ISIS and the “three silly girls”

The front page of the Daily Mirror, showing CCTV images of the three girls caught on airport CCTV with the headline "'Model pupils' fleeing to be brides of ISIS". It also has a picture of Gillian Taylforth, the actress who plays Cathy Beale in EastEnders, with the headline "EastEnders' Gillian: Even my kids didn't know I was returning".Recently three young girls, British Bangladeshis from east London, left the UK for Turkey apparently intending to join ISIS in Syria, and the media have been up in arms about the fact that someone was able to ‘groom’ these girls to think life would be better over there and that they were allowed to freely leave the country. One Grace Dent wrote a piece in the Independent arguing that they were entirely responsible for their behaviour, that they were “not silly kids wagging off school, but calm, considered, A-grade students who have researched their trip, found hundreds of pounds in funds, booked flights and headed towards earth’s closest vision of actual hell”, and had managed to deceive their families about their intentions, something she would never have been able to do as a 15-year-old. The piece was widely criticised, notably for overlooking the fact that the 15-year-olds were “vulnerable children” according to Nousheen Iqbal in the Guardian, and that the childhood of children of colour is commonly denied them, according to Judith Wanga (@judeinlondon on Twitter).

I’m sure I’m not the only person who found the story a bit puzzling; the three girls were shown on airport CCTV and wearing very western clothes; only one of them was even wearing something like hijab. Plenty of Bengali women in east London wear every kind of hijab from a simple headscarf to long black robes and a face-veil (niqaab), yet the three girls who would flee to ISIS country would be seen in public in brightly-coloured western clothes and no hijab. This seems pretty odd, even as a disguise, given the reported insistence by ISIS that women wear robes and a double-layer niqaab (which, by the way, is readily available in east London or from any number of online Islamic clothing retailers). Nosheen Iqbal refers to “rockstar barbarism”, comparing the three girls to some of their peers who are infatuated with the likes of Boyzone or Damon Albarn, but there is nothing much charismatic about ISIS. Al-Qa’ida had Osama bin Laden who, at least in the standard media image of him, was handsome (especially if you grew up in an area and a culture where there are a fair few men who dress the same way), but ISIS has no similar figure; even its leaders keep themselves in the shadows and are known only by nicknames. So it’s difficult to see who they might be infatuated with.

It’s patronising to dismiss the girls as ‘just children’. People that age are well above the age of criminal responsibility; when someone that age commits a murder, they get life, the same as an adult (the wording is different, the effect the same). It is, in my opinion, a way for older people to assert their power over them, by dismissing their ideas as mere passing flings or fads and praising them for their ‘maturity’ when they do what the older people want. (Asian parents are a favourite media hate figure, usually portrayed as conservative and their parenting style as restrictive and stultifying; it is ironic that parental authority is being invoked here to criticise the girls’ action, both by Muslims and the mainstream media.)

Besides the fact that many 15-year-olds have already gone through real struggles, whether in their families or school or their health, in Islam adulthood, with full responsibility for one’s actions, starts at puberty and it’s normal in many Muslim countries for girls to be married by that age. It’s assumed that the girls are foolishly running away from a life of opportunity and freedom, something that cannot be assumed of girls growing up in inner-city east London, even if they could have got A-levels or even degrees. Nobody questions whether they had ever seen green fields other than on TV or from the window of a train. Nobody questions whether they would have had careers, or whether they would in reality have ended up as east London Bengali housewives. There are worse things to be, of course, but if a girl knows she’s destined to be a housewife and mother to six children, you can hardly blame her for wanting a bit of adventure first, and perhaps wanting to be part of history, to help in the building of a great nation.

Many westerners cannot fathom why three girls would leave a life of liberty and luxury, as they see it, to join a group of barbarians who burn libraries and take women as sex slaves. As a Muslim, I can tell you that many Muslims simply do not believe what the media says about Muslims. This was the case with the Taliban, it was the case with al-Qa’ida and it’s the case with ISIS. In the community I was part of after I converted in 1998, I found plenty of people (all men, of course) who readily believed the Taliban leadership’s explanation of some of their actions and dismissed the rest as lies. The Taliban propaganda sheet Dharb-i-Mu’min was given out openly at the mosque I attended and one story was about a young woman who had sold personal possessions to raise money for the Taliban.

The refusal to believe that al-Qa’ida were even partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks persisted long after the events; a middle-aged male convert told me that it was “part of iman (faith) not to believe what the kuffar say about Muslims”. It is not only ‘silly girls’ who refuse to believe that everything the media report about ISIS atrocities is true. There are Muslims who believe ISIS is a Jewish plot, an outfit run by products of Israeli intelligence training, and those who believe that its leader really is the rightful caliph of all the Muslims and who is it saying bad things about them? Why, the Jewish-controlled media, of course.

The western media do not do their credibility with Muslims any favours. Their intended audience is either middle- or working-class whites and their editors and reporting staff tend to be one class above the audience, even in the left-wing media, and the same ethnicity. Appealing to Muslims would not sell many more copies, but it could make the true stories a bit more credible. Various mainstream media outlets have reported just about every rumour about atrocious or crazy ISIS behaviour, several of which have turned out to be false (e.g. the “ISIS enforces female circumcision” story from a year or so ago).

While it is true that extremists re-interpret the texts to justify their actions, something which has been the case since the Khariji massacres in the early days of Islam, some of the most widely-reported atrocities are things commonly known to be unlawful in Islam, such as the “sex slaves” story in regard to Yazidi women in northern Iraq (where slavery exists, sexual relations with a slave woman are only allowed if she is Muslim, Christian or Jewish; otherwise, it is fornication or adultery as well as rape, and there is no interpreting one’s way around this). Any Muslim hearing that story would know there was something not quite right about it, even if it is only the assumption that the women taken in this way will all be raped. Yet it was peddled as fact, without question, in mainstream media news reports.

Finally, it is possible that the girls left the country because they wanted to live in a country where being Muslim was the norm and they were not hearing Islam or Muslims vilified in the media every other day, or having to answer for what other Muslims did in the street or at school, or subject to any other pressure or hostility. For all the talk of how 15-year-olds are ‘just children’, the same may be true of the people insulting or threatening them in the street or at school, and in any case that fact does not occur to them. No white person living in the suburbs should assume that just because they are not seeing bodies pile up in the streets, that there is no such thing as Islamophobia or that ordinary Muslims are not experiencing it because of what the media reports and because of the comments of certain politicians.

As 15-year-olds, these girls would have been a year old at the time of 9/11 and only six or seven when the Jack Straw niqaab affair happened, leading to numerous front-page vilifications of Muslim women in British newspapers. Older Muslims like myself remember a time when there was not much hostility to Islam as a religion; younger ones only remember the time of the “war on terror”, of a society that regards them as a problem or a threat and where “multiculturalism” is a dirty word. As usual, the media pour scorn and pity by turn on these three young women, and do not even consider the fact they are a large part of what the three may be fleeing from.

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