There is an emerging division in the media discourse when it comes to trying to understand the Islamic State, one distinguished by a divergence between those who emphasise the importance of the social and material conditions that brought ISIS about, and those who believe that their actions can best be understood by their religious beliefs and strict adherence to the “Wahhabi” school of fundamentalist Islam. Many on the right such as Douglas Murray or Sam Harris emphasise the inherently violent character of Islam in general, not merely it’s most obnoxious and violent Wahhabist form, as the only way to truly make sense of ISIS. Whatever you make of their specific arguments they tend to go out of their way in diminishing the political context ISIS emerged in, believing that the specifically violent character of Islam is the only factor of consequence when it comes to understanding ISIS. We will return to this perspective later.
Many on the left, including well known figures such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali have made arguments which suggest ISIS, and Al-Qaeda before it, are the direct product of American military intervention, and which don’t place the same emphasis on Islamic ideology. This echoes the position the American state has taken, reflected in the output of the official anti-extremism campaign Think Again, Turn Away, which is to treat ISIS recruits as people whose motives and behaviour can be understood best as psychopathic – a product of a nihilistic world-rejecting rage induced by years of anger, alienation and a violent persecution complex. There have even been articles on “The Neuroscience of ISIS” that attempt to entirely replace a political analysis with a medical one. Such an analysis has been lept upon by those with a vested interest in not addressing what causes ISIS terror. Queen Rania of Jordan’s comments, that ISIS are a “bunch of crazy people” conveniently distract from the role played by pro-Western dictatorships such as Jordan in the region’s problems, and demonstrates how out of touch the multi-millionaire Rania and her husband King Abdullah II truly are with popular opinion in Jordan, where there is great sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism as the de facto opposition to the Jordanian regime, especially amongst the large numbers of poor people living in this highly un-equal country.
Perhaps the most stunning example of this mindset is James Bloodworth’s recent piece in the Independent which crudely attempts to reduce the motivations behind Mohammed Emwazi aka “Jihadi John” to being a “sick loser” who presumably lives in a political vacuum, and whose behaviour is a product of trying to compensate personal inadequacy – “As with so many middle class children who turn to revolution in all its various forms” states the ex-revolutionary socialist Bloodworth “the promise of a violent overthrow of civilised society may simply be another way of making up for slights suffered in the school playground.” Bloodworth hasn’t got the courage to take this to its logical conclusion and actually say that ISIS (along with all other revolutionary political movements, in particular Bloodworth’s former leftist comrades) are in fact motivated by not being very well endowed, but he might as well have done, since that is where his argument logically concludes.
Whereas for the insurgent far-right ISIS is the only authentic Islam, both the US state and it’s proxies, along with the radical left, claim ISIS is a movement that at best pays only tokenistic lip-service to “real” Islam, and at worst is entirely un-Islamic. Much of the media coverage of this group takes it lead from this premise, and tells us a story of brainwashed lunatics being manipulated for geo-political ends by state and non-state actors alike. This turns ISIS into a mere gang of violent but useful idiots, who serve as the shock troops of a humiliated Sunni Arab community seeking a mixture of protection from, and revenge towards, the Shia Iraqi State and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. This view of human behaviour leaves these individuals cast as unwitting pawns in a geo-political chess game, lacking clear ideas of their own and the agency to carry them out, where the role of Islam is to provide a flimsy pretext to recruit alienated young Muslims to carry out the necessary violence such a human chess game entails.
