One of the most alarming things about the Islamic State and similar groups is their appeal to young Muslims who have grown up in the West, and even to Western youths with no Islamic background. By June last year an estimated 2500 Westerners had joined the civil war in Syria, most fighting with rebel groups, a lot of them young, even teenagers. Some are converts to Islam.
Increasingly they include teenage girls who desert their families and peaceful lives in London, Paris or Colorado for the anticipated drama and unknown hardships of fighting a holy war in the Middle East. They leave behind parents, friends and experts who are racking their brains to discover why.
The trend has been highlighted this week by three schoolgirls from London who, police say, have succeeded in getting to Syria. Kadiza Sultana, 16; Amira Abase, 15; and Shamima Begum, 15, told their families on February 17 that they would be out for the day and headed to Gatwick airport where they boarded a Turkish Airways flight to Istanbul. Eight British girls have tried this in the last seven months.
At least one of the latest trio was in contact through Twitter with Aqsa Mahmood, 20, who left her home in Glasgow to join Isis in November 2013 and is now one of the most active recruiters of other young British women. Girls from other parts of Europe are also volunteering for the Islamic State’s bloodthirsty campaign, but its appeal runs even wider.
Late last year three Denver teenagers ran away from home in an attempt to join Isis. They were apprehended in Frankfurt after the father of one girl had a call from school about her absence and found that her passport was missing. In October another Colorado teen, Maureen Conley, a would-be jihadist, was stopped at Denver airport before she could carry out her plan. And, of course, the boys are still trying too.
Why? Their families are shocked, their neighbours flabbergasted, their school friends amazed. No-one could have predicted that these young people would fall for the propaganda of the most feared and hated terrorist group on the planet. They are not, typically, alienated and hopeless youths from urban ghettos but studious, ambitious youngsters from middleclass homes.
Why on earth are they ditching career prospects in the wealthy West to go and drudge for the jihadists? Why do girls want to marry zealots who, as they certainly know by now, are prepared to decapitate, crucify and immolate other human beings for a propaganda advantage?
Here are my guesses.
An ideal worth dying for: Adolescents are idealistic, but in an increasingly relativistic and morally confusing world they find it difficult to identify an object for their idealism and it is often squandered. Isis represents an apparently high ideal: a pure Islamic state with a well-defined way of life that conforms to the will of God. The fact that people are willing to die for this project impresses serious minded young Muslims and converts. Martyrdom confirms the nobility of the cause and those fighting for it. Slaughter can be excused. “Stethoscope round my neck and kalash on my shoulder. Martyrdom is my highest dream,” runs one famous tweet from a Malaysian woman recruit.
By comparison, what does Europe or the Anglo world have to offer? Saving the whales? Crusading against carbon emissions? Martyrdom for the sake of freedom to mock and defame? Sainthood for promoting sodomy?
Purity: A common theme in the discourse and twitterings of Isis sympathisers is the decadence of the West. “We are all witness that the Western societies are getting more immoral day by day,” wrote Chicago teenager Mohammed Hamzah Khan in a letter to his family as he made a bid for Syria last October. “I do not want my kids being exposed to filth like this.” So what if it came straight from @isismorality; it rings true.
Responsibility: Young people have greater capacity for responsibility than they are given credit for in Western societies. Brought up in a permissive environment they find the most that is demanded of them is to try and keep themselves “safe” while experimenting with drugs and sex. They are heroes if they use a condom every time or call an ambulance if a friend falls down drunk.
The Isis recruits are up for an altogether different challenge: the call to serve something bigger than themselves. They network, they save (and sometimes steal), they get themselves onto planes and across borders, embrace the prospect of both dangerous and routine jobs in war zones… In short, they display a maturity that, imperfect as it is, doesn’t easily find an outlet in the places where they have grown up.
Faith and Identity: This is not just a question of ethnic origin and specific religious beliefs but of the very idea of God and one’s duty to him. The religious instinct is natural but in the West it is starved, stifled and trampled upon from an early age. Believers hide their faith and are often lukewarm. The jihadists brandish it like a flag. It is something to be proud of. Young people see that their faith gives the fighters purpose and courage, raising the business of living to a heroic level. Wouldn’t that be worth a try?
Community: The foreign fighters and sympathisers refer to their colleagues as brothers and sisters. Their common ideal and purpose brings a sense of community, even family, that exists only in a watered down state among the Islamic populations of big Western cities. The individualism of the European/Anglo world might be good for clawing your way to the top of the economic ladder, but it leaves ardent young people cold.
Romance vs feminism: For boys it’s the romance of heroic action; for girls the romance of marrying a bearded young hero, a martyr in the making, and supporting his work. True, infatuation is driving much of the online activity among girls (Dutch jihadi “Ylmaz”, who is said to spend his time taking moody selfies and posting pictures of kittens, has had more than 10,000 marriage requests from lovestruck Muslim girls around the world) but even that has a message: marriage is what the adolescent girl in her natural state dreams of, not a couple of decades of career slog, with sex on the side, before embarking on the dual task of finding a husband and starting IVF.
Anyway, Isis even seems to offer something to feminists: the Al-Khanssa Brigade, an all-woman moral police force. Al Khansa’s rules for others of their sex, however, are (even) less appealing.
Family failure: The most astonishing feature of the stories of the young Isis recruits is that no-one could see what was brewing. Parents don’t know their own kids. The latter live online with a substitute family and do not confide in their parents. Sadly, this phenomenon is not confined to would-be warriors and jihadi brides. Are Muslim families failing more than others in this respect? Probably not. The trouble that can come from such lack of communication and trust within the family is more drastic and sensational when kids run away to Syria, but it is also pretty damaging when teenagers find “friends” at school and online who provide them with porn, sex and drugs.
Maybe the parents are working too hard and lack time and energy; maybe they are simply not equipped to deal with technology-driven cultural forces; but isn’t parental deficit the root of the whole teenage terrorist phenomenon?
A challenge for parents and society alike
Teenagers will always rebel against their parents and the “system”, and it’s possible to see Western jihadi volunteers in that light. But in a healthy family young people will let their rebellion hang out. They will care enough about having your affection to explode with rage against your restrictions or insensitivity; in a healthy culture they will march on the street or splash slogans on walls to let the powers that be know how detestable their politics and morality are. They won’t suddenly turn from being model daughters and sons and students into zealots who would rather join the slaughterers of Isis than spend another day in the patronising, cynical, aimless and decadent West.
So, if we want to beat Isis to hearts and souls of young people, here is what we have to offer them: high ideals, responsibility, moral purity, faith, fellowship, marriage and, above all, mums and dads who see the nurturing of their children as their main mission in life. Isis can only give youngsters a sick parody of those things. We must care enough to give them the real thing.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.