Girls in CrISIS

CEP Research Analyst


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Glasgow girl, Aqsa Mahmoud, wrote on Tumblr from Syria:

“The media at first used to [portray] the ones running away to join the Jihad [holy war] as being unsuccessful, [and say that they] didn’t have a future and [came] from broke down families etc. But that is far from the truth. Most sisters I have come across have been in university studying courses with many promising paths, with big, happy families and friends and everything in the Dunyah to persuade one to stay behind and enjoy the luxury. If we had stayed behind, we could have been blessed with it all from a relaxing and comfortable life and lots of money.”

A long way from her Harry Potter, Coldplay loving days, Mahmoud is a reminder that radicalization is not only the purview of young Muslim men.  An estimated 550+ politicized Muslim women are making or have made their way to ISIS-held territories. Besides Mahmoud, examples include:

As Mahmoud confirms in her messgae, the girls are not impoverished or uneducated, but are deeply devout and yearn for a purpose in life tinged with romantic notions of wedded bliss to jihadi warriors and a rewarding afterlife based on their piety. Yet, the decisions made by these women , and the young men they love, is not only the result of Islamist tweets, Youtube videos and the messaging from young hipster jihadis they met online or in their neighborhoods. Their desire to be in “Muslim lands” is based on an identity crisis supported by western media, albeit, unintentionally.

In an effort to be protective of innocent Muslims since 9/11, most media outlets self-censor the debate over Islam as a faith versus Islamism – Islam as a political movement- resulting in criticism of the latter being blindly labelled as “Islamophobia.” Yet, as is evident from the Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood and articles published since the Obama administration’s Counter Violent Extremism Summit in February, like Asra Nomani’s Daily Beast article, “Will It Take The End of the World For Obama To Recognize ISIS As 'Islamic'? devout Muslims are looking to Islamic scripture to understand the political chaos they see in the Middle East and the West’s policy response to it.

Given the decentralized nature of Islam, there are numerous interpretations of scripture within the myriad Muslim communities around the world. That said, the ideology of groups such as ISIS falls within that pool of interpretation. It is not Islam, but it is. Muslims are taught that as long as one says the Shahada (there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet), he or she is Muslim. While the interpretation of Islam that ISIS and its ilk choose to follow is literally medieval, there is yet to be a counter-message rooted in scripture that argues for pluralism, universal human rights and individual freedom of thought and action. This is what needs to be supported as part of the counter-extremism effort, not only in Muslim majority countries, but in Western countries as well, to prevent extremist recruitment and lone wolf jihadism.

The smartest article I have read recently on this point is a personal story from Thanaa al-Naggar at Gawker.com, entitled, “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts.”  She hits nail on the head – for all the rigid interpretations of Islam, there are positive, personal ones if one chooses. This allows Muslims to live in the West without giving up their faith.

Yet, without a foundation in scripture, such “moderate” Muslims cannot defend themselves in a religious debate, allowing the most medieval interpretations of Islam to take over (ISIS quotes 13th century Islamic scholars).   It is urgent, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi implored an audience of Sunni clerics recently at one of Islam’s oldest theological schools, al-Azhar  – counter the extremist narrative of Islam based on scripture so Muslims may live in today’s society. Otherwise, Muslim girls like Aqsa, Hayat and Shamima will continue on their pilgrimage towards violence, separatism and hate for years to come.