One example where this divergence has shown up prominently is in the case of Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amir Abase, the three British high-school students who left home suddenly on the morning of 17th February, and who are now believed to be living in ISIS territory within Syria. Both the government and large parts of the media have emphasised the notion these three women were groomed online, victims of a diabolical ISIS plot to lure young women to their Caliphate with promises built on lies, which will inevitably end with them living a life as sex-slaves. According to journalist Paul D. Shinkman authorities are “baffled” by the numbers of young western women seeking to go and live in the Islamic state, estimated to be 550 by The Soufan Group:
“If the British government and its Western counterparts have any inkling into what actually attracts their young people to an active war zone in Iraq and Syria, it so far hasn’t yielded that publicly. Officials have offered a range of factors: Perhaps disenfranchised Muslim youth feel they can find the stability and acceptance under the Islamic State group that so far has eluded them in their adopted homes, as European countries struggle to shift from monochrome to increased multiculturalism. Others may simply want to participate in the gruesome violence they see constantly splattered across cable news reports. And maybe all believe there is at least some truth to the Islamic State group’s assurances that Western governments have waged war against Islam itself.”
Some of the media coverage has verged upon portraying these women as unwitting dupes, silly girls conned into a life of servitude by ISIS’s sophisticated social media recruiting campaign. Such sexism has often been a feature of the media coverage that “women warriors” receive, motivated by editors who wish to titillate and horrify in order to sell papers and generate clicks, with one particularly crude example of this strongly criticised by “War Nerd” Gary Brecher.
Writing in the Guardian Nosheen Iqbal makes the case that these vulnerable children are the victims of a combination of grooming through social media and hormonally-driven impulsiveness common to most teenagers.
“They have been brainwashed by an ideology many times more threatening than a regular cult: Isis is offering religious power to its victims, selling the idea that recruits become a type of turbo-Muslim, and that theirs is a legitimate adventure because it is one sanctioned by God. Isis has Hollywood-ised war, made barbarity so blockbuster, that it looks cartoonishly unreal to a young, malleable mind. Plenty of teenagers love violence – this isn’t new. The shock seems to be that girls, as well as boys, appear to have an appetite for it.
Like all predatory internet groomers, Raqqa’s warriors wield a sexual power; anyone who has seen their social media feeds will understand that Isis lads brand themselves as rock stars. Marrying one is a religiously approved way to channel the mad, hormonal energy that powers all teenagers – Muslim girls included.”
It is certainly true the “lads” of the Islamic States go to great lengths to project themselves in this “rock star” way. There is a deliberately constructed air of testosterone-charged violence that suggests a big part of what they do is motivated by sublimated libidinal sexual energy, making them otherwise normal young “lads” who have chosen to live out their typical teenage “Call of Duty” fantasy in real-life. The suggestion is that in a slightly different cultural context this sort of adolescent preening would be reminiscent of the joining a particularly obnoxious punk rock band and dying your hair pink to annoy your parents. The Jihadi’s end up being written off as club 18-30 holiday hooligans with AK47’s and the female counterparts patronisingly equated to rebellious teenagers running away from home with a rock star boyfriend that their parents disapprove of. This Romeo and Juliet narrative features in many opinion pieces, such as Razia Iqbal’s piece for the BBC magazine and this interview with a former female ISIS recruit who makes refers to Mujahadeen as “eye candy” that lures in girls with their sex appeal.
Clearly the decision the three London schoolgirls made to go abroad was informed by what they’d seen online about the Islamic State – Shamima Begum’s twitter account in particular followed a great many female ISIS recruiters, and all three of the women are believed to have been influenced in their decision by the social media output of Glasgow-born Aqsa Mahmoud, who left home in 2013 to live in the Islamic State and has since kept a blog chronicling her experiences. This blog plays an important role in encouraging other young Muslim women to join her, and in advocating terror attacks in the West. The role of Mahmoud, who goes by the name Umm Layth (Mother Lion) on her blog as well as on her twitter and ask.fm accounts has been cited in numerous studies of women who leave for the Islamic State. Despite this, choosing to live in the Islamic State is not a decision that is comparable to running away from home with your first love who you met over the internet, and panders to a stereotype of young women as being suckers for cheap romance that assumes because of their age and gender are in some way incapable of making sincere political or religious decisions.
