The latest news suggests yet another British Muslim family has traveled to join ISIS from the UK. We are told that the family consists of three sisters and nine children, the largest family to have migrated to Syria so far. Such news has left many commentators bewildered. Why on earth would women, particularly mothers, drag their children to a war-torn country to live under the control of ISIS, a group notorious for barbaric acts? Until recently, explanations were apparently easier to put forward. The narrative went something like this: British Muslim men travel to Syria to join ISIS due to Western foreign policy – these angry and radicalized men felt a moral duty to help their Muslim counterparts in foreign lands. Ironically, it’s the lack of British military intervention that has allowed Assad to remain in power. The news of so called “Jihadi brides” and now entire families immigrating to the state of ISIS means that the grievance narrative doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. Organizations such as Cage and MPAC, among others, argue that we should look to foreign policy to make sense of such incidents. However, the mantra of ‘foreign policy’ has limited explanatory scope in providing a convincing explanation for this latest exodus. What is being completely ignored, or perhaps conveniently overlooked, is the prevailing ideological background that facilitates such decisions, be it hacking off the head of an innocent aid worker, or fleeing the UK with your family and children to the state of ISIS.
ISIS declared the Islamic State, a “caliphate” in July 2014 alongside this declaration ISIS expanded on the type of society it wanted to create, providing for some, a more profound reason to join its project. ISIS has a different kind of message and narrative from the Al Qaeda recruitment strategy, which was simply to find men who could fight and give up their lives for its cause. ISIS on the other hand are not a mere insurgent organization but an aspiring state, determined to stay and make history. For this reason, ISIS, have an ideological agenda in Muslims joining their project, inclusive of men, women and even children. This distinction is critical in understanding the current phenomena we are witnessing.
In his “inaugural” speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the assumed caliph of ISIS, echoed this new focus, calling on Muslims everywhere to make hijra (Hijra is an Arabic word meaning “emigration”, he was evoking the famous migration of Prophet Muhammad and his historic escape from Mecca). He said: “We make a special call to the scholars, and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specializations and fields.” Also, a Finnish fighter of Somali descent exclaimed, “I’m calling on all the Muslims living in the West, America, Europe, and everywhere else, to come, to make hijra with your families to the land of Khilafah,”
The call of ISIS is not merely joining a perpetual battle against the ‘enemies of Islam’ but is a chance to be a resident in THE ‘Islamic’ State and to be able to practice a genuine i.e. pure Islamic life. This pseudo Islamic utopia, much like a “Muslim Promised Land” is premised on an ideological rejection of the West. ISIS ideology (emanating from a strand within puritanical Wahabism) deems the West as antithetical to Islamic values. The ISIS narrative draws upon what it regards as moral depravation of Western societies: the public presence of women, their lack of covering, the mixing of men and women, promiscuity, consumption of alcohol and homosexuality are all deemed as defining features of the Western values and are all signs of decadence and a society that denies God. Inspired by a sense of antipathy towards the West, a crude culture of Occidentalism is formulated and then an inversion of the liberal state i.e. an ‘Islamic’ state for ISIS and those that follow an extremist reading of Islamic scripture, is the converse of what the Western caricature. The ‘values’ of Western society are thus turned into counter values – Western laxity of morals are substituted with puritanical and intransigent ‘Islamic’ values – for Islamic read fringe versions of even Wahabism.
This powerful conditioning dichotomizes the world creating a deep sense of disenfranchisement and reinforce and at times create a state of not-belonging. Living in the West with its ‘moral depravity’ which many may have once considered their home thus becomes an alien environment. Couple this with a sense of victimization, a feeling of being unwelcomed, rejected and scorned since the West is ‘anti-Islamic’, such feelings transform into action to leave the West.
But these ideas are nothing new. The West (as well as the entire world) has often been described as Dar al-Kufr (land of disbelief) the converse Dar al-Islam (land of Islam), banded around by Muslim extremists for over two decades – first Hizb ut-Tahrir and then al-Muhaijiroun and it’s many different manifestations. I remember during the 1990s, as a young Muslim I was told by an ex Afghan fighter, “if you want to live true Islam, then go and live in Afghanistan, that’s where true Islam is” (At the time I was young and naive but I still wondered ‘why he wasn’t living there himself?’). Over a decade later, well into my young fundamentalist days, during the US invasion of Afghanistan, I was told by a close friend that “Mullah Omer was the Ameer al-Mu’mineen” (leader of the believers, a title reserved for the caliph much like Baghdadi is the Caliph now) and that I should give “bayah” (swear an oath of allegiance) to him and travel to Afghanistan to fight the US. Many did and appeared on TV, much like ISIS do now. I didn’t. Another instance that I recall were friends of mine born and brought up here, married with families of their own who had failed to develop a sense of belonging in the UK, so packed up and went to live in Pakistan. Not long passed before they returned and told stories of locals laughing at them for leaving the UK to live in Pakistan! The ISIS propaganda taps into these crude concepts and misplaced feelings, amplifying them with its propaganda and recruiting materials that are tremendously visceral in nature. At the same time, it portrays an idyllic visions of a utopian society.
The brother of one of the mothers is said to be an ISIS fighter. This maybe where the indoctrination started. I can picture the dialogue between the two siblings: “Come and live here, where you can live an Islamic way of life, why do you want to bring your children up in a Kufr country?” Hence, foreign policy alone isn’t sufficient as an explanation. It fails to explain why Alan Henning an aid worker who was beheaded, nor can it explain the Charlie Hebdo shootings, given the fact France opposed the invasion of Iraq – we almost all forget the Jewish supermarket. Of course there is a discussion to be had about foreign policy and there are genuine grievances. But the foreign policy narrative does not even get off the ground. Perhaps, the latest exodus will provide an insight often drowned out by the usual explanations.