cultural Revolution and being ignorant of Mao’s Little Red Book.  Shouldn’t “scholars of jihad” be interested in a manual of jihad?  Using western “jihadologists” to analyze ISIS is truly weird– Nājī and Setmarian (islamic jihadist scholars) spell out the why, how, and what of jihad in their books.  The idea of targetting youth of all nations, and of leveraging and creating chaos is explicitly delineated.  The idea of “flash terror” as informed by ISIS ideology is also absent from Graeme’s book.
  3. Pretending ISIS is a unique phenomenon– now thats really weird– ISIS is an instance of islamic insurgency, and wont be the first or the last one going forward–  muslims will make up a quarter of the world’s humans by mid-century.  May I recommend Bacevitch for an analysis of proximate causes?
  4. Wood’s choice of Mizot as a “Taymiyyan scholar” is also puzzling– Ibn Taymiyya’s greatest contribution to al Islam is his tafsir— the exegesis of the Quran that forms islamic jurisprudence.  Its why tyrants ban Taymiyya’s works when they can.  To use a complex adaptive systems analogy, jihad (also the Caliphate) is in the DNA of the Quran– Taymiyyan tafsir allows the “gene expression” of jihadism to be carried through to the 21st century.  Also the “dick” quote shows an embarrassing lack of scholarship in another of Wood’s sources.   Using back-bench western “scholars” like Mizot and House Muslims like Shiraz Mahr to try to rewrite the Quran is pure idiocy– the Quran emerged to be specifically immune to that sort of tinkering.   Its recursive and self-defining, and has 163 bit n-gram entropy (the largest Heegner number)– but information theory is not what Wood and the jihadologist guild are selling though– they are selling the fantasy that islamic insurgency can somehow be ended without addressing the initial causes.
  5. Wood also seems to believe that initial causes are irrelevant to the rise of ISIS and other islamic insurgencies.  Jihadism is a response to oppression and tyranny.  Unless the initial conditions change America will find itself in a forever war against a quarter of the world’s humans.  Given demography and population dynamics, its a war the US can never win.
  6. This is the most puzzling of all– Wood cites Mccants and Bunzel ( the frat boiz of the jihadologist guild)–  and none of the people that actually do have an understanding of ISIS– Dr. Atran, Hassan Hassan and Abdel Bari Atwan.   Although I do approve of Filiu’s inclusion.  Now that is a really weird trick indeed.

It seems Wood’s book is simply unserious sensationalism, pruience over Abu Yayah’s marriage, calling Cerantonio a dork, designed to promote sales and obscure the real problem going forward.

Is the US really prepared for infinite police action, at least until we run out of money or our democratic republic collapses into civil war?  How ironic that the US practice of fomenting civil war in the headfake of “democracy promotion” is going to end so ingloriously.  What happens when publicity-and-chaos loving ISIS soldiers start attacking the overseas assets of Donald Trump that he refuses to divest himself of?  Will the US send military force to protect Trump assets?

All I can do is fall back on one of my old gamer axioms…

You Are Not Prepared.

Competition/Cooperation of ISIS and JF/Al Qaeda and the MENA Teacup

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I apolo in advance for the technical nature of this essay– I have been warned that im not very accessible when i go full frontal math.  If i can beg your indulgence, please read this excellent introductory paper by Dr. Baranger, “Chaos, Complexity, and Entropy: A Physics Talk for Non-Physicists”.

In the study of complex adaptive systems dynamics, a uniquely powerful paradigm is expressed by the competition/cooperation model.  Dr. Baranger puts it like this:

