Seduced by ISIS

Every day our attention is caught by stories in the news. Usually, the thoughts they occasion are fleeting. Sometimes the impression is more long lasting and they linger for days. One such story for me is that of the three schoolgirls in Britain who on Feb. 17 left their comfortable middle-class lives to fly off to Turkey and from there make their way to Syria to join the Islamic State. The three girls, two of them age 15 and another 16, are classmates, described as good students, well integrated into their society and showing no previous signs of extremism.

There’s a novel here, a dramatic one. I hope it won’t become the tragic novel I fear it might, but I can’t help wondering what lies ahead for these girls. Marriage to a young jihadi, or combat. Almost inevitably, hardship. And if they don’t get killed in Syria, will they face charges if they return to Britain? All this because they were young, impressionable and intrepid. Given the Islamic State’s many brutal acts, it is difficult for me to fathom its appeal, but judging from the number of young foreign recruits flocking to join the group, it has it. Masters of media, the I.S. is said to put out compelling propaganda videos, has 50,000 Twitter accounts and presents itself as offering opportunities for all who want to enroll. Analysts say any number of factors drive recruits; there is no one path to jihadism. Many of those who join the I.S. are religiously ignorant and not particularly pious, which doesn’t mean the dream of re-establishing the caliphate doesn’t resonate with them nonetheless.


I suppose 900 years ago people joined the Crusades out of a similarly wide range of motives: a love of adventure, a wish to see the world or to escape one’s situation at home, a desire to take part in a great cause, to do something important, lack of good alternatives, religious idealism. Religious Zionists planting Jewish settlements on the West Bank to redeem the land are following in the footsteps of the Crusaders. The Islamic State is so extreme, its practices so far from mainstream Islam, that it beggars belief to think its leaders are sincerely religious. But they don’t have to be to succeed. Two states were created on the basis of religion in the 20th century. Pakistan was established as a state for Muslims after the partition of India in 1947; Israel as a state for Jews, both secular and religious, in 1948.

Religion has become something to be deplored today, especially Islam. “What’s the matter with Islam?” has become a rallying cry, especially by those who know little about the religion or about the politics in the countries where Muslims live. But while religion plays an important role in motivating and recruiting Muslims to jihadi groups like the Islamic State, the chief drivers of Islamic terrorism lie outside religion, in grievances shared widely across society. Undemocratic regimes that refuse to share power, lack of opportunities, Western foreign policy and feelings of disenfranchisement from the societies in which Muslims live fuel extremism. So too can a longing for meaning, a desire for excitement and a need to belong.

Analysts who study jihadis say there is no reliable socio-demographic profile. Some are troubled young people; others are those who would enjoy good prospects in their home countries if they stayed put. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London found most jihadis from England are highly educated, from financially secure families and spoke English at home. The French newspaper Le Monde reported that a quarter of the French jihadis in Syria come from a non-Muslim background. Whether native or foreign-born, the great majority of jihadis are radicalized today not by someone they know or by an imam in a mosque but over the Internet, which Peter Neumann, director of The International Center for the Study of Radicalization, calls “the most powerful tool that ever existed for promoting ideas—good ideas and bad ideas.”

How will Shamima, Kadiza and Amira fare in the Islamic State? There’s a great bildungsroman to be written about their experiences if they survive them. Theirs is the face of innocent youth running into a war few of us comprehend. They humanize what otherwise strikes us as alien, horrifying and barbaric. We marvel at their illusions, their idealism, their recklessness. Leaving childhood behind, they have stepped boldly into their future, and we fear for them.

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Paul Ferris
3 years 10 months ago
I think the young people see the failure of secularism to give answers to ultimate questions about life's meaning including the religious dimension. Note the author states that most young people who go to ISIS are from well educated, well housed, and well fed homes. This is the secular idea of the good life. Who said, "woman does not live on bread alone ?"
ed gleason
3 years 10 months ago
I favor the cult comparison. All religions develop cults. Catholics, Protestants Hindus Jews Moonies etc. First a charismatic leader separates the recruit from the family at a youthful age when the youth starts to want to fly on her/his own. The cult like behavior should be easy to recognize and should be exposed for the fraud it is. The Moonies from Korea started in San Francisco years ago and it was easy to spot the scam.. now all but gone?
Martin Eble
3 years 10 months ago
A good example of a cult in action can be seen in San Francisco. An entire city, or at least the loud portion of it, has decided to eviscerate the current archbishop for being Catholic. News stories are being fabricated, an expensive public relations expert is coordinating the attack across the media, and trying to get actual facts into the matter is akin to exterminating a cockroach infestation by stomping them one at a time. There is no simple cure to what amounts to mass hysteria.
William Atkinson
3 years 10 months ago
Margot; I love your comparisons, but go way back in history and make comparisons, how Galileans rose up and went to Jerusalem to be radicals and protest the Herodian, split apart church, and Roman rule. Also how small groups of protesters after WWI looked for a leader and found one in Hitler, and today the huge inequality in our world today of religious, political, race and sexuality drives people to join such groups as ISIS. It's an old story told over and over again. Even Abraham and Moses found relief long ways away from their homelands. The Bible is a story book of how societies moved, mass movements away from oppression to a better world. America is land where oppressed people come. Many Many die inorder that others may survive in a new world a better times.
Michael Cobbold
3 years 8 months ago
Islam is anti-Christian to the core. The Church throws a massive hissy fit about the "the danger to traditional marriage" from "teh gayz", while being (wilfully ?) blind to the little detail that in "the religion of peace", polygamy is A-OK. Such intellectual & spiritual dissonance & hypocrisy is astounding. The evil-doing of Mohammed is an example for all Muslims, for Mohammed is regarded as the perfect man. He had concubines, murdered his critics, broke his word, vilified Christians, Jews, & pagans, presented his hatreds, violence & lust for conquest of all non-Muslims as the will of his "god" (whom the Koran itself calls a deceiver) - and this horrible dysangel is regarded benignly by those in Church and State whose duty it is to know better. Islam's aiders & abettors, from the Pope downward, need to wake up and face facts, for their delusions about it are costing the lives and security of millions. ISIS is not extreme - unless in its faithfulness to what Islam requires. As Cardinal Pell seems to have found. The savages of ISIS are doing as Mohammed did. This leaves the problem of what to do with the lies about Islam in "Nostra Aetate".


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