The BBC has just reported yet another story of a young woman from a dysfunctional home situation in Britain heading off to Syria for the hope of a better life with ISIS. Only in this case it didn’t quite turn out as planned, leading Tareena Shakil to return home to Britain (which also didn’t turn out as planned since she has been found guilty by a court of being a member of ISIS).
Significantly, Tareena Shakil was fleeing domestic abuse when she went to Syria to become a terrorist’s wife. This fits with a pattern that I keep seeing in the reports about the sorts of women who head to Syria to become Jihadi brides. Although young people decide to join ISIS for a variety of reasons, often the movement attracts woman who are not from the families of devout and pious Muslims who want to max-out on piety, but women who are socially marginalized and whose lives seem to have reached a dead-end.
Consider the earlier case of 45-year-old Sally Jones who left her home in Kent to join ISIS terrorists, to the astonishment of her friends and neighbors. Once established in Syria, the white mother of two began tweeting about wanting to torture Christians, while pictures were posted on Twitter of her wearing a burka and holding an assault rifle.
Those of us living in the Modern West find it hard to understand what drives terrorists in the Middle East. But we find it even more difficult to understand why so many ordinary citizens like Sally Jones or Tareena Shakil are choosing to flock to Syria and Iraq to join in ISIS’s terrorist playpen. Sally, and many like her, are not the sorts of people we normally expect to become terrorists. The former rock band member was not from a Muslim family but was quickly converted and radicalized online by Junaid Hussain, a convicted computer hacker twenty-five years younger who is now her husband in Syria.
Other examples could be multiplied. ISIS boasts thousands of foreign fighters. There have been a flurry of news reports about people from civilized neighborhoods showing up in the news as ISIS beheaders and terrorists. When their neighbors and family members are interviewed, they typically express shock, utterly puzzled that this seemingly normal person could go crazy. What is going on here?
The Enigma of ISIS
It’s easy to explain these events by simply saying “Islam is a religion of violence” and leaving it at that. The appeal to religion has always been a convenient way for people to explain phenomena they do not fully understand. The problem with this explanation is not so much that it is false but that it is incomplete. It is true that Islam has a long tradition of violent jihad stretching back to its very inception, but this does not enable us to understand the particular attraction ISIS holds for so many purely nominal Muslims and recent converts. Nor does it explain why a middle-aged convert like Sally Jones, with no background in Islam, would want to leave everything to start a new life wearing a burka and holding a machine gun, or why someone like Tareena Shakil would see ISIS as a way to escape domestic abuse.
Back when the main front of Islamic terrorism had been al-Qaeda, the picture was comparatively straight-forward. At the risk of oversimplification, al-Qaeda grew out of the Islamic revival of the last century and provided a platform for devout Wahhabi Muslims to prove their piety through acts of sacrifice. But the profile of an ISIS terrorist is very different. We are now dealing with people whose exposure to Islam has been shallow, superficial and brief.
I suggest that the key to unlocking this mystery lies in recognizing that the current jihad, despite its ancient roots, is also a distinctly modern phenomenon. ISIS offers an alternative to the individualism, isolation and fragmentation of the modern world while at the same time colluding with these conditions.
ISIS as an Alternative to Modernity
The ways in which ISIS is an alternative to modernity become clear by looking again at Sally Jones. Her life was paradigmatic of the isolation and fragmentation that has left so many people feeling adrift in modern society. Having lived on state benefits all her life, she had a rocky relationships with those nearest to her—by any measurement, her life was a failure.
For people like Jones, ISIS offers a version of Islam that promises to sanctify the anger and anti-social tendencies they already feel while requiring little serious religious commitment in return. As such, ISIS functions as a melting pot of socially marginalized individuals, offering an escape route to those caught up in the disintegration, disorientation and ambiguities of modern Western society. It offers salvation from the complicated ambiguities of modern life through a worldview that puts everything in black and white terms, defining the world along sharply Manichean lines.
ISIS as the Personification of Modernity
But ISIS is only an alternative to modernity in the most superficial sense. When we pear beneath the surface we find that ISIS is actually paradigmatic of modernity. The most obvious example of this is the way ISIS’s propaganda machine has perfected the use of social technologies. The Quilliam Foundation published a report about the mass exodus of European girls, mostly aged 13-26, who are choosing to travel through Turkey to become wives of jihadists. The London-based think-tank showed that these girls are being recruited by friends in the Middle East who are using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social networks to reach them. ISIS apologists are incredibly sophisticated at being able to exploit the latest technologies to find those in the West who are ready for a complete alternative. They have even developed their own smart-phone apps and online messaging system. This led the Quilliam Foundation to conclude in their report that “IS’ ability to use the Internet marks a clear departure from the al-Qaeda norm.”
But there is something even deeper than the methods employed by ISIS which shows its affinity to modernity. ISIS offers the type of limited-commitment individualist religion that has become a predominant feature of the modern age. It entices those who are only superficially Muslim with a decontextualized twittered-version of Islam that offers enough religion to sanctify a person’s grievances towards the world while only skirting the edges of genuine Islamic devotion. It offers a sense of meaning, community and purpose to its followers but only in a very shallow sense.
ISIS is kept together by a core of ideologues whose apocalyptic theology is a consistent continuation of historic Islamic beliefs. However, many of the Westerners who travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS are not acting out this commitment to the community of historic Islam; rather, they are acting as isolated individuals on a solitary quest to find personal meaning. What unites them into a single ideological community is only their sense of anger at the complex world. As such, the type of Islam they embrace is a fragmented one, patched together out of the remnants of the larger meta-narrative on which it is parasitic.