Finally, there is one more property of complex systems that concerns all of us very closely, which makes it especially interesting. Actually it concerns all social systems, all collections of organisms subject to the laws of evolution. Examples could be plant populations, animal populations, other ecological groupings, our own immune system, and human groups of various sizes such as families, tribes, city-states, social or economic classes, sportsteams, Silicon Valley dotcoms, and of course modern nations and supranational corporations. In order to evolve and stay alive, in order to remain complex, all of the above need to obey the following rule:
Complexity involves an interplay between cooperation and competition.
Once again this is an interplay between scales. The usual situation is that competition on scale n is nourished by cooperation on the finer scale below it (scale n+ 1). Insect colonies like ants, bees, or termites provide a spectacular demonstration of this. For a sociological example, consider the bourgeois families of the 19th century, of the kind described by Jane Austen or Honore de Balzac. They competed with each other toward economic success and toward procuring the most desirable spouses for their young people. And they succeeded better in this if they had the unequivocal devotion of all their members, and also if all their members had a chance to take part in the decisions. Then of course there is war between nations and the underlying patriotism that supports it. Once we understand this competition-cooperation dichotomy, we are a long way from the old cliche of “the survival of the fittest”, which has done so much damage to the understanding of evolution in the public’s mind.

The reason it is so very impossible to “defeat ISIL” as President Obama egrigiously puts it is that is that local islamic insurgencies and the current epidemic of global jihadism are emergent complex adaptive systems.  Hassan Hassan is a really smart guy, but he has no maths to speak of.  The actual reasons sharia will be implemented in MENA are largely mathematical, not ideological.  Like Hassan says:

The events of the past two weeks should serve as a wake-up call to regional and world powers about the collective danger of two competing models. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are doubling down on their own methods of terrorism and insurgency, as they illustrated in their statements and the Islamic State’s coordinated attacks in Latakia and Tartus. The two groups are unlikely to cooperate against their opponents, but they can still inflict lasting damage to regional order and international peace.

One reason that sharia will eventually inform all MENA governments is brute-force population demographics– the bulge in the snake of muslim reproduction and youthful demes.  And when muslims are democratically empowered to vote, they vote for islamic government (in Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey).  As simple and obvious as this statement seems, it was the tragic flaw of the Bush Doctrine of “democracy promotion”.

But that is beyond the scope of this essay.  In the n + 1 scale cooperation of jihadist movements is expressed by the desire for representative government incorporating sharia– rule by sharia– in the n scale above it IS and JF/Qaeda compete for resources, publicity, territory, fighters.  But make no mistake– the core goal of both IS and JF/Qaeda is identical– it is only their methodology that is different.  Where Hassan is naive is his belief that “regional order and international peace” can be somehow re-imposed.  I am sorry Hassan, but the MENA tea-cup wont ever reassemble– entropy goes only one way.  The cooperation/competition tension makes the shared goal of rule by sharia more likely– IS and JF/Qaeda are actually more powerful apart than united.

Hassan’s arabic is very good, but I’m not sure this is the exact meaning of wasati : “Zawahiri’s remarks indicated that al-Qaeda is settled on its current strategy of acting as a wasati (middle-way) jihadi movement. ”  In quranic exegesis I was taught wastitiya means the continuation of uninterrupted “signalling”– so it is not exactly the middle or average way– it is the way that is valid or relevent in this frame of spacetime.  This actually gives JF/Qaeda greater flexibility in pursuit of the cooperative goal of sharia.  Also delaying a caliphate allows JF to form alliances.  An emir can form alliances, a caliph cannot.

Although Hassan Hassan is the best of the jihadologists, his analysis is still limited and stunted by cultural chauvinism and wishful [magical] thinking.  Dr. Atran is far better in his analysis, incorporating actual data in his book Talking with the Enemy and integrating history and cognitive anthropology.

By creating chaos among the enemy’s civilian populations, as outlined in Management of Savagery (required reading for every Isis religious and military leader), by undermining faith in their own governments’ abilities to provide security for their people (the primary function of government), and by polarising Muslims and non-Muslims to “eliminate the grey zone” between true believer and infidel, as outlined in the online publication Dabiq, Isis demonstrates that individual and small group acts of violence amplified through the media constitutes the most effective way to publicise, and possibly propagate, revolutionary change of the political, social and moral order.

Rather than reflecting a movement in decline, recent attacks are better understood as a recalibration of long-endorsed tactics in the service of a constant, overriding strategy of world revolution.

