Book review

Do young girls willingly join the Islamic State to be terrorists?

A new novel looks for answers, and find resentful teenagers willing to trust strangers.

Why do they do it? After every shooting, hacking, suicide bombing – and we hear of one every few days in some corner of an increasingly connected world – we look dazedly at each other and wonder: Why?

The question gains urgency after recent terror attacks that were carried out by middle or upper class young professionals who attended good schools and degrees. They are not driven to despair by poverty; their families seem to have no clue about their violent plans.

As for the young girls who have left comfortable homes in liberal societies to join extremist outfits like Daesh, the imagination boggles. With reports of horrific sexual abuse, aside from the risks inherent in a closeted life in states where women are not granted equal rights – why? Who is to blame for all this?

The friendship

Tabish Khair’s latest novel Jihadi Jane grapples with this question through the trials of two teenaged British Muslim girls of South Asian origin. Ameena and Jamilla go to high school together. The former is smoking cigarettes, seeking attention from boys, and struggling with authority, perhaps as a result of her parent’s divorce. The latter takes her studies and her Islamic identity quite seriously, but through the lack of judgment and the offer of friendship, she weans Ameena off her old habits. The two girls become unlikely friends and then flat-mates, bonding over religion and political conflicts, particularly the oppression of Palestinians.

Cut off from other influences, including her own moderate mother, Ameena the rebel turns into Ameena the zealot. Jamilla wants to avoid an arranged marriage. Both are looking for an alternate future and it doesn’t take them long to meet Jihadi recruiters online, among them a beautiful woman called Hejjiye who flaunts a pet cat and designer handbags and a husband fighting for “the faith”. That the girls should leave their families without a backward glance, blindly rushing into the war-torn Syria, seems almost inevitable.

Ameena had promised herself to a Daesh commander, but Jamilla continues to resist marriage in Syria. She lives in a women’s shelter-cum-orphanage, controlled by Hejjiye, cut off from all news and even religious texts that are not aligned with Daesh interests. To cope with reports of the rape of Yazidi women and children, an “imam” is brought in to lecture the women about “an ‘infidel’ interpretation of what actually happened: the woman had been given into the care of honourable Daesh fighters, either because the women had so wished, or for their protection”.

Jamilla is not wholly convinced but she is also knows that it is no longer possible to argue. As she says, “Some had surely believed in the bearded old man; some, like me, must have chosen not to disbelieve – for can one really believe if there is no freedom to disbelieve?”

Not just one story

As the narrator, Jamilla, tells her story, we begin to see the trouble of the single narrative around the radicalisation of young Muslims. By her own admission, Jamilla, with her hijab and her Quran study group and her avoidance of pop concerts, may have helped to radicalise her friend. But she herself has been schooled well in the practice of compliance. She has learnt to listen, to obey, to not push back even when her own life hangs in the balance, and this she did not learn in Syria. She learnt it in the UK. She learnt it at home, as hundreds of millions of women do.

As much as it is an inquiry into the motivations of Jihadi Jane-like characters, the novel is also a page-turner. It tightly knits together the complexities of identity and faith with the story of a war survivor whose culpability we are never sure of, right up to the final chapter. Finally, it is not so much a jihad story as the story of teenagers, resentful of their families and teachers, but willing to trust strangers. It is the story of immigrants, struggling to hold on to a sense of self in a different culture, and of men who do not let women make decisions, of men who discard women too easily.

Khair skilfully cuts to the heart of the question of why young Muslim boys and girls who have so much going for them become enamoured of groups like Daesh. We would do well to hear a more nuanced, more human answer to “why?”

Read an excerpt from the novel.

Jihadi Jane, Tabish Khair, Penguin Books.

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