This is, of course, a very modern approach to religion. We see it in Christianity as well, in the tendency for a person to extract aspects of the faith he or she finds personally meaningful out of the historic ecclesial structures in which those aspects are properly situated. But this de-historicized approach to religion depends on an idealized ideology that can never be realized in the real world. As British MP Daniel Hannan observed, in relation to the implicit worldview of ISIS,
“Like communism, fascism and every other ism that promises a new dawn, it makes no concessions, either to past tradition or to human nature. It holds out a vision of something so pure that it can, in practice, never be achieved. This purity is precisely what appeals to a certain type of youngster.”
A Religion for Criminals
The typical Westerner who joins ISIS is not a religious zealot who has turned to crime, but a petty criminal who has turned to religion. A leaked MI5 report on the profile of British jihadists noted that “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practice their faith regularly.”
Why would someone who is not serious about her religion want to kill for it, let alone die for it? The answer is that ISIS terrorists are not killing and dying for religion but for themselves. ISIS offers malcontents the chance to channel their pathologies into a cause that appears at once unselfish and constructive, just as it offers confused girls an escape route from the perplexities of modern life. As Daniel Hannan observed when discussing males who join ISIS,
“… one observation made by almost all the experts who have studied Western-born Islamic militants is that they fit the classic profile of the terrorist down the ages: male, typically in their twenties or early thirties, with some education, narcissistic, lacking in empathy, lonely, unsuccessful with women, often with a history of petty crime.
What makes a terrorist different from other bellicose young men is that he has found a cause that validates his anti-social tendencies – a doctrine that teaches him that he is angry, not because there’s something wrong with him, but because there’s something wrong with everyone else.”
ISIS and the Spiritual Pioneer
If ISIS is a good club for criminals, it is also a good club for spiritual pioneers. A recurring hero throughout modern cultural folklore has been the spiritual traveler who, absolved by modernity from the need for a religion with historic and structural integrity, arrives at an eclectic “personal” religion (sometimes so personal that no one else has ever shared it). The countless films that embody this narrative give the same message: inwardly engaging spirituality can offer absolute spiritual clarity amid confusing social realities. A good example of this is the book Eat, Pray, Love, and the film by the same title.
I was first alerted to the fact that Islamic terrorism may have something to do with this spiritual pioneering after the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings. Commented on the bombings in The Atlantic, Wilson Brissett and Patton Dodd pointed out that the Tsarnaev brothers, far from being genuine Islamic warriors, were in fact
“the latest incarnation of a figure as old as the United States itself: the isolated individual lost in the social and cultural whirlwind that is secular American modernity, who sees salvation in the absolute moral clarity of an idiosyncratic collection of beliefs, and decides that he would rather resort to violence than countenance any concession to a complicated, ambiguous social reality.”
It is precisely people like the Tsarnaev brothers—those who feel displaced by the complicated whirlwind of modernity—that ISIS has been reaching through social media. ISIS packages itself as an alternative to the disorder and fragmentation of the modern world even though in many respects it is an expression of it. The de-contextualized, fragmented, Twittered version of Islam championed by ISIS is particularly appealing to those who care little for the deeper aspects of their faith.
This profile has been confirmed by Dr. Max Abrahms, a student in the psychology of terrorism. Dr. Abrahms told the Business Times that ISIS is made up of mostly “ignorant people with respect to religion and they are generally the newest members to the religion.” He added, “They would probably fail the most basic test on Islam.”
Significantly, when terrorists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed were apprehended on their way to Syria last year and pleaded guilty to terrorism offenses, authorities discovered they had purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.
ISIS is not the epitome of real Islam, but the epitome of dumb Islam.
The Challenge of ISIS
I will be the first to admit that this way of looking at ISIS is less than reassuring. We want to be able to convince ourselves that what we are dealing with is an anachronism in the modern world, a movement that gives expression to the perennial impulses still prevalent in those who have not yet been reached by secular modernity. In this way of viewing things, all we need to do is bring modernity to the Middle East in the form of education, democracy, etc. But this is just as hopelessly naïve as supposing that terrorists will want to lay down their guns once we have rounded up enough moderate Muslim scholars to educate them about what the Koran supposedly really teaches.
Of course, a strong case can be made that a more historically-grounded Islam is just as violent as ISIS because of the many statements in the Koran which, if taken literally at least, seem to teach violence towards nonbelievers. Drawing on this violent strain of Koranic teaching, fundamentalist Muslim preachers are easily able to convince people that they are the true ‘reformers’ returning to the authentic teachings of the Koran. On one level, however, the historical questions this raises are beside the point since the average ISIS terrorist has very little interest in historic integrity. ISIS will not go away with more education about the viability of moderate forms of Islam, because most of those who join ISIS care little for historic Islam. Neither will ISIS will go away with more modernization because it is partly a symptom of modernism.
Yet it is precisely these aspects of ISIS that makes it potentially unstable. In being a collection of isolated individuals who are united only by their anger at how life has gone, the soldiers of ISIS are incredibly organized at overthrowing established structures. However, they will likely prove inept at creating a new civilization. If they achieve their goals, it is probable that ex-warriors will begin fighting amongst themselves and fracture into disunity.
Of course, by then hundreds of thousands of more people will be dead. And in the meantime, it is necessary for the West to have a policy for knowing how to deal with the ISIS killing machine. I am not a policy analyst and have no easy answers. But it seems like a good place to start would be to better educate ourselves on psychology of terrorism, and try to understand the attraction ISIS holds for so many in the West.