Another Guardian article by Humaira Patel takes a less individualistic look at the motivations of the three women’s decision and instead looks towards the climate of alienation and hostility they lived in – a polarised and tense society where Islamophobia is commonly accepted amidst mainstream discourse, and which takes a broader look at the social situation that produced these events:
“They fell prey to a form of virus spreading through the internet, brainwashing young women and men in the name of religion, directed by a bunch of radicals working in the human resources department for Isis. They lure young women with talk of companionship and heaven, a promise that makes me wonder if they really know much about their religion: when did killing innocent beings ever get anyone into heaven?”
As with Iqbal’s article, the suggestion of violence inherent to Islam itself is dismissed, and its role relegated to the language in which this cry of rage, stoked by years of accumulated alienation and built-up frustration with being a Muslim in contemporary Western society, could be expressed.
“Many will assume that what has happened happened because these young women are Muslims, and Isis is supposedly Muslim, so religion must be at the core of this. But Islam is a religion of peace and unity, and growing up in London surrounded by all the peaceful Muslims of the East End, these young women must have known that too. I think something beyond religion is also playing a part.”
Patel’s idea of “something beyond Islam” is a broader sense of alienation brought about by Islamophobia, leaving alienated young Muslims easy prey for the “virus” of ISIS’s social media propaganda:
“They grew up in a Britain that is filled with Islamophobia, where people seem to constantly speak ill about their faith. Sometimes, the non-stop criticism and offence can make people hang on to their religion more and more stringently, and get so into religion that they fail to differentiate between right and wrong. Instead, they become paranoid and defensive and start listening to Isis’s propaganda department.”
Whereas Iqbal reduces the issue down to individuals being targeted and exploited, Patel’s article touches upon some important subjects. Young Muslims in Britain and elsewhere in the West are economically and socially marginalised – a recent report by the British Equalities and Human Rights Commission documents this in great detail – and this must surely play an important role in the dis-enfranchisement of Muslims from Western society. Patel also focuses on the way in which belligerent far-right nationalism has opened up space for “respectable” centrist opinion to incorporate more overtly anti-Muslim themes in everyday political discussion, which has in turn sharpened the polarisation between the Muslim and Non-Muslim population of many Western countries. Both the far-right and the Islamists benefit in terms of recruitment and pushing the media narrative in a direction which suits their agenda as a result of this polarisation. Both the far-right, counter-jihad movement and Islamists themselves reinforce the notion that ISIS represents the true Islam, one in order to demonise Islam in general, the other too position themselves as defenders against anti-Islamic aggression. Both recruit off the fear of the Other and they both benefit from the cycle of violence that terrorist attacks produce. ISIS and Al-Qaeda style movements understand that when they carry out attacks it leads to a backlash, which further drives frightened and alienated Muslims into their waiting arms. As Rachel Shabi remarks “The marginalisation and anger that follows any anti-Muslim backlash can be used as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy that the West hates Islam, and must be fought.”
However there are also problems with these two accounts of the three runaway schoolgirls. It is insulting to suggest because of their age and gender the three women from London are naive dupes running away from home in a fit of adolescent pique – going to join ISIS is not the same as throwing a tantrum. Running away to marry a Mujahedeen may contain an element of romance, (a feature already noted in detail by the essential study so far on the topic Becoming Mulan ) but these women are well aware of what this sort of life demands. An ISIS document entitled Women of the Islamic State: A manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanassa Brigade recently translated by the Quilliam foundation is quite explicit about the role women are expected to play in the Islamic state. “The central thesis of this statement is that woman was created to populate the Earth just as man was. But, as God wanted it to be, she was made from Adam and for Adam. Beyond this, her creator ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband.” They claim these values have come under threat from liberal western attitudes:
“The problem today is that women are not fulfilling their fundamental roles, the role that is consistent with their deepest nature, for an important reason, that women are not presented with a true picture of man and, because of the rise in the number of emasculated men who do not shoulder the responsibility allocated to them towards their Ummah, religion or people, and not even towards their houses or their sons, who are being supported by their wives.”
