The deliberate recruitment of women by ISIS certainly brings a new twist to radicalism. It is something that al Qaeda never quite got the hang of. It is worrisome, because it reveals the long-term ambitions of the group – to create a new generation of radicalised men and women.
Why is it working in some cases? As I noted previously, the acquisition of territory is key to recruitment for ISIS. This is because there is somewhere to go that embodies the romantic ideal of the Caliphate, where Muslims can be Muslims and their piety is rewarded by the state. Why do some people feel the need to live their lives completely in the service of God? What does this look like to Muslims?
In Syria, prior to the war, I spent several months studying Arabic at Abu Noor, a madrasah in Damascus. It afforded me insight into the lives of the truly pious and an understanding of what it means for some Muslims to live the dream of a devout life. My observation of the women of Abu Noor is that most of them were simply Sunni Muslims who wished to make God the focus of their life.
Like all religious spaces in the Middle East, the school was regularly audited by the government, but was nonetheless allowed to exist up until the war began.
The Arabic school was part of the mosque and was divided by gender. Most of the women I met were there because they felt they could not live out their religion as fully as they would have liked in their home countries. They hailed from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Balkans and parts of Africa. They came to learn Arabic in order to be able to read the Quran in its original language.
They stayed for years. Not just because Arabic is wretchedly hard to learn, but because they could be devoutly Muslim there.
They could cover freely – which they believed the Quran instructed them to do. Simply being covered was not an option for the girls from the 'Stans'.
I met a qualified medical doctor from Uzbekistan who came because she was unable to practice as a doctor in hijab. I got to know one particularly devout girl from Kyrgyzstan, whose ability to learn and retain tracts of the Quran for our recitation classes was astonishing. She told me she came from a secular family who didn't cover and who mocked her for her religious devotion. I met Turkish girls who were unable to study at university because they banned hijabs on campus (a policy that has now been revoked in Turkey). I met an entire Chinese family from Yunnan who sought to escape the control that exists in China over their ability to learn about their religion. I met a devout Japanese woman who had converted as a result of travelling around the Maghreb for months and meeting many Muslims. I met a fully covered (Niqab) highly educated Singaporean woman, who believed she needed her religion to be the focal point of her life.
The women spent their mornings learning Arabic, and their afternoons engaged in classes of their choice, on tafsir (interpretation), tajweed (recitation), fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), or private prayer and Quran study. The girls' boarding area, which I was invited to view, was inside the mosque/school which comprised the campus. It was clean and very simple and it was here I met girls from Africa whom I had never seen in class, who told me they had been there for seven years.
There was no doubt at Abu Noor that radicalism existed (it has been noted before by Ed Hussein), but I was never exposed to it directly (at the time it was more noticeable in the male quarter). The women I met never spoke to me about violence or even politics. At this time, they just seemed happy to have a place to learn about their religion.
I don't believe the school was producing extremists; the school had other interests. I noticed after I had been at the school for a couple of months that some of the most talented Arabic language students were leaving the classes. I spoke to one and she told me she had been invited to join an advanced class called Taheeleh (meaning rehabilitation). After asking a few more questions it occurred to me that these classes were most likely teaching the girls how to proselytise about Islam in the broader world. But I do not believe the school taught any kind of radical ideology. Rather, students were taught to preach a conservative or pious form of Islam which does not correspond in any way to the teachings of ISIS.
I often wonder what many of these women are doing now. I know the Syrian Government cracked down hard on the area and closed the school during the early stages of the conflict. My great fear is that this kind of repression may well have driven some of the girls towards ISIS or similar groups.
If you look broadly across the Muslim world, you will notice that governments tightly control religious space because of the potential threat religion poses to existing political power structures. Extreme piety in Western converts is viewed with great suspicion by governments in the Middle East, not just in the West. This means it is not easy to emigrate to a Muslim state as a Western convert without running the risk of attracting unwanted attention from the local security services, even in places such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Equally, those born Muslim in Western states may not always feel comfortable displaying their religion openly for fear of arousing suspicion or censure.
I am concerned the space for piety without violence is shrinking in this battle of ideas about what is good Islam (preferably as secular as possible?) and bad Islam (indicated by the wearing of the Niqab and a pious lifestyle?).
Recognition of the difference between extremism and piety in Islam is essential for the effective and responsible use of security services to monitor extremism. More research is urgently needed to understand this issue, in order to prevent a dangerous dichotomy from developing.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Glenn Halog.