With news today that a teenage runaway to Syria now seeks to return, I think a post I wrote in 2015 still applies. Young women like this should be treated the same as other teenage victims of grooming gangs: with sympathy and empathy at the very least.

It is impossible to say at this stage whether the young woman expresses remorse or not, because she is still in Syria where she may fear reprisals if she says what she really thinks. Until the threat of death for apparently abandoning the movement is lifted, we cannot take anything she says at face value. She may still believe in the cause wholeheartedly and in everything it stands for, or she may not. We just don’t know.

To be sure, I have no sympathies for the cause of ISIS, or for groups like it, which propagate similar ideas — some very popular advocacy groups included — but I am sympathetic to those who get sucked into these movements. Predominantly they are either the young and naive, or newly converted and even more naive. I am sympathetic because I have seen how they are perpetually preyed on by those who take advantage of their ignorance and youthful vigour, to be turned into cannon fodder or zealous proselytisers. What they become is a dreadful shame.

Seasoned mainstream voices may well have come out against ISIS back in 2014, to make the case that their call need not be answered. But to that call, we also saw plenty of clowns taking the stage to call those men and women sell-outs, government stooges and hypocrites. Even when our famed advocacy groups — when pushed — condemned this new-fangled terrorist organisation, their discourse was so ambiguous that any young person listening to it would surely have concluded that they didn’t really mean it.

Regardless of the condemnation of our wise and respected ones, it was nevertheless extremely easy to find propaganda blogs online, utilising pseudo-legal language and religious-sounding arguments to convince young people that a) it was obligatory that they supported the claimed caliphate and b) these are the End Times prophesied in decontextualised hadith. I came across some of them myself.

Whatever the realists claim, I believe grooming is an appropriate term for what young people like this experienced. I have seen first hand the way men target and engage with young women on Twitter, for example. Some call it dawah, but it is unyielding and targeted, and crosses a line.

None of this absolves these women of responsibility for their actions, and if they do return they will likely need intensive mental health support within the context of the criminal justice system.

But I think it is foolish to say, as I have seen said — because we don’t move in those circles — that there wasn’t an undercurrent of aggressive propaganda targeting young people like this now nineteen year old young woman. Many of them were raised in homes where the discourse of the disenfranchised was commonplace, already acclimatised to politicised readings of faith. Fertile soil for the planting of seeds capable of growing bitter fruit.

Thus it will go on. Our community is not taught to think for itself. Instead, everywhere we are taught to see a conspiracy, and to club together to defend the indefensible, and to write off those that do not play the game as backsliders and hypocrites. And if by this we give mixed messages to the next generation, it is no concern of ours. For, when it comes to it, the next set of teenage runaways can just as easily be condemned, blamed for the shortcomings of our community.

3 thoughts on “Returnees

  1. I can’t agree with the grooming or brainwashing trope, but if an argument is to be made then it is the point you made about a fertile ground being cultivated in their homes. That is, the perpetual paranoid mindset of Muslims that seeks out conspiracies and weeps for a mythic past. They watch a lot of Ertugrul in those homes, I’ll bet!


    1. I disagree with you on the grooming front, although your point of view is widely shared. Grooming may be the wrong term. But victims of targeted, relentless pressure: absolutely.

      I think back to my days at university as a particularly immature 21 year old, newly converted to Islam, where I was targeted by clowns like the now world-famous ex-Islamist who regularly graces the airwaves, to be talked into submission to accept that it was fard for me to work towards the establishment of the khilafa. This was within hours of my shahada, moments after my expeditious emergency lesson in fiqh, and it went on for months.

      I resisted those calls as best as I was able, but it was still a miserable time, when I was bombarded with hadith and religious-sounding arguments to convince me that I had to make a decision there and then. Had I not been so shy and cautious, and perhaps younger, I might well have succumbed to the intense pressure that our famously argumentative friend put me under.

      I just feel grateful that this was in the days of the nascent web, when social media had not yet been imagined and before smartphones had been invented, when one could at least walk away (visits from the proselytisers excepted). Nowadays it is relentless, the pressures made virtual. And yes, I have seen it with my own eyes: grown men targeting teenage girls first with their flattery and then with their preaching, bombarding the ignorant with sahih hadiths that prove without a shadow of a doubt that what they say is authentic, true and obligatory.

      In my day we were fortunate that it was all theoretical and a mere pipe dream for the activists. Alas, in the early half of this decade, the zealots managed to convince just enough young and naive people that the promised caliphate had come, and it was their duty to make hijra to the supposedly sacred lands. Insert eschatological stories here.

      Whether you call that grooming, preaching or dawah is immaterial to me. It is the reality that some young people face today, as it was for me twenty years ago.


  2. The human being is certainly very complex.
    Whichever way you want to look at this issue, not offering a way back within the frame of safety for someone who erred is for sure not a solution.


Leave feedback

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.