Whilst the Manifesto attempts, not very convincingly, to portray life within the Islamic State as settled and comfortable, it makes no attempt to hide it’s patriarchal social structure. This rampant chauvinism is one of the most disgusting features of ISIS and it is hard for many people to understand why a woman would voluntarily choose such a life. Theories that emphasise individual naivety, vulnerabilty, or which emphasis economic and social alienation, struggle to then explain why the way out of this is to choose subordination to ISIS’s patriachy.
The experiences of the Mujahirat are not at all positive once they arrive in the Islamic State. These women have often been used as a paramilitary police force (Hisbah) whose job is to enforce ISIS laws on correct Islamic appearance. They are not particularly liked by the Syrian and Iraqi populations – it’s hardly a surprise that locals resent Western European women turning up and shoving them around, lecturing them on Islam and what they should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear. The notion that Islamic State’s legions of foreigners comprise a form of imperial conquest has been made by other commentators such as Felix Largrande, and the clear dislike of the local Syrian and Iraqi people have for people flooding in from all over the world to brutally rule over them is easy to understand. The case of the two Austrian teens who left for the Islamic State last year, only to regret their decision and attempt to come back, might be best understood in this context of social rejection and passive isolation that many women who go to live under ISIS seem to end up caught in, rather than writing them off as naive girls too soft to live in the middle-east.
As well as this social isolation two of the most emotionally damaging experiences these women go through are leaving your family behind and the eventual death of your new husband. What it shows is that, for the women of the Islamic State, constant fear, not knowing if your partner will return from battle and what shape they’ll be in if they do, are dominant themes in the social media output of Mujahirat women. The typical ISIS repsonse to this is unforgiving. For ISIS Shahadah (martyrdom) is something to be celebrated, not mourned, and those young women struggling to come to terms with the deaths of their husbands are unlikely to find much solace in ISIS territory. Even Umm Layth herself mentions in her some of her blogs that women should expect their husbands to die and mentally prepare themselves for being a widow in advance of arriving in ISIS territory – “You already knew you wanted to marry a Mujahid so why did you not read up on what will be the rulings for you after his departure..?”
We are still left struggling to understand why three young women with such potential would choose this life. These three women showed few outward signs of alienation, and apparently were high-achieving and functioning members of the community. They do not meet the stereotype of the standard ISIS recruit – typically a male, adolescent, drop-out. Someone with a violent grudge against Western society, with no future, searching for meaning and drawn to the prospect of violence and conquest that ISIS can offer. This stereotype remains despite the fact that we now have a wealth of research that shows a much more complex profile of who is drawn to fundamentalist Islam. Unable to rationalise these girls motivations in that particular way due to their age and gender, another narrative with disturbing sexist undertones has appeared instead. Whatever role grooming played this does not absolve those individuals of taking responsibility for their choices. Emma Barnett, Women’s Editor of the right-wing Daily Telegraph makes such a point, and compares the difference in the coverage between young men who go to fight and these young women, who instead are presented as victims:
“If you knew nothing about the situation, you could be forgiven for believing these school girls had been abducted. The headline ‘missing girls’ screams out from televisions across the country today. This is the way rolling news channels are choosing to present their story and yet it couldn’t be further from the truth…
…Make no mistake: Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana are not missing. They have joined a murderous cult of their own volition – just like their Western male counterparts. Yes, they happen to be women – but they are still sentient beings – capable of knowing right from wrong.
So don’t dole out sympathy to them just because of their gender. Instead, serve them up an equal helping of that anger which society seems to reserve solely for men who do wrong.”