Even if Isis loses all territory in Syria and Iraq, the global jihadi archipelago could continue to expand if the social and political conditions that led to its emergence persist.

But where is the complex systems analysis, the mathematical analysis?  Its only just begun– here is a Nautilus article on BTW Sandpiles— here is one I wrote over a year ago– Sandpile Collapse in MENA.

I think MENA analytics can be qualified like this:

political “scientists” & jihadologists << social science analysis (Dr. Atran) << complex systems (mathematical) analysis

Im a mathematician so of course I place math the highest– but the other reason for this is that math strips out bias and subjectivity– unlike the deep and deliberate ignorance of Western nations in their insistence on prosecuting an unwinnable war on islamic ideology.  In CAS this is a battle to impose artificial outgroup structures on powerful emergent natural forces–  the desire of sunni populations for self-representation in government– the consent of the governed.

So I really have just one thing to say– mathematically, this is a war the West cannot win.  The torrent of noise pouring out of the jihadologist terror-as-cash-cow-machine just obscures that fact that the war on Islam is unwinnable.  And that the tea-cup never comes back together.

My DIY on Syria: The Maze

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For me the real star of the teen dystopia movie The Maze Runner is the shape shifting reconfiguring maze.  The labyrinth changes every day.  The giant ivy covered stone walls grind slowly into new configurations, trapping the gladers in a complex puzzle.  Much like the American misadventure in the Middle East.  And unlike the gigantic shape shifting maze in the movie– its a puzzle that the US can’t seem to either solve or escape from.

Its no secret that I think Hassan Hassan is the best ME analyst around– he and Dr. Atran have been my greatest influences over the last two years.  Hassan inspired my Embracing Apocalypse series with his comment about how IS is multidimensional– past, present and future.  Part1 (past) and Part2(present) are written– im still working onPart3(future) which will incorporate a lot of my boring math/physics stuff like the arrow of time, LaPlace’s daemon and predestination, branes, bulks, AdS space, curvature of spacetime, entropy, complexity, chaos, etc.

But for today lets talk about the Maze.  Think about the realignment of factions as the walls of the labyrinth shifting in the Maze.  Hassan Hassan has an excellent piece on just that.

Notwithstanding what happens next in Aleppo, JFS has already made its entrance. Inside and outside Syria, support for the group appears to have risen. Many seem to be comfortable with showing support for a group that is supposedly no longer part of Al Qaeda, while others support it for its lead role in the continuing counterattack. This normalisation and show of support are at the heart of the group’s reconfiguration – and the Aleppo offensive was partly designed to achieve that.

 The social goodwill that the group has gained over the past two weeks should not be taken lightly. The way the situation looks for anti-regime Syrians is that, while the world stood by as nearly 300,000 civilians were under siege by the regime, and in violation of an understanding between Moscow and Washington not to support such a siege, it was extremists who again won the day. Also, despite the involvement of Russia, Iran and foreign Shia militias fighting under their command in Syria, those forces could overrun a well-secured regime base and break a siege within a few days.

In Syria Obama hoped to be the hero of a diplomatic solution– instead, he is once again the goat.  Michael Weiss, Hassan’s co-author says:

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And now the jihadis are the Heroes of Aleppo.

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Another recent realignment of factions just happened in Turkey– here is Hassan again on the new post (failed) coup alignments.

Ankara’s foreign policy will probably be more assertive in the coming weeks and months. Domestically, the episode shows that the mark Mr Erdogan has already made in the Turkish political landscape might be deeper than it is often made out to be. Mr Erdogan leads a ruling party that is increasingly entrenched, not only because of power-grabbing but also because it commands an increasingly committed social and political base, and whose detractors sometimes appear to be detached from reality. Whereas Mr Erdogan’s popularity has been on display after each election, the media portrays him as an insecure and embattled leader. For Mr Erdogan and his supporters, the attempted coup and its failure justified the policies he followed over the past three years to increase his grip on power, which will embolden them to push further.

