According to the BBC’s investigation into ‘Jihadi Brides’, there are currently around 550 Western women living in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This vicious warzone appears a less than ideal place to bring up a family, yet more and more women are choosing to leave the West to do so. I realise that it is only a very small proportion of the Muslim population that is choosing to partake in such means of religious and political advancement, and am baffled as to their motivation.
For starters, it would be incredibly misguided to conclude that the young women who choose to leave behind their entire livelihoods (and consequently create a divide between themselves and the vast majority of British Muslims who adhere to a far more moderate set of beliefs) are unaware of what they are getting themselves into. Indeed, what is particularly remarkable is that according to one of the most popular jihadi recruiters, a young woman from Glasgow who goes by the name Umm Layth (Mother Lion), “most sisters I have come across have had many promising paths, with happy families and friends.” However, what is telling is that while acknowledging the ability to live a comfortable life in the West, the Scottish blogger also recounts the struggle to reconcile devout Islamic beliefs with the increasingly secular society she inhabited.
This internal conflict was examined as early as the middle of the 20th century by the Islamic scholar, Sayyid Qutb:
“If a Muslim seeks to live in a non-Islamic ambience, their desire to live a Muslim life will be hard to actualize. This is due to [the fact that] the laws they consider defective…the culture they consider ridden with immorality, the education system they consider horrible, will be imposed upon them…If they do not become part of the effort to change the situation, they prove themselves to be false in their faith.”
These feelings are exacerbated by the zealous teachings of radical preachers and stories of the trials of fellow Muslims around the world. In light of this, it is unsurprising that some British Muslim girls are left feeling that they are simply not doing enough to advance a faith they so dearly love and earn the approval of a god they so desperately want to please.
Social media plays a vital role in enlistment, with many of the recruiters being incredibly media-savvy. Bloggers such as Umm Layth are crucial in persuading fellow western women of the essentiality of casting away their concerns and taking up the journey of hijra (migrating to another country for the sake of Allah). On top of this, recruitment videos such as ‘There’s No Life Without Jihad’, which features three Britons who have joined ISIS encouraging Western Muslims to join the fight to establish the Islamic caliphate, are proving highly effective.
The process of recruiting people to join the ISIS cause is mixed up in both politics and religion. The combination of the two hits on one of the deepest areas of the human psyche: the desire for acceptance. Perhaps not so much acceptance from friends and family (jihadists are forced to leave these behind upon joining the Islamic State), and certainly not acceptance from the western public or laws. The acceptance sought is that of their god.
This is hardly surprising, as underlying the Quranic principle of jihad is the belief that if a Muslim dies whilst advancing an Islamic cause, they will receive the eternal acceptance of Allah and will live with him forever in Paradise. Surah 61:10 of the Quran states the following:
‘You who believe, have faith in God and His Messenger and struggle for His cause with your possessions and your persons and He will forgive your sins, admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, into pleasant dwellings in the Gardens of Eternity. That is the supreme triumph.’
I certainly do not claim to be an expert in either human psychology or Quranic verse, but I’m pretty sure that the idea of being allowed entrance into an eternal, picturesque landscape by the omnipotent being responsible for your existence is more than enticing to those who subscribe to such a view. Can I therefore conclude that the concept of Paradise is the main reason why an increasing number of women are supporting the Islamic State? Of course not. A whole range of other factors such as the emotional and mental vulnerability of the person must also be taken into account. However, I do believe that the concept of approval- a clear requirement for entry into Paradise- sheds a lot of light on an incredibly complex issue.
Without a doubt, any attempt I make at attempting to identify the principal reason behind the radicalisation of a small minority of the female Muslim population will most likely face difficulties. But I’ll have a go. I would argue that one of the main contributors to radicalisation is a factor that is familiar to humans worldwide, regardless of their faith: the desire to be known, loved and accepted by the one whose approval you crave more than anything on Earth.
No matter the cost.