Barnett accepts that grooming has played some kind of a role, but downplays its importance on anti-sexist grounds. We find ourselves in a strange position, with the American state and the radical left making their arguments from the same premise – that Islamic belief plays only a peripheral role in this – with both in their own way stripping these women of their ability to make their own choices in life. These are just bad individuals doing bad things, either acting as vessels of distilled anti-imperialist vengeance or as millenarian psychopaths suffering from a sickness of mind. As Dean Obeidallah in the Daily Beast observed after President Obama’s comments that ISIS “no more represent Islam than any madman who kills innocents in the name of God represents Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism or Hinduism.” both the political left and the American state now subscribe the same logic as the NRA – “Religion doesn’t kill people, people do” – although the author then goes to make the case that undermining ISIS’s claims to Islamic legitimacy is the best way to weaken it, pointing out that “ISIS wants us to believe its actions are based in Islam because it frames the conflict as a religious war between the West and Islam.” because by framing policy in this way makes it easier for them to recruit.
Meanwhile the political right quite insincerely takes up the anti-sexist position of outwardly defending the agency of women, but only in such a way that makes it more palatable for us to despise them, and dispenses with the need to make a detailed study of the social context where this took place. The tough position that Barnett takes in the Telegraph also has some clear drawbacks of its own. If we accept that 15 years olds are too young to vote, too young to drive, lack the ability give consent to have sex, then how is it an appropriate age to make a decision as life-changing and disastrous as this? The laws regarding the age of consent and the right to vote are not conditional on the intelligence or educational ability of the individual. Whilst it’s true that we shouldn’t dismiss someone’s agency on the basis of gender and age, any 15 year old, no matter how intelligent or educated, is also impressionable and vulnerable too. A constant sense of alienation and making bad decisions are two things common to all adolescents, a condition exacerbated by being a Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim country. The implication here is that to be groomed by someone is either a sign of stupidity, or a sign that you wanted it all along and thus implicitly consent, something that comes perilously close to vile logic of victim-blaming. The piece also contains a serious contradiction –
“Western female jihadis are not just playing the roles of dutiful wives and mothers. No: the harmless “jihadi bride” is anything but. While women are prevented from fighting by Sharia law, which Isil adheres to, the female jihadi is now chief recruiter, groomer and propagandist for this murderous cult.”
If “recruiting and grooming” plays only a minor role in motivating such people to go to join ISIS, then why does Barnett bring it up in the same article as one of the potential threats these women now pose once over in ISIS territory? Surely those individuals at risk from the recruiters and groomers would be capable of making their own free choices, and the influence that those propagandists have would be limited?
The issue of female recruits to ISIS and what motivates them is an issue which has brought these differences in perspective into focus, but it’s an issue that exists as the background nose in nearly all the Western media coverage of ISIS. There has been an interesting dialogue that exemplifies this between Rafia Zakaria and Meredith Tax. Writing in Dissent magazine, Zakaria takes a detailed look at the complex issues that motivate women to go and live in the Islamic State, and what could caise them to be so profoundly alienated from Western society to consider such a drastic course of action. She rejects the notion that these women were duped or conned by social media propaganda, although she certainly believes it played an important role in their decision to join ISIS, and argues these women made a considered and informed decision, one which social media may played a part in helping them to make, but does not stop it from being a deliberate choice:
“Is it possible that ISIS appeals to some Muslim women, not because they are fooled by it, but because its political vision seems to offer solutions to some of their problems? Female recruits may ultimately discover that the Islamic utopia ISIS presents is illusory and its promise of female empowerment false. But, for many, their decision to join ISIS can still be understood as a political choice, one that was consciously made in response to a variety of factors.”
Zakaria introduces the story of Aafia Siddique, a highly educated female jihadist from Pakistan, who was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan now currently resides an American prison. Aafia Siddique, like many Pakistani women, was involved in an arranged marriage, in this instance to a “mild-mannered” Doctor, but came into conflict with him and the traditional gender role of mother and observant housewife she was expected to play.
“So pronounced was Siddiqui’s refusal to submit to traditional female roles, that in 2002, the couple landed before one of the most prominent Deobandi clerics in Karachi, in an attempt to resolve their marital problems. By then, Siddiqui had begun to wear a full face veil, with only her eyes exposed. Grand Mufti Rafi Usmani met the couple at the Darul Uloom madrassa in Karachi. There, he instructed Siddiqui to stop her struggle for jihad and focus instead on her family.
