“ISIS’s efforts to recruit women are alarming. The terror network’s intense, and often flashy recruitment videos prey on vulnerable women luring them to the fight to pick up guns or to willingly become ISIS brides and support the male ISIS fighters. What kinds of women are susceptible to such recruitment? Why are some women choosing to join ISIS when it is clear that they will become sex slaves, and often killed? How can the West counter the intense recruitment efforts of these terror groups?”
This was the description of a roundtable sponsored by the Homeland Security Committee titled “Women and Terrorism.” The panel included a range of speakers who sought to contextualize the purported seriousness of Muslim women fighters. Though the content of the roundtable itself is worthy of discussion, this piece will focus on many of the underlying and problematic assumptions about Islam and Muslims in addition to Orientalist tropes that were perpetuated. This piece will also address the scope of the roundtable distinctly through the lens of the foreign policy of the United States that lead to the existence and growth of ISIS.
Where is this conflict happening?
Iraq and Syria. Remember this. Iraq and Syria. What countries is the United States repeatedly intervening in? You guessed it. Iraq and Syria. How is the threat reaching us in the United States? Purportedly through incidents such as the San Bernardino shootings, though there seems to be a dearth of data to support the link to the shooters and ISIS.
Why do we care? Because for as long as the United States has existed, it has waged war and oppressed people domestically and abroad. The situation in Iraq and Syria is in line with this reality, though they represent a new brand of neo-colonialism where power and security of the other and intentionally conflated. That is to say, the United States is saving the Middle East from its own destructive tendencies.
Powerless. How else can you describe Muslim women? What other group of individuals would join a group knowing they were going to be ripe for exploitation? That was the underlying premise of this roundtable; that is that Muslim women cannot understand a life outside of oppression, which is why they crave it and even go after it. Those who become terrorists and transition from victim to perpetrator are explained away as being brainwashed and adhering to the inherent patriarchy of Islam; in other words another side of the same coin of oppression.
The possibility of Muslim women being empowered is non-existent; after all Muslim women accordingly only have agency in recreating their victim lives, not in making positive change that challenges the status quo of Muslim communities. The narrative of the Muslim woman is also viewed through the lens of orientalism; that is everything that the “orient” is, is everything that the West is. That’s why we can talk about Muslim women being disempowered as victims and not recognize the multifaceted ways that happened across all parts of the globe, including the West.
Many claims were made at the roundtable; that 1/3 of teenage recruits were women, that women are recruited online, and that over 500 Westerners have joined the ranks of ISIS to fight. Of course many other statistics were cited, however, like the others, no credible data sources were made nor were any offered in the form of handouts. In other words, the mere suggestion that data exists was equivalent to data existing. This is unsurprising in a context where “data” on Muslim extremism, radicalization, etc. is often anecdotal and based on racist assumptions about the unfounded correlation between religiosity and propensity to commit acts of violence. Anecdotes thrive well here.
Ideology was used in this case (as many others) as a catch all phrase. What is the terrorist ideology? Can anyone answer this question? An ideology is not simply a description of behaviors and/or assumptions about the intent, goal, focus, etc., it is a system of beliefs and behaviors that are coherently connected; an idea that panelists using the assumption of this “known” ideology failed to consider. Thus, when talking about the “terrorist ideology,” it is imperative to study not only behaviors, but speeches, written statements, and any other content that actually illuminates a system of beliefs. Anything outside of a systematic analysis is mere conjecture which is dangerous when ideology supports state violence by the United States.
State violence is especially dangerous when illegal acts become legal and where the rule of law becomes moot. This is precisely what we have seen happen; that is the state using law to evade accountability and to perpetrate egregious acts of violence because the illegal becomes legal and the immoral becomes justified.
Collective Responsibility as Collateral Damage:
Whenever one speaks of violence perpetrated by Muslims, there is often the disclaimer that the perpetrators reflect a distorted ideology of Islam. It could stop there, but it doesn’t. And it didn’t at this roundtable. This was especially the case as one of the speakers, Asra Nomani pulled out book after book that she believed represented what she portrayed as the inherent violence and patriarchy of Islam.
Given the constant demonization of Islam and Muslims, it is unclear and even nonsensical to assume that the average American can really differentiate between Muslim terrorists and the average law-abiding Muslim. The end result is that Muslims are held collectively responsible and thus become collateral damage of War.
The Vacuum Effect:
Correlation does not equal causation. But neither does cause and effect bear any relationship on the stories the US tells us about Muslims and the sources of their “unreasonable anger.” Or at least that’s how the narrative works. Muslims exist outside of spatial notions of time where nothing past, present, or current has any bearing to their reactions. While the transition from victim to perpetrator might be explained by Western imperialism and neo-colonialism this fact is ignored and grievances are explained away as individual.
In other words, it is impossible that detention, torture, drones, and extrajudicial killings could conceivably and rationally represent the victim to perpetrator trajectory. It is also impossible to consider this type of violence as systemic no matter how many times it happens or no matter if it keeps being inflicted on the same group of people.
While terrorism is a real problem in the world, it is also one that is socially constructed as perpetrated by Muslims and Muslims alone. This, as illustrated above, represents dangerous and problematic stereotypes and tropes of Islam and Muslims. Challenges to this narrative are usually dismissed and disregarded, thus we become incapable of seeing Islam and Muslims as fluid, dynamic, and affected by circumstances.
Muslim women are no different and rather than hold them hostage to the victim narrative or the victim turned oppressed perpetrator narrative, in order to solve problems as violence, we need to consider them both human and agents of change. This requires a shift in the dominant narrative and the reconsideration of everything the discourse has taught us to believe about Islam and Muslims post 9/11.