The Allure of Extremist Islam

(originally posted February 27, 2015)

The recent disappearance of three teenage British Muslim girls, now believed to have traveled to Syria to join ISIS, has re-ignited a discussion about women’s (and girls’) involvement with extremist Islamic groups. The explanations for women’s attraction to ISIS and other like-minded groups often fluctuate between two extremes. On one hand, these women are characterized as naive victims of powerful men. On the other, the active recruitment of women is seen as a new kind of jihadi military strategy that has little to do with Islam. This post critically examines depictions of extremist Muslim women, focusing on the multiple, often conflicting reasons women may be attracted to groups like ISIS.

Although there are a few dominant narratives currently in circulation about why women join extremist groups, and Mia Bloom’s four “R”s — “revenge”, “respect”, “redemption” (because of a “relationship” with a fighter), or because they have been “raped”– provides a useful framework for understanding, the question of why women join extremist groups is not answered easily or straightforwardly. It is a question I have been exploring in my Women in Islam class for the past few years, initially because students asked me to. While I have gotten many thoughtful responses in class to the presentation on women and extremist Islamic movements I put together, I was genuinely surprised to find, at the end of this past fall semester, that quite a few of my students chose to write their final papers on this topic. Some students produced truly thoughtful, unique research, even going so far as to study Dabiq, the English-language publication of ISIS, and to interview activists who had worked on the ground, on women’s rights issues, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The students surprised me. My Muslim students didn’t feel compelled to represent “the Muslim view,” and my non-Muslim students didn’t expect them to. Instead, we engaged in a series of thoughtful debates about what constitutes “extremism,” and why theories of “false consciousness” mask a phenomenon that is complex yet explainable, historically contingent yet specifically rooted in some key events of the past fourteen years. What I found, through their writing and my own recent explorations into Islamic gender activism, was that women are attracted to Islamic extremist movements for reasons that are too numerous to recount here, and that despite the horrors inflicted on ordinary people by the worst of these groups, they do offer value to the women who join them: symbolic and material value.

The argument that extremist women are simply pawns of extremist men is an old one that has been recirculated since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Aside from being naive and simplistic, it reveals a disturbing trend on the part of those who subscribe to it. This argument follows one of two trajectories. In one, women have been brainwashed into believing that the cause they join will establish a utopian Islamic society modeled on the one that existed in Arabia during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In another, women have suffered a traumatic personal loss or have been subjected to violence, and are subsequently manipulated by men into becoming suicide bombers. A more recent narrative in this vein portrays the women of ISIS as tools for birthing future jihadis. As Mia Bloom and Haleh Esfandiari pointed out in interviews on MSNBC about the (European) women who join ISIS, they think they will “see some action,” but in fact are simply enslaved and turned into “baby factories”.

An argument like this one appeals to audiences who want to see extremist women as dupes of men who lack any agency of their own. Unfortunately, it’s inaccurate. While it’s true, some women have joined ISIS with naïve presumptions about the group’s ability to re-create an Islamic utopia in the heart of the land that was the seat of the Abbasid Empire (as their social media accounts suggest), others join for very different reasons. In fact, the “women as pawns of Islamist men” argument fails to address the multiple, often complicated reasons why extremist ideologies are so appealing to some women. In fact, some of the social media accounts belonging to ISIS women suggest that they can be just as vicious and murderous as the mujahids who are engaging in the fighting. Therein lies a dilemma: should the women and girls who are caught trying to go to ISIS-held territory, or who do travel there and then later return to the West be prosecuted as terrorists? Or should they merely be tracked and monitored, as so many returning foreign fighters have been upon their return from jihadi training grounds? The Obama administration has sometimes appeared to be pursuing a policy of containment that treats returning jihadi women as victims. To pursue such a policy would also be, in effect, to deny them full accountability for the actions they have undertaken.

As I understand it, there are at least seven reasons that women are attracted to extremist groups that go beyond the “women as pawns of men” arguments.

One is DGP: “damn good propaganda”. For years, extremist groups have honed the art of creating and mobilizing effective marketing machines. In most cases they did so through grassroots work, sometimes operating among ordinary Muslims who were attending mosques or participating in prayer circles, study groups, or voluntary associations. ISIS’s mastery of propaganda using social media is the logical outcome of the years that jihadi groups have spent honing their skills at manipulating the mainstream Western media, drawing upon their penchant for preferring stories of the macabre over stories of social uplift. Some jihadis also have the uncanny ability to sound like non-extremists. They appeal to young women with offers of a good life, idealized visions of Islam, and the promise that being a part of the creation of an Islamic utopia holds. And ISIS has, even further, made the leap from thinking of joining to actually joining more feasible: in some cases, they havefacilitated travel to Syria and Iraq for those wishing to live in ISIS-held territory, and they work to integrate the women with expat communities once they arrive.

Two, the benefits of patriarchy/the welfare state appeals to some women, especially when there is no social safety net in their own countries. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood were all able to build strong social networks because they stepped in where the state would not or could not, to provide desperately needed services for people who were not wealthy members of the social elite. In Iraq and Syria, the State was unable or unwilling to ensure security; maintain or repair roads and bridges; provide medical clinics, street cleaning services, or elderly care; restore electricity where it had been lost; or ensure more than a few hours’ electric power daily. The State also could not enable the resumption of markets upon which so many people depended for their daily needs and livelihood. ISIS does all of these things, and provides free housing, utilities, transportation, and other services which would be considered a “luxury” in many places, such as reliable internet service.

