BRITISH-born ISIS bride Shamima Begum and American Hoda Muthana are a hot topic at home and abroad, their faces splashed across newspapers and television screens.
For governments and the media, the focus has been on questions of revoking citizenship. Far less attention has been afforded to the reasons why these women adopted Jihadi ideology and left their homes and families behind in the first place.
As a young teenager that had freshly migrated to Australia in the 1990s, I found myself caught up in Jihadi ideology.
In my case, it was social exclusion and feelings of alienation in my new surroundings that pushed me down this path.
Many young people from migrant families experience the isolation that I went through. Language barriers, cultural and religious differences, and the restrictions placed on them from families can all frustrate their ability to assimilate into their new surroundings.
My parents were not conservative in Pakistan but became so after moving to Australia. The change in their thinking was the influence of the Pakistani Muslim community in Australia, our new social circle.
My only outlet was to extend my relationships within the Muslim community. I wanted to please my parents and my society, therefore, I started becoming more religious – more religious, even, than my parents expected.
The pathways to radicalisation are different for everyone but our thinking is similar. Restrictions imposed by immigrant parents can be one of the contributing factors, as well as a fear of losing cultural and religious identity.
It’s important to understand that terrorists know the cultural challenges Muslim women face in these circumstances and they know how to make us feel empowered.
Empowerment was the key reason I started attending Salafi Jihadi sessions near Lakemba mosque. I was led to believe that I was following an ideology which was superior to other schools of thought of Islam. The messages promoted by the Jihadi Salafi groups were “we are the chosen ones” and that we are the “ambassadors of Allah”. Therefore, our duty was to fight the West who are killing our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and Palestine.
The hate and intolerance promoted by terrorists and the empowerment they give to the people experiencing social isolation are key in moving towards violent extremism.
I am glad that I didn’t go as far as Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana, but the thought crossed my mind several times to leave the comfort of my home to join a militant group in Afghanistan.
Alienation and disempowerment
Feelings of alienation and disempowerment within a community can drive dysfunction, criminality and radicalisation.
Muslim women can experience this in the wider Australian society, as well as within their own Muslim and cultural diasporas.
Many Muslim women feel that the broader Australian community demonises their religion, and that they are disenfranchised from engaging in conversations regarding Islam, in favour of commentators with a limited understanding of or connection to it.
Just as any other young Australian can be troubled by issues relating to alcohol, drugs, sex, sexuality and mental health, so can young Muslims. However, the feelings of alienation and isolation may be enhanced by the stigma from within their communities given the strong cultural taboos surrounding these issues.
There is also a disconnect between figures of authority in the countering violent extremism (CVE) space – such as Australian Government representatives and Muslim leaders – and the people they are trying to reach: Muslim women at risk of radicalisation to violent extremism.
Without consultation and dialogue, we risk pushing people into further isolation and reinforcing their distrust and avoidance of people in authority.
The hardline approach
Despite efforts to counter radicalisation, governments have failed to confront the challenges of preventing young women and men moving to the path of violent extremism.
They have failed because they have swatted away Muslim grassroots organisations that have approached the Government for support for projects which focus on preventing violent extremism and address the drivers of radicalisation in their communities.
The top-down, hardline approach is not sustainable. A successful counter-terrorism strategy must engage at the grassroots level. It must work with local Muslim organisations to ‘debunk’ Jihadi ideology and terrorist propaganda. It must work with Muslim youth to understand the ‘push factors’ to radicalisation. Grassroots organisations have the networks and the trust of Muslim communities to lead this engagement.
It is critical to understand that Muslim women who are in the process of radicalisation are not well connected to the Imams or religious leaders who promote messages of tolerance and respect. Therefore, blaming Islam or Muslim communities is only going to create further hatred.
As counter-terrorism expert, Greg Barton, said, “rather than attack and potentially alienate the Muslim community, engaging with them for the purpose of targeted outreach could deliver far better results”.
The Government often portrays Islam as a single shade of grey. Some go so far as to propagate the idea that the Islamic State (ISIS) is practising a ‘puritan’ version of Islam. This is blatantly, and offensively, untrue.
Islam and terrorist propaganda
Islam is a complex, multifaceted religion. Just like in any other religion, there are amateur preachers, and there are well-respected scholars. However, just like in other religions and ideologies, often these amateur preachers are the most skilled at slick online propaganda.
These amateur preachers and terrorists are skilled at using the hate fired at Muslims as ammunition. Islamic State sees these divisions in society as fertile ground to grow their ideology. Islamic State has created the illusion in some online spheres that their Jihadi interpretation of Islam is the only true version.
Many respected and authoritative voices on the interpretation of the Quran, the qualified Muslim Scholars, are not so skilled at harnessing social media to connect with youth.
The Islamic community has many well qualified, reputable Islamic Scholars and clerics that do not find support for violence or the violation of the laws of foreign lands in the Quran. But these peaceful interpretations of the holy book are not being harnessed by the Government to fight the ideological war with Islamic State.
If we neglect approaches that address issues of alienation and disempowerment experienced by those at risk, we will continue to battle extremism.
It is integral for a counter-terrorism strategy to also fight terrorism on the ideological and intellectual front. Muslim grassroots organisations and outreach programs have a deep understanding of the cultural and religious practices of Muslim communities and their unique set of concerns.
To address radicalisation and terrorist propaganda, the Government should collaborate with Muslim grassroots organisations who understand the cultural challenges facing Muslim girls and women.
By working together, with a top-down and a bottom-up approach, we can offer a different way forward for women and youth than choosing to walk the path of radicalisation.
By Anooshe Mushtaq, consultant, a social commentator, and the founder and chairperson of The Raqib Taskforce—an organisation that builds social inclusion, dispelling extremist messages from the public domain. This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.