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.