Siddiqui disagreed with the Grand Mufti’s verdict, and from behind the face-veil, did something few devout Muslim women would do. She argued with the Mufti and contradicted him by citing another sheikh, the more militant Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, who had called jihad a “community obligation incumbent on every Muslim.”2 The Mufti was irritated; he had likely never faced such a situation before.”
A woman questioning a Mufti in this way is very unusual in itself in Pakistan, but the fact it was done on Islamic grounds, not on grounds that left-wingers would recognise as progressive, is the possibly most significant feature of all – demonstrating the weakness and failure of feminism in Islamic societies to address the concerns of women like Siddique. But despite the fact that arguing with an ISIS religious authority figure in this way would mean almost certain death, for Siddique fundamentalist Islam managed to provide a way out of the customary marriage obligations that many young women in Muslim societies are subject to. Zakaria concludes by saying.
“As one right-leaning host on Pakistani television asserted, “Aafia is a heroine among educated women,” emphasizing that her choice of militancy was not the result of some naïve indoctrination but a politically considered one, made with complete knowledge of the level of violence involved. Neuroscientist, mother, and now inmate at Carswell Prison in Texas, Aafia Siddiqui was never a member of ISIS. Yet to understand the interplay between culture, religion, and politics in her life can reveal something important about why she and other women become jihadists. The “liberation” offered by ISIS can seem like an escape from both the ghettoized status of Islam in the West as well as the restrictive cultural mores of many Muslim countries; just as crucially, it can also seem like a legitimate response to being victimized by U.S.-led wars that promise female empowerment but deliver widespread destruction. Unless we examine why some women choose to devote their lives to such a group, we cannot grasp the power of ISIS’s utopian, yet violently deceptive promise.”
In this account ISIS becomes an emancipatory agent in the same way that European fascism was, one built on a contradictory position of wanting to overturn the current order to restore society to an idealised prior state, a type of revolutionary ultra-conservatism to transcend the stagnation and decline of a particular group, religion or race. Emancipation is equated with a type of servitude, which is the only escape from the ghettoisation and ennui of life in a godless hedonistic consumer capitalist Western society or the poverty and parochial social expectations of many Muslim societies. What ISIS offers is not emancipation but utter and total subordination, but one where at least she’ll be able to wear Islamic clothing in peace, or where her ability to practice her religion isn’t secondary to fulfilling traditional gender roles and social obligations. Furthermore some of the women that have left to join ISIS have gone on to play an important role in the policing of female behaviour as part of the Hisbah paramilitary police force. The power this role offers could indeed be very attractive to someone alienated and powerless in their country of birth.
Yet as ISIS tries to transcend the parochial or “man-made” system it often comes into conflict with local customs and provokes discontent by attempting to impose their vision of 8th Century Islamic society upon the population. As it tries to go back an idealised state it struggles to handle its responsibilities in the real world. As one anonymous activist from the anti-ISIS group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered reports in great detail, ISIS have attacked and attempted to overthrow all fixed social relationships, but only to replace it with an even more ruthless and type of subjugation, putting Zakaria’s account of how Aafia Siddique saw potential emancipation through Islamism into a different perspective, one which challenges the idea that there is anything potentially emancipatory about this group.
“Popular customs in Raqqa regarding to marriage were semi-traditional and inherited between generations, rural families prefer mating among relatives and cousins, where the custom which so-called (Alhayar) was prevailed, where the cousin shows the desire to marry the daughter of his uncle, so she refrain to marry from another man, this custom has been prevailed and effective on a large scale.
After agreeing to marry, the young man pays sum of money as dowry for the girl, it was estimated before the start of the revolution about (200 – 350) thousand Syrian pounds almost equivalent to (4-7 thousand US dollars), the girl starts equipping itself and buy clothes and gold jewelry and some household items and everything she needs by this dowry, so concerts, weddings and banquets permeated the village and the area when there are marriages of one of their sons, and marriages periods were associated with harvests, due to the linkage between rural income and agriculture .
