Is this how a Jihadi Jane is made?

Fiction excerpt: What makes Ameena and Jamilla go from being teenage students in England to fighting for the IS in Syria?

Over the next few years Ameena and I became the best of mates. We hardly did anything without each other. We did our homework and watched TV together, we went shopping together, we went to the mosque together, we surfed together for Islamic preaching on YouTube.

She liked spending time at our place. You have to realise that I was not the kind of girl who hung around in malls or went to McDonald’s. No pop concerts, not just any film in the theatres, no raves. There were not that many places for a girl like me. Once in a while we visited a like-minded friend or saw a “safe” movie, sometimes we went to a lecture or to the library, while at others we met with our discussion and social welfare group at the mosque. There were several of them, and I belonged to an all-girls’ group which gathered under the tutelage of a middle-aged woman.

We were the ones who wrapped ourselves up most severely, the ones who never allowed a frivolous smile on our faces; for a while Ameena, who still dressed more casually than us despite her scarf, stuck out in the group.

But no one said anything to her, I am sure. And she had stopped calling me a “nunja” by then! But all this still left us with lots of time: our group met only for definite occasions. The rest of the time, we had to meet at home.

Ameena’s flat was difficult for us, mostly because we were certain Aunty would object to some of the preachers and speakers we followed on Facebook and YouTube. These were people who either preached a very strict version of Islam or highlighted the hypocrisies of the West: the political double standards, the arms industry, the orange-clothed prisoners in places like Guantanamo, the lack of international democracy, the inability of the West to hold Israel responsible for human rights violations, the role of oil money in the conflicts of the Middle East. Aunty might not have objected to the latter kind, for much of what they said was not unusual from the leftist perspective – except that the ideologues we listened to had a religious explanation for everything.

Economics was just a pretext; finally, they argued or suggested, that this was an attack on Islam and it was only a continuation of what had begun during the first Crusades.

Look at the way the Christians have been circling and hemming in the Muslim world, they proclaimed. Look at the wildly sprouting military bases: Did any Muslim nation have a single military base in a Christian country? No wonder, they scoffed, Bush II slipped and used words like “crusade” – before his damage-controllers stepped in to assuage the conscience of those duplicitous leftists of the West who did not even have the guts to face up to the truth of the matter and instead quoted that ex-Jew, Marx.

Such YouTube films could be watched in my flat. My Ammi, it is true, almost never watched them, but Mohammad would, if he was around and not resting. He would comment on the commentary, and Ameena would too. Mohammad and I had grown up listening to such opinions about Islam and the West from our father – who had felt besieged and considered Islam under threat – and had inherited those views.

Ammi felt besieged too, but she did not have the resentment that my father and Mohammad had. She could only relate to specific matters, such as a Palestinian child being shot, to which she would respond by cursing the Israelis and Americans for the atrocity, but she would not harbour abstract or general opinions about the threat to Islam or the duplicity of the West. My father had been different – I suppose you can say that he had transferred his personal resentments on to a cultural, even cosmic, level. Mohammad was like him.

What about me? Strange as it may sound to you, though I had totally believed in what Mohammad and my father said, perhaps there was a bit of my mother in me too – I had not thought too much in the abstract and in larger terms.

The presence of Ameena in the flat changed that. Ameena brought a bit of her mum to the flat. Like Aunty, Ameena was an intellectual person – a girl who reasoned with concepts, facts, figures and ideas. For her, a wounded Palestinian boy being carried in the arms of his father was not primarily a human tragedy, an affront to the justice and religion of Allah, which surely Allah would avenge.

That, I suppose, was what my Ammi would think if she went beyond her moment of instinctive sympathy while watching the footage on TV and letting slip from her mouth the standard curse, before returning to her Quran or kitchen. I might give it more thought but, like Ammi, I would not try to fix it absolutely as the conspiracy of a selection of specific villains in the past and the present.

Ameena would. She and Mohammad sat facing the TV for hours, discussing the event, tracing it back to the past, agreeing on everything—how the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and been resisted by the heroic mujahideen, these indomitable Afghan fighters who were supported then by the US, which simply wanted more clout in the region, and how these great Afghan heroes had suddenly been branded as the Taliban and as terrorists and were now being bombed by the same US and its allies. They would go on and on, each getting more impassioned with the support of the other. The ghost of hurt that I had detected in Ameena’s liquid eyes would change shape and harden into anger and resentment.

That, perhaps, was the difference between her and Mohammad. Mohammad had exactly the same opinions and sometimes even the same words. But the words did not leave him bitter and restless, they left him feeling good and righteous.

Again and again, Ameena would conclude by lamenting her inability to do anything to change the world, to protect other Muslims from being attacked by a crass, vulgar West. Mohammad, on the other hand, would end his condemnation of the West and even Muslims – almost all of the other Muslims who did not believe and practise the faith like we did – with a smile of satisfaction, as if this litany of infamy made him feel proud (I might say “smug” today) of what he was.

Listening to them, and I mostly listened, I felt that they would make a good couple. Yes, the thought crossed my mind. I mentioned it to my mother. She smiled. Did I tease Ameena with the notion? I don’t think so, we were very serious girls by then. (You were born ten years older than anyone else in our class, Ameena used to joke.) We indulged in little frivolous talk, though we still had our girlie fits of giggling when the world got too funny. Did the possibility of marrying my brother cross Ameena’s mind? I don’t know. What I do remember is that she used to be very animated in all her conversations with Mohammad.

She evidently took pleasure in his company. But Mohammad never noticed her as a woman. I always know when a man notices a woman; I did even then. It is the kind of instinct some people have more than others. Ameena did not have it despite all her early escapades, the adult cigarettes and the adult boys she had gone around with. She wanted a man to love her, but she could not tell when a man was interested in her and when he was not. Not then, not later.

Excerpted with permission from Jihadi Jane, Tabish Khair, Penguin Books.

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