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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.