It was a normal weekday in a Denver suburb when three teenage girls headed off to school only to be intercepted hours later at an airport in Germany. The teenagers were allegedly trying to fly to Turkey and then cross the border into Syria to join the ISIS regime. Fortunately, their parents suspected something was amiss when the girls were absent from school and their passports were missing from home. In addition to the stories of young men from the West who have become fighters with ISIS, this case in Colorado is one of a handful of similar anecdotes of young women who have tried or succeeded in joining the so-called Islamic State. Some estimates report that around 10% of the recruits to ISIS are women, including women from the Middle East and North Africa.
It is almost impossible for Americans to wrap their heads around why these women, some only teenagers, would place themselves in the position to be presumably the victims of male sexual abuse and violent aggression. What could these young women possibly see in the violent imagery of ISIS that would provide them some opportunity that they don’t already have in the West? What are they even going to do over there, besides just being married off to a jihadi and raising children?
When the women’s choices contradict what we see as a rational decision, then the news media report—as they did in this case from Denver—that the young women were “victims of online predators.” While it may be the case that recruiters were targeting these teenage girls, it is problematic to use the terminology of “victims” when talking about ISIS recruits. This language takes away the agency and rationality of the individuals, turning them into mindless zombies. The young women may have been manipulated in terms of their ideology, but it takes a great deal of rational thinking to plan a trip to Syria, especially in the current situation. Additionally, this language of victimhood genders this conversation by presuming that women are the ones who will be swept up by the emotions and more easily become the victims of the rhetoric of ISIS, as opposed to the “rational” men who have joined ISIS.
Before going into further discussion about the ISIS recruitment materials, I think it is necessary to make a few clarifying points. First, by trying to get away from the language of “victims,” I don’t want to then assume that these women are fully aware of what they are getting into when they decide to join ISIS. In reality, most women are likely unprepared for what awaits them in Syria and Iraq—more serious suffering than just having to do chores. Second, I want to make it clear that ISIS is a horrible organization that distorts the religion of Islam and poses a real threat, not just to the West but also to the Middle East. ISIS is using recruiters to get these young Westerners to join the cause by any means possible. So, there is a lot of manipulation that is happening online in order to attract young people. It is also important to note that these Western recruits are a fraction of the members of ISIS; many of these young recruits come from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
While there is some sophisticated manipulation going on in the rhetoric of ISIS recruitment, it doesn’t do justice to the issue to just label these young women as victims and try to find ways to block or track these online recruitment channels. Instead, we have to actually examine the arguments that are being made in ISIS recruitment materials in order to understand the multifaceted reasons why these young women might want to join the Islamic State.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to trace who is creating all of the recruitment material for ISIS, but there is a group of what is assumed to be female recruiters–many of whom are Westerners who joined ISIS–who are posting on several different social media channels.** It is challenging to keep track of all of these women because they are constantly switching social media platforms and account names as their various accounts get flagged by the administration and then closed. The women mostly post blog entries, tweets and photos that provide details about daily life in the Islamic State, practical information for women who want to join ISIS, and motivation for the ISIS regime. For example, in one blog post, the author explains the role of women in the state:
If you know the blessings of this land and those residing in it then you can be placed into the worst of situations and chores here and you will still find those rare people who will have a huge smile on their face simply because their intentions are to please Allah and they feel blessed to be placed in this situation out of the billions of Muslims around the world. Wallahi (Oh my God!) I have come across such beautiful sisters who will spend mornings and nights in happiness because they are cooking the Mujahideen (those fighting for jihad) food or they’ll clean the whole building without anyone even figuring it out who it was.
This one excerpt illustrates the complexities of life in the Islamic State. The women aren’t being offered jewels, elaborate mansions, sexy husbands or wads of cash, as has previously been reported. They are being offered something more nuanced: the chance to do household chores and cook to support the work of the male fighters. All of this is done for what they see as the greater good of the Islamic State, and in turn to please God. As will be seen, other writings and videos online reflect a similar complexity within the Islamic State.
Some of the reasons for being attracted to the rhetoric of ISIS can be pinpointed when we focus on the social location of these individuals as young, Muslim women, living in Western countries. First of all, psychologists have shown that developmentally teenagers observe the world in more black and white terms and are thus more attracted to ideological campaigns that claim to hold to pure principles and values. This explains why young people tend to be more attracted to new religious communities, protest movements, communal living, and even joining service organizations like the Peace Corps. Young people tend to be more idealistic and are often searching for a larger purpose and a place to belong. While this can lead to positive action in the world, it can also lead young people to feel dissatisfied with their lives. For these young Muslim women they may feel burdened to represent a perfect image of Islam but see their parents and other elders in the West as distorting the ideals of Islam. They are searching for a place where they can live out all the tenets of their faith. They don’t want to appear as hypocrites like their parents who have become compliant with Western culture.
In the midst of these thoughts, arises the Islamic State or the Islamic Caliphate, which attempts to provide a place where the women can live out their faith in this “perfect” community. ISIS recently began producing HD-quality video clips under the channel name, Al-Hayat (life in Arabic). In these slickly produced videos, ISIS is moving away from focusing on the death and destruction of previous videos to just display elements of daily life in the Islamic State. There are clips of ISIS fighters giving candy and ice cream to young kids, a butcher speaking in Arabic about how great life is in the Islamic State, the colorful assortment of food in the market, and people and children socializing in the streets. These videos don’t show war and violence but rather an ideal community that these young women can join.
