Three young women from Bethnal Green have joined dozens of other British Muslim women in Iraq and Syria as members of Islamic State.
These teenagers challenge stereotypical conceptions of Muslim women. Rather than weak, passive, and meek victims, they are proactively engaged in shaping their own future. Tragically the future they appear to have chosen is not that offered by Western states, but a gilded utopian vision presented to them by the cult of Islamic State.
IS operates like a cult, it identifies weaknesses, exploits them, and entices with promises of a new Utopian future and then creates dependencies. Thinking about IS as a cult allows a better understanding of its allure. Not all new recruits are wannabe terrorists – they are groupies.
When communicating with young Muslims living in the west, IS recruiters start by identifying vulnerabilities. They emphasise political grievances and the oppression historically suffered by the Umma (the worldwide community of Muslims). They point to the fall of the Caliphate and the crusades as evidence of a clash of civilisations that dates back through the centuries and has been more recently confirmed by military aggression from non-Muslims.
IS recruiters also argue that western states have failed to deliver on promises about opportunity, equality and human rights in liberal democracies. Muslims have instead been persecuted, victimised, and discriminated against, they say.
A recent report by the Muslim Council of Britain reveals some of these same difficulties so it’s possible to see how Islamic State’s claims might resonate. And Amnesty International has highlighted how civil liberties, human rights and basic freedoms in the UK have been systematically eroded. Other research shows how the negative consequences of counter-terrorism measures are disproportionately felt by Muslims.
Selling the dream
Having identified vulnerabilities, IS offers a solution – a new caliphate in which ethnicity and language are not barriers and what matters is faith and belief. By touting a shared belief in a new state and practicing what they consider to be correct Islam, IS recruiters purport to offer a safe-haven for persecuted Muslims.
In various issues of IS magazine Dabiq, there is talk of a new beginning, the opportunity to fulfil God’s purpose by achieving statehood. To realise this, schools, medical facilities, local police forces and courts are being established. These institutions ensure the everyone in the state is “helped” to live a life according to their understanding of Islam.
In this new state, they say young Muslim women are not treated as a problem, but are welcomed as the mothers of the caliphate. In a recently translated manifesto IS is clear that marriage and bearing children is an expected part of life for women in its territories. But more than just being “jihadi brides”, these are “jihadi wives”. It is not just a romantic one-off event that lures them to Iraq and Syria, but the possibility of a life as a wife and mother whose direction and status are guaranteed. Here the personal is political, and the political is personal.
The next stage is isolation. This begins once individuals accept the critique of global politics offered by IS and the solution it proposes. Similar to grooming techniques, targets are told not to communicate their feelings to others, especially friends and family because, they are told these people will not understand, and will betray them.
This has the effect of denying potential recruits access to sources of information or support. Confirmation bias is visible in the tweets and blogs of young women already in IS territories, rejecting alternative points of view as impossible or propaganda. Supporters frequently deny that IS has committed any crimes because everything it has done is permissible under Sharia law. They say all accusations have been fabricated by enemies of IS or that, if anyone has committed such crimes, they have been punished accordingly.
No going back
Finally, Islamic State place these women in a position of dependency. The cost of backing out becomes unbearably high. They are reminded that they “owe” Islamic State for the cost of bringing them to Iraq or Syria, especially if they are provided lawyers in Turkey should they be detained. Their new bonds tie them to the organisation and if they leave they sacrifice welfare payments, housing, and a husband.
Then when they see what happens to people convicted of activities in Syria back home, they are further dissuaded from returning should they ever realise their error. Yet those who do return are perhaps the most legitimate dissenters of IS. However these individuals are denied a voice or incentive to redeem themselves.
The promises of IS are not realised. There is discrimination against Western Muslims and extreme violence permeates IS territories. The life of a jihadi wife is short-lived, quickly becoming the life of a jihadi widow, where status and purpose is less clear. But as an error – a rebellious decision that rejects the ideas of Islam in the west but also those of feminists, secularists, and many others – it seems particularly tragic that IS is perceived as the best alternative for young women like those who have just left from East London.
Presenting Islamic State as a cult is not to suggest that young men and women who travel to Syria or Iraq have been brainwashed. There are truths within the political messages sent out by IS, which is why they resonate. It is also not to suggest that the young men and women are emotionally seduced by charismatic speakers and false promises alone. There are personal connections built up over time and a sense of adventure in travelling away from home.
But treating IS as mimicking a cult could be of benefit to the young people who make the mistake of joining it. They could look at the many stories of victims of cults escaping and starting their life again. That would allow for the potential for a future beyond IS for its members. The way we talk about it now, as a security and terrorism issue, offers them little optimism for life on the other side.