And the Maze shifts again.  These two events demonstrate a remarkable lack of agility in Obama’s foreign policy.  Agile applications are a big Silicon Valley buzzword right now.  USG has actually hired the Scrum software guy to “agilize” the ponderous antiquated US military.  Obama had hoped for a soft coup– gulenism is supported by the RAND Building Moderate Muslim Networks initiative.  Most Americans do not realize that gulenism is a moderate, quasi-sufi variant of Islam– a kind of “reform” Islam.  The abortive coup smashed years of careful covert work by the US.  Gulenists even have a lobbyist group in the US– much like Israel.  Now gulenists have been wiped from the judiciary, academe, military, intelligence and police force.  And Turkey is free to develop closer ties to Russia while continuing on the path to islamize the country.

My obsessive interest is complex adaptive systems dynamics– as an observer my model of MENA is a landscape of sandpiles weakly or strongly connected by attractor and feed-forward networks– any realignment flows through all the alliances and enmities of the landscape.  IS and JF are complex interconnected emergent movements– they cannot be bombed away or droned away.  Syria is connected to Turkey is connected to Iraq is connected to Yemen is connected to Bahrain etc etc…

Right on cue– Hassan Hassan:

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US is desperately trying to stabilize the sandpiles, but the Second Law (of Thermodynamics) rules.  Its simply not possible.  So US stays trapped in the Maze.

I once thought Obama was skilled at 11-D chess…it turns out he has been zugzwang all along.  For now Incirlik is open– but Erdogan demonstrated that he can close it at will, and that he no longer trusts the US.  I just dont think the US will escape the Maze before the sandpiles collapse.  And this (from Turkey) is the result of Obama’s sneaky, covert, lead-from-behind gulenist crusade.  The signs have been changed from rule by the people to rule by Allah.


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The Vanishing Crossover Point

I just finished reading Nick Turse’s terrifying reveal of the American war on VietNam– Kill Anything That Moves.  I am filled with horror and sorrow and rage…and even moreso when I realized that the US is pursuing exactly the same doomed-to-fail tactics in the War on “Terror”…which really is a regional War on Islam and muslims.  Just as the US sought to suppress communist ideology in VietNam, it now seeks to suppress Islamic ideology in MENA and subsaharan Africa.

But I will make this short.  US dropped the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima nuclear bombs and killed an estimate of 1.4 million civilians and still lost the war.  Because the US could never reach the theoretical “crossover point”, the point where US had killed enough Viet Cong that they gave up.  Physical attrition and brute-force warfighting is never going to work against an enemy that just melts away and chooses a different front.  Nick Turse describes the objectives of “technowar”.

In VietNam, the statistically minded war managers focused, above all, on the notion of achieving a “crossover point”: the moment when American soldiers would be killing more enemies than their Vietnamese opponents could replace.  After that, the Pentagon expected, the communist forces would naturally give up the fight.

Regional population demographics and generational warfare promise a virtually endless supply of sunni youth in MENA and Subsaharan Africa.  Demographic shift has obliterated the crossover point for any war on IS– by 2050 there will be ONE BILLION youth in Africa, and more than half will be Sunni muslim.  So IS has a bottomless pool of youth recruits to draw on.  US is simply not going to be able to kill enough young sunni muslim humans to make a dent in the population growth curve.

In fact, the Defense Department admits that right here.  Via the esteemable Micah Zenko:

Here’s a summary of the anti-ISIS bombing campaign: 30,000 fighters – 20,000 killed = 30,000 fighters

The primary focus—meaning the commitment of personnel, resources, and senior leaders’ attention—of U.S. counterterrorism policies is the capture or killing (though, overwhelmingly killing) of existing terrorists. Far less money and programmatic attention is dedicated to preventing the emergence of new terrorists. As an anecdotal example of this, I often ask U.S. government officials and mid-level staffers, “what are you doing to prevent a neutral person from becoming a terrorist?” They always claim this this is not their responsibility, and point toward other agencies, usually the Department of State (DOS) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where this is purportedly their obligation internationally or domestically, respectively. DOS and DHS officials then refer generally to “countering violent extremism” policies, while acknowledging that U.S. government efforts on this front have been wholly ineffective.