There are also several references in online blogs to the Islamic State being an Ummah, or a community that models itself on the early community of the Prophet. In a list posted on Tumblr, someone has put together “10 Facts about the Islamic State.” This list makes the state look like an ideal paradise: there is no racism or crime, all food and necessities are provided, health care is free, there are no taxes for Muslims, and everyone prays and follows Islam. Obviously this cannot be true, but it is clear how this rhetoric would be attractive to a young Muslim teenager who faces discrimination on a daily basis and finds her fellow Muslims to not be following their faith. Some of the blogs that have been written presumably by young women who are now living in the Islamic State discuss their daily activities. The blogs almost make life in the Islamic state into a somewhat boring existence, but perhaps young women are attracted to the simplicity of it all. You can travel over there, get married to a jihadi, raise children, cook, clean, and practice your faith, all in the support of the Islamic State.
Some of the blogs written by young women admit that life isn’t always perfect in the Islamic State and they discuss some real struggles. For instance, one woman writes:
I wont lie by saying that my life is perfect and stress-free. Indeed, trials and tribulations are promised to everyone, especially for those whose claim to love Him – the test is double in amount. But I can say, Allāh put such contentment in your heart that no matter how severe the test is – you’ll always find strength to keep moving and not to despair. My hardest time was when I first arrived in Shaam (Syria). I kept thinking about my parents and family. Came from a solid-bond family, it was never easy to leave them without notice. I knew it was the hardest and darkest time for my parents, especially my mother. I was in such extend of anxiety if she got heart-arrest when she knew that I have left her.
This entry recognizes some of the real struggles that these young women will face. This is likely a strategic move by the ISIS recruiters to recognize that things are not always going to be perfect, but they want to portray that overall life in the Islamic State will be better than life in the West. Other entries emphasize that women need to seriously think about their decisions to join the Islamic State. One blogger writes, “You will not enjoy your Hijrah (pilgrimage to the Islamic State) truly until you believe from the bottom of your heart it is to please Allah, and most importantly you need to be sincere in your intentions. If you are still in doubt then research until you are content.” In addition, a lot of the online sites emphasize the practical aspects of joining ISIS. Blogs feature lists of items to bring or to leave at home, as well as advice on how to travel to Syria, including tips about how to avoid the suspicion of various authorities by hiding “jihadi” materials in a suitcase or laptop.
In addition, many of these young women also feel ostracized in Western society and are searching for a place where they can belong and fit in. While this search for belonging drives many people into harmless online communities, the ISIS recruiters appeal to these feelings of marginalization. A lot of the female recruiters were also raised in the West and touch on these same feelings in videos and blog entries. For example, one writes:
Our life isn’t always wonderful, but it’s such a beautiful life to live in Darl-ul Islam (the land of Islam). People don’t mock at you just because you’re wearing Niqab (face veil). They respect and honor you. People take your advice and don’t tell you not to judge them. When they see you commit an err, they advice you with love. People around you often reminds you of Allāh. At times you will forget that you’re living in the millennium era. It feels like you are living in a chapter of the book of Sirah (the life of the Prophet).
This excerpt illustrates how the Islamic State is not only portrayed as this perfect, idealistic space but it is also a place where Muslims are not harassed or judged for their choice to live out their religion. For a young woman who gets harassed for her choice to wear a headscarf, the idea of a space where she would be honored for this decision would certainly sound appealing.
One unique feature of digital spaces is the opportunity for play and creativity, and this is especially true in relation to religion. The online space can become this as-if space where new understandings of religion and new religious communities can be created. This Third Spaces blog has tracked a lot of the ways that the online space can be a productive space for meaning making, especially for marginalized groups. In this case, one of the biggest threats that we face in trying to tackle ISIS is that the recruiters have become very adept at using the as-if-ness of online media to their advantage. We can see how the recruitment materials have exaggerated and blurred the reality of what is happening in Syria and Iraq in order to attract disaffected youth who are searching for an ideal form of Islam.
This leads to another question that has been asked in the media recently: what can be done to combat ISIS recruitment? First, it is always important for parents, religious leaders and adult mentors to be involved in the lives of young people. They can show young people the complexity of life and religion. Although, I don’t think that Islamic centers in the West will be the most influential sites to combat this extreme ideology, mostly because young Muslims who are attracted to this extreme ideology are less likely to regularly attend prayers at the mosques. The online spaces are where most of the work should be done to fight against ISIS and to present some of the grey areas in life. One excellent example of the work that should be done online is the video channel of Abdullah X, which features short cartoon videos created by a young British Muslim who dealt with similar identity struggles. His videos try to present the reality of what ISIS is doing and to provoke young people to think about their decisions before acting. In one video, he says, “If you really think this has something to do with Islam, this internet identity, then at least seek out knowledge before assuming that being called a jihadi is somehow based on the traditions of this faith. Identity is about character, not false impressions.”
Abdullah X understands the feelings that young Muslims have and the attraction of the as-if space online, but he is encouraging them to think more about how they can use their actions to create real social change that does not involve violence.
More online campaigns need to be staged that will directly reach out to these disaffected young Muslims, will address their real struggles of living in the West, and will offer alternative ways to exert their frustrations onto projects that will actually improve their situations. In order to do this, we have to ask tough questions and seriously consider the reasons why young people want to join ISIS. It’s true that the situation in Iraq and Syria is very grim and the recruitment efforts of ISIS are quite threatening and sophisticated, but we owe it to a generation of young people to provide opportunities for them to find meaning in life and contribute to society while being respected for their ethnic identities and religious convictions.
**Because of the sensitive nature of some of the online sites, I chose not to include links in this blog to any of the ISIS recruitment materials. I don’t want to promote the work by attracting viral attention to these social media accounts. If you wish to access some of these websites for the purpose of responsible analysis, I would advise caution since some of the material might be upsetting and the traffic to these sites may be monitored by authorities.