‘What can we do about ISIS?’: How a Muslim women’s network decided to fight terrorist recruitment

Daisy Khan, founder of the Women's Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality, writes about educating Muslims to resist the false promises made by ISIS

One day I was speaking to a community group when a question was raised: “What can we do about ISIS?” At the time, al-Qaeda, not ISIS, was at the forefront of the conversation on terrorism. Unlike al-Qaeda, however, ISIS had tentacles that reached into communities, homes, and the intimate psyches of women and girls – and the group grabbed hold of physical territory that enabled and empowered its platform and appeal, as well as magnified the potential danger.

It was 2014, and ISIS had declared itself a global caliphate. Claiming succession to the historical caliphate leaders going back to AD 632, the group attempted to establish itself as the leader of a world-wide Muslim movement that would unite Islamic territories. The world has now witnessed its unyielding and cruel ideology in action.

As we had done with other issues, we asked ourselves if there was anything further we could do to address the increasing global threat posed by extremists and prevent further extremist recruitment.

Globally, women often hold critical traditional and contemporary roles in their families and can leverage this influence toward building more peaceful and resilient communities. Perhaps most important, mothers are frequently the first ones to detect a behavioural change in their child who may be tending toward extremism, but mothers often lack the tools, resources, or know-how to get their children out of an extremist mindset. Perhaps the community activism that we had deployed so successfully on the ground in Egypt and Afghanistan could be leveraged in the United States and beyond to propel cultural understanding at a time when the world was rocked by confusion and misunderstanding.

Could we help people understand – group by group, community by community, whether it be in mosques and Islamic centres around America, in a women’s mosque in California, at the United Nations, or in the halls of Congress – that ISIS is not Islam?

The thread of violence is insidious. Like needlework on a quilt, it surfaces, recedes, unravels, then knots, only to continue to retreat and resurface again and again along the seams of a fabric that is destined to be rent, torn, patched, ripped, then smoothed into place as just an illusion of order. To gain perspective on my role in this new world order, I envisioned myself as a square in this quilt, the stitching pulling me sometimes gently, other times tightly.

In 2012, a global counterterrorism conference in Singapore had illuminated for me the seriousness of ISIS’s tactics for luring young, impressionable women into joining their cause. Then in 2016, Afra, my associate from the WISE Shura Council, arrived with some news: the Syrian community in the UK and Canada was stunned that one of their own had recently left to join the caliphate.

This woman was not an impressionable youngster but an eminent professor of Islamic studies – a PhD working at a university in Saudi Arabia. She had come from a prominent Syrian family of scholars steeped in Islamic law. She had abruptly left her family, her job, and her entire life to join ISIS. Afra described the note the woman had left behind for her family, which informed them that throughout their entire lives they, as Muslims, had been waiting for a caliphate and that ISIS was the only group that had actually established one. She believed the group needed her scholarly talent to help build its state.

Educated or not, this woman was in for a reality check. We had learned of the many atrocities that she was likely to encounter – children being forced out of school to watch beheadings, women being raped and enslaved, and those who refused to follow dress codes and be fully veiled being publicly whipped.

But this highly educated woman clearly undertook this action with a level of awareness of the consequences. Significantly, elite individuals are often the forerunners of a trend.

As Afra spoke, I set my shaking cup down so hard that the tea sloshed onto my oak table and began to seep into the wood. The tea struck me as a metaphor for what we were talking about – something that had been quietly contained but that was now encroaching beyond its confinement, creating a stain that might be indelible. The Quran reminds us that those who practice evil think they will get the better of us – so guarding against evil-mongers is a religious obligation. I thought then of Jamila, brave Jamila – of the threats to put a pipe bomb in her car, of the threats against her daughter (Just like a flower, she can be plucked, they’d warned in a note).

Determined to become fully familiarised with the extent to which ISIS was using online tactics to lure young men and women to their cause, our WISE team attended a debriefing session at a law- enforcement headquarters. The topic was digital tactics of extremism. As we walked in, I was surprised to see Elise, a young woman who, just a few years before, had been an intern in my office. Proudly handing me her card, she explained that her role was expert adviser to the counterterrorism unit – she helped them bridge the gap between the Western world, Islamic culture, and issues of extremism. For much of the presentation, Elise led the discussion. It was a proud moment for me –now I was learning from her.

Sitting at the head of the large conference table, Elise played some startling videos – startling, that is, in their normalcy. We watched one video that looked like Disneyland – but it was ISIS land. Gambolling kittens and amusement park rides – Woodstock for extremists, at least as ISIS depicted it. Most of the women who were recruited from the West were young, some only teenagers . These videos were specifically targeting them. The movement was called the “cupcake jihad.” The music on the video swelled.

Cut to a hot young militant with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, his long hair blowing in slow motion. “He wants to meet you, girls!” a voice enthused. “He wants you to become the wife of a soldier like him– a bride of ISIS.”

There was no happy ending to be had here. A few young girls were known to have escaped, Elise said, but for the most part, these girls vanished from the radar screen and found themselves isolated in an uncertain and unstable world about which we had more questions than answers.

We examined a glossy magazine called Dabiq, which was published by ISIS to promote their ideology. I had to admit, it looked slick – which was the point. The front of the magazine resembled Vanity Fair magazine, with profiles of thought leaders and prominent cultural personalities – both male and female – as well as editorials. The back pages of the magazine, though, were more like Popular Mechanics, with ad after mail-order ad for explosives and weapons, and how-to tutorials for bomb making. Chapter titles included “Earning Money,” “Transporting Weapons,” and “Bomb Making.”

Elise pointed out that even if these extremists were people who lived on the margins, even if they had failed in the wider world, they were lionised within the ISIS culture. In a twisted way, they then became role models to recruit others.

A new and frightening kind of social phenomenon had emerged, which Elise called the “echo effect,” with these trendsetters providing a template for other aspirants. When I heard this, I recalled the insecurities I felt as a young woman. Would I have been ripe for recruitment by fringe elements? Remembering my fascination with edgy activists who had inflamed the arguments about Rushdie, I could understand how impressionable young people, especially those who felt disenfranchised or lost, could find themselves drawn into these kinds of movements. But there was a difference. Even when my faith was in doubt, I had had my family. I knew I would never have crossed that line. Still, I understood the vulnerability. Suddenly, the next step of my mission became clear.

I realised that we were looking at the next frontier for the empowerment of Muslim women. We had been training the thought leaders and imams, reshaping the dialogue, informing communities – but we now had to look inward. The next group we needed to reach was our own rising generation of young women.

Casting around for solutions, I thought of the new WISE Up campaign that we were about to launch.

The WISE Up report would provide concrete facts about Islam and about ISIS – a good start. A vulnerable, information-seeking young woman could come upon our material or click on our website. We would provide the information, the reality check, that might make the difference in her life – that might even save her life and prevent a family’s heartbreak.

Excerpted with permission from Born With Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman, Daisy Khan, Penguin Random House India.

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