Words: Clare Dwyer Hogg
As of March this year, 60 British teenagers have travelled from the UK to Syria in order to join IS. Their families, who often didn’t know of their children’s intentions, have little hope of seeing them return.
 
As the Government asks how and why these young people have been radicalised, and steps up anti-terror legislation, there are also calls from Muslim communities not to demonise the faith. There are more questions than answers. 
 
This week’s subject for The Interview is Dr Katherine Brown. Based at King’s College, London, she specialises in British Muslim politics, gender and counter-terrorism, and women and political violence.
 
Here, she speaks to Motherland about the rise in young women travelling to IS, the realities of life when they get there, and what their decision means for modern Britain…
 

What kind of young girls travel from the UK to IS?
They’re just teenagers. Yes, they’re rebelling in a dramatic and regretful manner, but it’s worth remembering they are pretty ordinary teenagers who have made a horrific mistake. And it is a mistake: the evidence is clear that the life they’re going into isn’t easy, and the utopia that’s presented online is not the case.

What do they find, once they arrive?
They’re going to a war zone – a country inflicted with poverty and lack of resources. It depends on where you are geographically, but the ongoing civil war means that electricity, water, and food supplies are not regular. Death is regular. There is a lot of violence. Justice, as IS call it, is summary and swift. Executions are normalised.

What is the allure?
The young women who travel to IS are told that they’ve joined a new project where culture and ethnicity don’t matter – just a commitment to the faith. These are powerful messages compared to UK, where they’re told their culture and faith are a problem, and where being a young British woman with a niqab is an issue. They get the complete opposite in IS.

That feeling of empowerment can help to justify the violence that is going on as part of that process. Finding new friendships and networks also has real appeal: the chance to belong to a group of friends who share the same faith and belief.

IS is good at showing the positives. It’s not bad all the time, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing the casual online discussions between young women, where they discuss their love of Nutella, and families.

The idea of adventure must play a part?
There is definitely a level of excitement and adventure entwined with the decision to go. Young men tend to have more mention of this on their tweets: how they’re becoming men; the element of danger. But it’s true for either sex. On one hand, there are exams, parents and teachers telling you what to do, and the washing up. On the other, there’s a group of people offering a grand adventure. In this, it’s possible to see parallels with EDL and rightwing movements that attract young people into the unknown.

How easy is it for them to assimilate into their new communities?
The propaganda is that your culture and ethnicity doesn’t matter. Actually, that’s not always quite the reality. Yes, we know of instances where locals have helped young women who have travelled to IS. But there are stories of discrimination counter to this. Reports tell, for instance, of one young woman who needed medical care because of a pregnancy complication, yet was made to wait longer in hospital than the locals.

The thing is, the teenagers don’t speak the language, or know Syrian or Iraqi culture, so can be isolated in the community. In this situation, they tend to bond with foreign Muslims – in a way, that means they are more isolated than they were in the UK. Yet the dream of belonging has a very strong hold. So too the sense of wanting to have purpose: the opportunity to realise their identity themselves.

Do you think girls leaving to be ‘jihadi brides’ do so to get around conservative teaching on sex before marriage?
There is certainly a strand on some websites where the focus is on being a jihadi bride – women saying, for instance, that it just so happens that fighters for IS are really attractive. Yet the problem with pinning this down as the reason why young women travel, is that there are easier ways to get a boyfriend. They don’t have to travel to IS to do that.

More at stake, I think, is the ability to make friendships, and the networks of online communities that bring with them belonging. That’s where there’s a connection of the personal and political. Having said that, within Islamic discourse, marriage and parenthood are important and expected. In some online discussions, young women who have travelled to IS, struggle with the encouragement to marry sooner than they want to. This challenges the idea that they’re running away to get married. They’re saying that marriage is important, but one day, not yet.

And yet “jihadi brides” are what we frequently hear about on the news
I think sometimes the stories about radicalisation of “jihadi brides”, or sex slaves, tell us more about our own obsession with sex. When young women are married out there, often what they say about it is hugely idealised. There are Saccharin tweets about marriage, and a lot that is romanticised. Often they write about their actions as a way to start a new life – saying that they don’t want a big dress, but want to be a wife on their own terms. 

