Inside the Minds of the Women Who Joined ISIS

The particular individuals Moaveni concentrates on have page-turning life stories that make the book’s analysis go down easy. Their starting points are diverse: Nour, a Tunisian teenager, was stifled by an authoritarian secular government, inspired by the peaceful revolution that toppled it and disillusioned when the revolt’s promise faded. Emma, a lonely young German, converted because she loved the warm Muslim community of her German-Turkish friends. Lina, a Lebanese-German, left her abusive husband and found solace in increased observance, only to be rejected by her secular Lebanese father. Asma, Aws and Dua were not-particularly-religious residents of Raqqa, Syria, forced to game out survival when ISIS took over their city.

And then there are the three Bethnal Green girls, from a well-regarded London high school. They were friends of Shamima Begum, and all four absconded to ISIS when they were in their teens. Begum, whose parents are from Bangladesh, recently resurfaced in a camp and was stripped of her British citizenship after being judged insufficiently apologetic. She had given birth to three children, one in the camp. All of them had died.

As Moaveni acknowledges, some of her sources may have had incentives to play down involvement and emphasize dissent. However, her portrayals dovetail with what my colleagues and I learned in years of reporting, and she goes deep into her sources’ experiences to provide convincing answers to crucial puzzles. For one, why was Tunisia, the relative success story of the Arab revolts, a top supplier of recruits? (She points to failed reforms and the dashed hopes of newly galvanized observant youth.) For another: Why were some academically successful second-generation Britons drawn to the group, and how could their parents not have known, or stopped them?

Here, Moaveni is particularly poignant and incisive. If these poor, sometimes non-English-speaking immigrant parents had time to notice daughters spending more time at mosques, they saw that as a sign of good values and safety. She brings to life the children’s chafing between their freewheeling London environment, pressure to succeed and conservative family strictures.

And she homes in on a prickly subject. The pain and anger over the West’s treatment of Muslims, while exploited by ISIS, are entirely mainstream in Muslim households, including the vast majority that deplore any violence against civilians. But children alienated from their parents, like converts with no family context, were vulnerable to extremists.

Even more disturbing, Moaveni reports that the Bethnal Green parents were not informed directly by the school, or the police, that one of their daughters’ friends had run off to join ISIS. The British police, she writes, knew one girl was in Turkey on her way to ISIS but failed to have Turkish authorities stop her. Did they treat young teenagers as counterterrorism pawns, Moaveni and the girls’ families wonder, rather than victims needing urgent rescue? For me, these questions raised another: Would they have treated white British girls the same way?

Finally, for all its compelling material, one of the book’s lasting accomplishments is its form. It is a master class in illustrating the big picture through small stories. And it uses women’s experiences — still so often framed as a subplot — to reach the heart of ISIS. Centering a narrative on women leads, here, to a superior analysis of the overall subject, and this is a lesson with applications far beyond ISIS.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/10/books/review/guest-house-for-young-widows-azadeh-moaveni.html?emc=rss&partner=rss

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