Better get working on that counternarrative, Dr. Atran.

VietCong Ghosts of Mars

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 9.21.02 AM In my serial quest to find a good mashup to describe in cultural shorthand what is happening in MENA today…I’m going to revisit the US experience in VietNam.  Amazingly, in this excellent 11k word essay by Dr. Atran, where he compares the Islamic State to Bolsheviks, French revolutionaries, and Nazis, there’s not a single mention of the VietNamese revolt against French colonialism (analogous to the “Arab Spring” revolt against Assad) and resultant US failwar with the VietCong.  In both cases the collapse of a quasi-stable western-friendly government leads to (not a vacuum, as the political “scientists” claim) a chaos field, where the bottom-up emergent substrate trumps any attempts at externally imposed topdown control.  The parallels are gobsmackingly obvious– Mosul 2014 to Da Nang 1975, the 350k ARVN, (also equipped and trained by US) to the 300k Iraqi army– both collapsed in routs.  The VietCong even captured large quantities of Made-in-the-USA mecha, much like IS has equipped itself with ghanima from the arms-race saturated ME.  The long deep enduring scars the US sustained (60k US troops dead, 100’s of thousands with what we now call PTSD) perhaps casts a dark shadow across history– obscuring the lessons that we failed to learn back then.  The US is haunted by VietNam– where as Kissinger unequivocably states, the US lost.

  • We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win. The North Vietnamese used their armed forces the way a bull-fighter uses his cape — to keep us lunging in areas of marginal political importance.

    • “The Vietnam Negotiations”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 2 (January 1969), p. 214; also quoted as “A conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla army wins if he does not lose.”

In this astonishingly bizarre article from my hero Dr. Bar-Yam he amazingly advocates using SOF as an immune system style response in MENA– totally ignoring the fact that IS and shariah as Rule of Law are local emergent processes– the mujahiddeen are obviously the T-cells and leucocytes fighting off a regional secular democracy infection in the body of MENA.  Dr. BarYam says:

The immune system most naturally corresponds to special operations forces that have the expectation of being embedded in local contexts and serving highly complex, (i.e., diverse) roles. The existence of high fine-scale complexity forces, including special operations forces and integrating diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies, and the extensive engagement with non-combatants, training of local forces, non-lethal force, psychological warfare, economic incentives, and economic support, reflects the natural extension of the complex fine-scale actions that are needed for achieving local and global objectives of complex warfare.

This made me laugh.  Its pretty clear that SOF forces are still an attempt to impose topdown external controls on an indigenous emergent process– salafi-jihadism, which is basically encoded in the Quran, which is read by (soon to be) billions of humans.   Complex warfare being analogous to homo sap. nervous system, I get that, I even like that– but there is no way to pretend SOF forces are an emergent process, or that they can win against an emergent process with a bottomless pool of youth recruits.  There is no way SOF forces can win at all in the Age of Internet connectivity– Bush’s folly and the disastrous COIN policy prove that emphatically.

Doesn’t an emergent complex system always beat an imposed/installed complex system?

Like Dr. Atran eloquently explains in his essay, western-style “liberal democracy” cant work–

As history and empirical studies show, what matters in revolutionary success is commitment to cause and comrades. Even in the face of initial failures and often devastating defeats, this can trump overwhelming material disadvantages. In 1776, American colonists were frustrated not over economics but over a perceived denial of truths ‘sacred and undeniable’ (Thomas Jefferson’s original words for the Declaration of Independence). They were willing to sacrifice ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour’ against the world’s mightiest empire. Britain sent a naval force of 30,000 men against the fledgling revolution in New York, home to 20,000 inhabitants, and at first almost crushed George Washington’s army. Haggard remnants of the colonial army were heading for home when Washington addressed them with an inspired appeal: ‘You will render that service to the cause of liberty… which you can probably never do under any other circumstances.’ The army fused together in the harsh winter at Valley Forge, henceforth able to withstand any adversity.