Do they have the chance to marry on their own terms?
Their talking about it like this does feel ironic. While there might be a degree of choice, the process is organised. We’ve had reports of people who set up marriages for the teenagers, and I imagine the extent of choice is limited.

While in traditional Islam, the woman isn’t meant to know the husband in advance, the person organising it is supposed to have her ideas of a future match in mind. How much is that possible in IS? And while divorce is common in Islam, we don’t know what the figures are within IS.

Do any of the teenagers want to come home?
My heart goes out to families whose children are with IS. While I would say to hold on to a degree of hope, it’s limited. Apparently, after a year, a lot of the teenagers want to go home, but we don’t have an accurate percentage to really know.

Why wouldn’t they come back, if they changed their mind?
You have to remember that they have invested a lot in their new life. It was a huge decision that ruptured their family, and they aren’t blind to that. Even if the new situation doesn’t produce exactly what they thought, they’re not likely to give up. That would mean abandoning their new friendship groups, and turning their back on a dependency. IS is good at providing resources: a house, employment in a limited sense, and money. Also, there is a degree of isolation there, so access to other sources of information is really very limited.

What would they have to do to leave?
Remember they’re in a war zone. They would have to secretly leave the people they had been living in community with. Then they’d have to travel through dangerous territory, where they don’t necessarily speak the language, convincing whoever stops them that they aren’t the enemy. Next, they need to cross the border into Turkey, guarded by people who helped them in the first place.

If they make it to the consulate in Istanbul without being arrested – and their family can afford their airfare home – they will probably be arrested when they land in the UK. While I want to hold out hope for the parents, the chances of a return are really slim.

Should Britain do more to make this option easier?
In other circumstances, you wouldn’t write off teenagers when they make stupid mistakes. OK, this is a really big mistake. But if they haven’t engaged in acts of terrorism, then what exactly have they done wrong?

The politics of fear isn’t helping. What can be frustrating is that the call for research-led policy is often trumped by short-term political needs. Not everything is terrible: there are some people doing good work in the UK and across Europe. But I think we need to be try to pull away from knee-jerk reactions.

What kind of knee-jerk reactions?
The most recent counter-terrorism legislation feels like this, in the way it encourages institutions to treat young people as suspicious. The obligation to prevent radicalism in schools and universities means that some discussions are closed down. There’s a lack of knowledge because of that, and a question over what it does to academic freedoms. Now that travelling to Syria to fight is a criminal offence, there is nothing set up to help people travel back home. Legislation is being made in haste, just to make us feel safe.

In other words, too much politicking, and not enough thought?
People are scared, and it’s the fear of the unknown. Muslim communities are separate and different, and many people don’t understand them. That kind of thinking reinforces boundaries. The rhetoric around immigration doesn’t help, with Islam seen as representing what is foreign.

What is the alternative?
One thing that worries me is the public narrative that Muslim communities must do more. I think we all must do more. These children are citizens of the UK. They are British. The responsibility is upon all of us as to how, as whole, that we want to live. How can everybody foster a sense of belonging?

How can everybody foster a sense of belonging?
I think it comes from having a different focus. There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about “true Islam”, in an attempt to provide an alternative narrative. Rather than dictating to young people that there is a “correct” way to act out their faith, my argument is to give them space to create their own narrative.

How, practically, can we do this?
To create your own future, you need the skills to do it. As well as online skills, you need critical thinking: how to question logic in an argument, to consider whether sources are reliable, how to tell if something being said is legitimate or not. These are all rational thinking skills.

Targeting these discussions at all young people is important: these skills are valuable to all. Being able to debate an argument and its rhetoric is important, so they can ask difficult questions. This means they might ask difficult questions of their parents, or local shopkeeper, or politicians. That has to be OK. If we want them to ask critical questions of extremists, then we need to open up so that they can ask us too.

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