As for city and more civilized communities, the marriages were happening according to the traditions of every family, but the difference is not great from the habits in countryside, but more civilized for concerts, Raqqa had a privacy with respect to marriage concerts, it were mixed from both genders and were attended by relatives and acquaintances and lovers of both the bride and groom, and attendance were gleeful during the popular folklore songs associated with the water of Euphrates and inherited generation after another, where the Islamic moderate character was prevailed in the province.”
After the fall of Raqqa to the Islamic state these traditional marriage customs were replaced by something ISIS believes is more in keeping with their ideology – women being compelled to marry ISIS fighters, a great honour and a religious obligation. They apply strict rules to pressure women who are reluctant to forgo their traditional roles to take marriages with ISIS fighters whom they barely know.
“ISIS tried through its restrictions to crack down women, in order to force them indirectly to marry from its members, by the following practices:
1. Commitment wearing Islamic dress, according to the perspective of the group.
2. Prevent the women from wandering without Muhram (close relative) inside towns and villages.
3. Prevent the women under the age of fifty from traveling only for health reasons.
4. Close the institutes and universities.
5. Prevent the girls from traveling to other regions to follow education.
6. Prevent the women from working without Muhram with her in the same workplace.
7. Prevent the women from going to the ovens.
8. Harassment of women who wandering in the city without Muhram.
There were many things that press on the people and push them to marry off their daughters from the members of the group, such as:
1. poverty plaguing the city in comparison with welfare experienced by those engaged in the ranks of the group.
2. high dowries offered by members of the group in exchange for marriage.
3. The prevalence of nepotism in the ranks of the group, prompting families to set up closer links with members of the group.
4. spread rumors about girls kidnapping, that prompted families to fear of shame.
With the increase in arrests against women by Hesba patrols, women working in the female battalions began offering offers to marry from ISIS members for those who are unmarried during periods of detention, so special centers have been opened for singles and widows who want to marry.”
Here we have a base chauvinism backed up with an cunning mixture of indirect compulsion and ruthless violence. No-one can tell the ISIS lads who they can or can’t sleep with, and refusal to submit to the new social order can cost your life – in December 2014 ISIS allegedly executed 150 women in Syria for refusing to marry ISIS fighters. There is something deeply troubling and contradictory at the heart of Zakaria’s narrative when she cites Islamic fundamentalism as an escape route from traditional gender roles – Siddique herself was rebelling against a social position that today under their rule ISIS enforce with even more brutality than back in Pakistan. If she was looking for a way out of a situation where her wishes are ignored, she has made a terrible error of judgement. ISIS’s desire to reduce women to the spoils of war, a items to be handed out to fighters as rewards, is an attempt return to chauvinism of a different historical epoch, but simultaneously characteristics of a more modern form of sexism show through. The same interview goes onto mention how sex plays an important role for male ISIS fighters:
“A large section of ISIS members suffer from sexual anomalies and brutal instinctive desire for sex, except for sadism and perversion which they carrying already, and this things appeared through:
1. Buying strange underwear from their women, where they seek to buy underwear which carry a lot of anomalies nature.
2. Marry more than one wife, during short periods, and search for Sabaya (captives women) despite the presence of more than one wife.
3. Search for blue pills in order to increase their strength to have more sex.
4. Many cases that have been recorded from hospitals and physicians, about women who have been subjected to sexual practice in a brutal and abnormal manner.
All of these factors and circumstances mentioned above have formed a panic and fear to the girls and women of Raqqa, which the houses became their current tombs, because of fear from falling into the arms of the soldiers of the Caliph.”