Three has to do with disillusionment. In the Middle East, the geopolitics of the past decade have witnessed a normalization of policies that supported the use of drones; propped up corrupt regimes; rewarded poor governance, corruption, and repression; and did nothing to dismantle entrenched rivalries of ethnic, sectarian, and class difference. This has ultimately left a generation of disillusioned people, especially young people who see the future as relatively bleak, particularly in the wake of the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings, which appear not to have lived up to their initial promise.

Four, joining extremist groups often enables women to endow their lives with meaning that it previously lacked. The language used by ISIS was no less than a call to arms: in the 3rd issue of their magazine, Dabiq, they promote a message of inclusiveness among would-be supporters, claiming that,

In the recent past, sincere Muslims would weep and pray daily for an escape form the lands of qu’ud (abandonment of jihad) to the lands of jihad, even if to live only as a soldier in constant wait for the opportunity to battle. They would dream of going to Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Chechnya, Algeria, Somalia, and Waziristan, but to no avail. They knew that the only way for a man claiming a mustard seed of faith in his heart to preserve his faith would be to leave the West. Before, such an idea might have sounded impossible to some, but now there is a Khilafah prepared to accept every Muslim and Muslimah into its lands and do all it can within its power to protect them while relying on Allah alone.

What is striking about this quote is not just the use of gender-inclusive language, but the way in which it has tapped into the feelings of many Muslims that their own personal observance of faith is threatened by the seeming hostility to Islam(ic practice) in the West. In other words, many Muslims have felt it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully practice Islam while living in Western countries. While men are not always immediately identifiable as Muslim, women who wear the hijab are. Sometimes they are directly targeted, as recent stories about discrimination against veiled women in the US and France illustrate. Here, ISIS’s use of jihad is subtle: they are not just referring to the “lesser” jihad of military action (as it is described in the Qur’an), but the “greater” jihad in the soul of each believer to overcome the temptations of the ego and of the surrounding world.

Five is closely related to four: women engage in a range of activities, not all of them “stereotypically female.” Like men, they serve as security forces. Two known all-female brigades exist: al-Khansaa (named for a female poet and Companion of the Prophet Muhammad), and Umm al-Rayan. The women of these brigades perform street patrols, guard roadblocks, accompany soldiers on home searches, and carry out public floggings. Other, less visible women provide logistical support: they run, and teach in, schools that serve to spread ISIS’s jihadi ideology; provide medical aid; cook for others; and serve as communications operatives, using social media accounts to lure other recruits, both male and female, and training other women and girls in these kinds of propaganda campaigns. Although they do not engage in combat, some recent reports suggest that ISIS is beginning to listen to the demands of some of their women to be able to “do more” in the way of fighting. Among other things, active engagement in the working of the Islamic State has conferred a feeling of enfranchisement and purpose on its favored “citizens”, if the social media accounts of ISIS recruits are to be believed.

Six has to do with survival. When ISIS forces overran parts of Iraq and north-eastern Syria, it gave many of the inhabitants of these regions (the ones who were unable to escape) a choice of acceptance or death (Shi’ites have been apparently excluded from this choice, though some “protected minorities” of Christians, and even Yazidis, are included). Many chose to accept ISIS. Others have come to see the group as nearly undefeatable – for a time, ISIS managed to gain new territories, and even as it lost fighters, more recruits continued to join its ranks. It now controls an area larger than the U.K. Recently, it has threatened to overtake Rome, and now there are rumblings that it is planning to declare a caliphate in Lebanon. Whether or not this is true, some have come to believe that ISIS has the winning team, and choose to throw in their lot with the ones who seem poised to win this war.

Seven has to do with shared politics. Specifically, to some women, ISIS aptly represents their political interests, and these go beyond opposition to the military incursions of Western countries in the region, or the global influence of Western nations, particularly the U.S. and the U.K. In Syria, some Free Syrian Army supporters, persecuted by Assad, frustrated with the inability of the Free Syrian Army to protect them, and desperate to do something to defend themselves and their families, threw in their lot with the group that seemed most likely to bring about the fall of the Syrian state. The dominance of the Shi’a in the Iraqi government angered many Sunnis, who sought to bring about the fall of the regime there. A new book on ISIS by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss demonstrates how the leadership of the Islamic State formed from the ranks of Iraqi Baathists – military men, security agents, spies, and other loyalists of the Saddam Hussein regime. In some cases, joining ISIS has provided women with a means to avenge the brutalization they suffered at the hands of ISIS’s enemies (here, Bloom’s first and last “r’s,” “revenge” and “rape” come to mind). Perhaps drawing a lesson from the ways in which the US war in Afghanistan relied, at least in part, upon a narrative of “saving oppressed Muslim women,” ISIS justified its invasion of the northern Halab countryside, detailed in the 3rd issue of Dabiq, “The Liberation of Dabiq”:

This month, the soldiers of the Islamic State launched a swift and brutal offensive in the northern Halab countryside. The campaign, entitled “Taking Revenge for the Chaste Sisters,” targeted the treacherous sahawat murtaddin who prostituted themselves to America and its regional puppets, stabbing the mujahidin in the back and subsequently imprisoning them and even raping many of the muhajirat.

In such scenarios, violence against any real or perceived enemies of the Islamic State becomes an acceptable vehicle for achieving political agency.

These seven reasons don’t even address many of the others that can explain why ISIS may be an attractive alternative to some women: following a husband or boyfriend; a search for adventure; religious motivations (i.e. the chance to live in a place where Islamic Shari’a is being “truly” observed); teenage rebellion; or a millenarian worldview that sees this moment in history as the beginning of the Apocalypse. But they do suggest that one element of the undoing of the Islamic State may lie in destroying – or dismantling – the (real and symbolic) value that young women may derive from its continued existence. This will not be an easy or swift road to take, but, as the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu advised in the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”