But the sort of liberal democracy initiated by the American Revolution has never been very good at adjudicating across religious and ethnic boundaries, especially when, as in much of the Middle East and Central Asia, such boundaries are tribally based. Democracy took root in Britain’s American colonies, which had the world’s highest standard of living at the time and unprecedented opportunities for people other than Native Americans and African slaves to strike out on their own into virtually limitless territory, relatively free to realise their aspirations.

Liberal democracy is simply never going to take hold in majority muslim populations.

I think I have a better model than Dr. Bar-Yam’s immune system analogy.  Growing up, John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars was a part of the family DVD collection…one of the alltime kid favorites– scifi, gorror and Ice Cube!  Peak.  In the movie Mars is 80% terraformed when a scientific expedition opens a door to an underground structure of the dead martian civilization.  This releases a windbourne possession plague that turns the local miners into headchopping martian-language-raving maniacs, bent on eradicating earth invader presence on Mars.  The possession plague seems to be a planetary auto-immune response to Earths mining/terraforming of Mars– and what Earthers thought was a dead civilzation comes roaring back with a vengence.  Much like the Islamic State.

So the question I really wanted to ask Dr. Atran is this– what is the counternarrative to revolution?

[Atran] cited the Deash terrorist group as one of the most dynamic and effective fighting forces since World War II, because its followers are spiritually committed to its religious narrative, not lured by financial incentives.

However, the group may be hindered or defeated by a spiritual counternarrative that is of an equal force to theirs, Atran argued.

The problem is… there’s no space to create a “spiritual counternarrative ” in the same space occupied by Assad and Israel.  This Sarah Helm excellent reporting on IS in Gaza should terrify anyone hoping for peace or even bare stability in the ME.

Moreover, if Hamas fails to crush the Gaza jihadists, ISIS would have a foothold in the Holy Land, posing new and unpredictable dangers, not only for Gazans themselves, but for Israel, the region, and for the West’s wider war on the Islamic State. In such a sequence, Israel will be expected to find the “solution” and will almost certainly bombard Gaza yet again and with perhaps greater ferocity.
Except that Israel is already demographically underwater itself– and as the last round of “grass mowing” proves, bombing just isn’t effective anymore.  And the most polarizing event that could occur– is Israel openly allying with the US Coalition to defeat IS.
Atran himself despairs of crafting that “spiritual counternarrative” even among western youth.

The Islamic state dominates discourse now among youth throughout the Muslim world. The overwhelmingly majority are opposed but with so many fragmented voices, and nothing to compete by a long shot.

And there is also a weakening in the fabric of open societies. It has been undermined by an unrelenting attack on its values as hegemonic, rendering them relative in the minds of our own young, even relative to those of a murderous sort. This is especially evident in Europe, where there is a much deeper and wider “understanding” for the Islamic State than you might imagine among educated youth, tired of the staleness and corruption of their political elites (in France the same power players have been around for 40 years, with little variation in change of gov’t). There is also a restlessness after 70 years of peace that is palpable to me.

It is a much deeper problem in our open societies that IS is exploiting, and which I see no one in power addressing. Of course, there are the problems of the middle east, africa, and the revivalist movements in the Muslim world at large. But it is the total confusion in the West that scares me much more.

As my daughter told me while she was listening to the gunfire at the Bataclan around corner from her apartment and from the cafe just below, and her friends texting her “we’re still alive but don’t go out,” – “we have no answer to this,” she said, “and our culture, the one of the cafe and the rock concerts that are so much a part of our life in the neighborhood, in a weird way was saying to me, as some my friends in fact did, that they could understand why young Muslims would want to go out and shoot people, only they were shooting mostly those who would probably have said yesterday, before our other friends were being killed, that they understood. Yes, they now condemn the killings, but not really what was behind them or what they were aiming at. There is no wall of resistance to this, there is only paralysis, confusion, and everyone reacting with disbelief and rationalization in their own way.”

The clarity, certainty and inner spiritual strength of the Islamic State cuts through this like butter.

Perhaps in the end the equation comes down to either a viable counternarrative, or the VietCong Ghosts of Mars.