Could this be a sign of men, many of which were raised in a hyper-sexualised Western culture, forcing their alien and frightening sexual desires onto people for whom certain acts are well outside the norms of sexual behaviour? Once again this is revealing – at the risk of being presumptuous it is not hard to imagine James Bloodworth’s stereotypical male Western European ISIS recruit, someone barely beyond adolescence, maybe someone who has difficulty maintaining normal sexual relationships, who is taking advantage of a society which enforces total and absolute patriarchy. Religiously justified chauvinism, alongside more exotic and theological concerns such as believe in prophecy and apocalypse, is a crucial foundation upon which ISIS builds its legitimacy and its appeal. But focusing entirely on this single aspect, without even looking at the broader historical and material context such chauvinism exists in, and how it comes into conflict with traditional gender roles and marriage customs is a mistake, and reducing the lure of ISIS to sex-tourism risks entering the sort of territory that pathologises them and leads down the dead-end of James Bloodworth’s piece.
Meredith Tax wrote a compelling critique of Zakaria’s piece, to which Zakaria has since replied. She criticises the comparison between the three schoolgirls from London and Aafia Siddique.
“But no matter how well-organized and educated they may be, most of the girls whose stories we actually know tend to be fifteen or sixteen. Can we really compare these teenagers to Aafia Siddiqi, a thirty-five-year-old PhD with degrees in biology and neuroscience, married twice, with three children, and a dedicated Islamist for many years, who, when captured in 2008, was reportedly carrying cyanide crystals and documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs.”
Tax then moves on to criticise Zakaria for suggesting that women are joining ISIS to become empowered or escape gender roles, instead arguing they take up a relatively privileged position in the apparatus of ISIS tyranny in exchange for accepting such a subordinate role, a position that contains certain privileges when it comes to others in the community:
“Let’s call the phenomenon by its right name: This is not female empowerment but a buy-in by some young Sunni women to a fascist ideology that gives them admission to a society run by an elite group of warriors who have life and death power over other women-Yazidis, Shi’a, Ahmadis, Christians. All they have to do to join this elite is consent to their own subordination. They have even been allowed to form their own little militia, the al-Khansaa brigade, to police other women. The bargain is exactly the same as that made by women who join other poisonous right wing groups based on racial or ideological purity, like Nazi women, women of the Hindu right, or the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan.”
So if Zakaria is correct and some of the runaway girls from the West have made mature, considered decisions, we have to ask, what kind of decisions have they made? Is it sufficient to talk about empowerment in the case of Mujahidah Bint Usama, a doctor who posted a picture of herself in Raqqa holding a severed head, with the message, “Dream job, a terrorist doc,” followed by smiley faces and hearts?”
Whichever perspective you think is most appropriate for this specific story, it points to a much broader challenge people have in understanding what we’re facing, and all too often to otherwise intelligent and thoughtful commentators are drawn into defending the merits of their particular perspective at the risk of excluding the insights offered by the other. This continuing partisanship is damaging our ability to comprehend and deal with ISIS. It has already led to unlikely and incoherent alliances – leftists upholding the same line as the US state on ISIS being something non-Islamic, motivated either by individual pathology or as an unconscious vehicle of popular opposition to the failed American imperial project. We see real-politick gurus stuck floundering trying to fit ISIS into a pre-existing vision of rational behaviour, acting in pursuit of rational and universally applicable aims. We have counter-jihad nationalists and Islamists defining themselves in opposition to one another, whilst helping legitimise and strengthen one another by both of them claiming that the Islam practiced by ISIS is the definitive Islam, a proposition ISIS are more than willing to accept even if it comes from their hated enemies. The European far-right has made criticisms of ISIS, with its sadistic violence and brutal disregard for human life, despite the uncanny similarities that ISIS has with 20th century European fascism on this very point, as well as regarding the subordination of women, the persecution of sectarian minorities, violent anti-Semitism, and the broader impulse to restore their civilisation to a pre-modern state following decades of humiliation from outside aggressors. At this point a little clarity needs to be brought to the situation, and the faulty set of assumptions that have produced this confusion must be addressed. We must go beyond the false binary that pits studying the material conditions that produced ISIS against understanding the supposedly abstract ideology they practice to do this.