We are not allowed to feel concern for three young girls who have joined a horrifying terror group. There must be no unease around three minors who have made such a horrible decision that it is their lives — not ours — that will be traumatised. That capacity you have for humaneness: get rid of it. “Stop pitying British schoolgirls joining Islamic State – they’re not victims”, the headline for Emma Barnett’s Telegraph article demands. No – don’t even think about it. Enough. We are living in a world where we are told exactly what to think about Muslims by people who don’t like them.
Really, it is one thing to write with strong opinion on what you think legally should happen to those joining terror organisations, and it is quite another to speak so spitefully on a matter involving kids. Because that is what they are: kids. Yet Grace Dent would have you believe they had clawed their way in from the netherworld if her exercise in schadenfreude for The Independent was anything to go by: “I wanted to ask Abase Hussen, as he clutched his daughter Amira’s stuffed toy, what exactly he thought was the tipping point that made his delicate, innocent baby-girl leave the country in such a rush that she left teddy behind?” It is maybe easier to understand how anyone can be quite so venomous when discussing the pain of a father fearful for his child, once you accept just how far the dehumanisation of Muslims has gone. With this, Amira, Shamima and Kadiza are judged not only as adults, but as Muslim adults — with all the mythical savagery and brutality that Western society has projected onto them.
“I will sound insensitive,” Mary Dejevsky warned in the Guardian, “but the close embrace of their devoted families may be part of what these girls, and others who have made the same journey, sought to escape.” And so again; not just a simple jab at bad Muslim parenting, but a dangerous statement linking all Islamic households to a potential one-way ticket to a training camp.
The hostility with which Dent, Barnett and Dejevsky write about these girls is deep-rooted in the particular misogyny directed towards Muslim women. Whether it is a desire to “liberate” from the hijab (which erases their free will), or verbal and physical aggression, it is Muslim women who are receiving the brunt of Islamophobic attacks. Still, each writer is certain of who these girls and their families are: “This differed from the cool-headed, elegantly pulled together, determined young women I’d watched the footage of on CCTV. Not silly kids wagging off school, but calm, considered.” Dent said. All this from CCTV footage. But this kind of projection should come as no surprise when Muslims have been thrust like TV’s bad guys into every European and American home, with it the assumptions of certainty over who Muslims are.
In more sympathetic pieces a lot has been made of the attraction young girls have for bad boys. But “bad boys” are abusive boys and abusive men. They manipulate emotionally and sexually and so we have laws in place recognising that young girls under the age of 16 are most vulnerable to this. “Shacked up with a hipster jihadi,” Emma Barnett said on the matter, “locked in their homes and expected to crack on with popping out a few kids to populate the caliphate”. I wouldn’t expect such a gleeful tone from a person referencing the imprisonment and rape of people. You either don’t believe that girls and women “get what they deserve”, or you do. It doesn’t stop being domestic violence and rape apology just because you don’t like a woman’s beliefs or actions, whatever they may be.
Is the same said of women married to the Mafia? Those women who sought out and benefited lavishly from the lifestyle and privileges that came from their partners’ horrific violence? Georgia Durante was involved with many New York mafia members and spoke of the “sensation” she felt when she was standing next to a man who could inspire terror. Will she be allowed into the country? Yes, and who knows, she may even get an aspirational TV show documenting her glamorous life.
Let’s face it, “Go and never come back” is hardly a typical response to criminals. It is not part of a judicial system that accepts once someone has served their time there is room in society for a return. It is far from the public outcry defending the right of convicted rapist Ched Evans to step back into a high-salary contract at a football club, for hadn’t he rehabilitated? His time was not “never”. These girls will not be allowed to absolve themselves. “Go and never come back” is not, and simply never has been, language for disreputable behaviour. It is reserved in its entirety for immigrants and their children.
With this is mind, it’s baffling that Grace Dent bothers to mention how unrelatable her teenage years were to that of the girls. I wouldn’t expect them to be relatable. Growing up as an ethnic minority was frankly nothing like the experiences of my white friends who had less of a basis for feeling different — let alone 15-year-olds who from birth have seen Western invasion in their native homes, who have experienced first-hand prejudice and watched their families encounter violence for their religion and appearance. The longing to belong, which is already so overwhelming at that age, is magnified dramatically when we are told unequivocally that we don’t.
Is it any surprise, then, that minorities are attracted to sub-cultures and alternative political movements? It is not an apology for violence to want to understand its rotten roots and treat it. How many young men find themselves in gangs simply due to the desire to form a community? London postcode wars are themselves born of finally finding somewhere you belong and honing in on it. A substantial number of studies have shown time and again that gangs flourish simply because the needs of young people are not being met. Aside from economy, cultural marginalisation is a huge factor in what sees people join. And of course violence itself offers a kind of solidarity. A bonding experience born of extreme situations — how many people could possibly get it? Nearly half of front-line soldiers, these ‘bands of brothers’, feel more connected to their battalion than to their own family.
So, with this in mind, ISIS — as indisputably grotesque as they are — are filling a gap. Their marketing campaign is fearless and troubling effective. They are fulfilling needs, or so they say — just so long as it is enough to get young people over there. The attraction for Amira, Shamima and Kadiza may not be — despite Dent’s certainty — homophobia and violent murder, but rather a futile and utterly misguided desire for belonging that is so strong, they have overlooked everything else.
These are not people born within the grips of an oppressive regime. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi grew up not far from the Charlie Hebdo killings they carried out. The attack in Copenhagen was done by a Danish citizen, just as the Lee Rigby and 7/7 attackers were British. In a Washington Post article this morning friends of “Jihadi John”, an Islamic State member and Londoner, spoke of unfair treatment he had received from government officials and security. “I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life in my birthplace and country, Kuwait,” he wrote to a friend in June 2010. Of course there will be far more unpalatable factors that make a man angry enough with his surroundings that he becomes a murderer. But it’s impossible not to recognise that amongst their triggers was a sense of unfair treatment by their state because of their religion. These are not outsiders but a generation of nationals who amongst them feel that their homes have become their enemy. This is a problem for us all.
Time and again women answer that they are attracted to dangerous men, young men say this of gangs — it is simply because they are offered “a better life”. It is a desperate shame, then, that these girls think a better life lies with ISIS. And it is an issue we must keep looking at if we are to rectify why these girls, and others like them, feel so divorced from here.
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