Glory is hard to find. In a world of left swipes and back seat dates, in a world where we derive self importance from the attention our statuses get, where political messages are reduced to 140 characters, it can be easy to get lost in the quay. The Islamic State (or ISIS) has taken that perceived loss of place, on the lack of sense of purpose in the social media generation, and has used it to lure young women, mostly from Western countries, into the organization, promising them jewels, pride, and the chance to be the wife of a glorified martyr. The Islamic State’s simultaneously lush, lavish, literalist, and conservative doctrine has, through social media sites and other tropes of the Western World, managed to provide a solution to the alienation of the Facebook generation.
The world has taught us to cope. Likes and swipes and comments provide the validation once (albeit normatively) sought through romance, through relationships, platonic or otherwise. We cast wide nets. We paint vivid virtual portraits of ourselves, hoping that some notification will make us feel loved. Accepted. Smiling and selfy-ing and lol-ing in a vain attempt to deny the alienation—from self, from society—that are inherent to the “millennial.” In a world where, theoretically, capitalism has promised us everything, we’re left with little more than a blinking screen and a sinking sense of loneliness at our Instagrams’ poor like-rates.
This world—of screens and likes and alienation—is the world in which the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL, has come to the fore. Preaching a Sunni Islamist doctrine that adheres strictly to the tenets of Shari’a (Islamic Law) and denounces the dunya jahilliyah (the corrupted, material world, outside of the Caliphate) as heretic. In the “name of Allah,” they are cruel beyond what many thought imaginable—beheading western journalists and humanitarians for the “crimes” of their societies or, most recently, burning a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage—and have become notorious for it.
Their cruelty is innovative, extending beyond their seemingly unthinkable, inventive ways of exacting their revenge and into their methods of recruitment. ISIS is a new, modern brand of terror that has adopted aspects of the capitalist world they so despise, and have turned it into the core of their strength. Recruitment videos– aimed at discontent youth in the Western World—look more like rap videos than calls to Islamism, and Al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, has been known to flash his Rolex whilst publicly calling for the demise of the West. Through its unique brand of modernist Islamism, ISIS has provided a solution to the alienation plaguing the Western world. Using social media, Rolexes, and beautiful women with shiny, new guns, ISIS has promised to bring paradise to the present reality and to make princes of those who enlist. And, despite the terror, it has succeeded—well over 2,000 Westerners are thought to have gone to fight for the Caliphate—and those are only the recorded hijras (“returns”, or journeys to the promised land).
The media has painted a very coherent image of the typical ISIS recruit-cum-jihadi-prince—young, discontented, with little to lose. Often bearded, often grimacing. The sort of man the Western world has forgotten, ghettoized, and alienated. The sort of man to whom, they claim, the luxe brotherhood of ISIS had an irresistible draw. Despite the image the media puts forth, these young men are not the only ones making the hijra to Syria. At their sides, are hordes of young women, similarly discontented with the worlds they’re leaving behind, drawn by the promise of luxury and pride in the world to come. Drawn by the promise of contingent glory, they fling themselves into the arms of the Caliphate, blinded by the promise of a dream life, at their soon-to-be-martyred husband’s side.
According to a report on ISIS bride recruitment published by the Guardian in September 2014, hundreds of women have left Western countries to join ISIS—the lion’s share from France, as well as from Austria, Germany, the UK, and the US—many of them as young as 14 or 15, but most between the ages of 16 and 24. Many of the young women are recruited through social media sites—like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. They create accounts, and are matched with active members of the Caliphate, many of whom are already married. Through chat rooms, tumblr sites, and instant messages, they get to know their future husbands, and are told of the glorious lives impending. In reality, they’re simply recruited to bear children, join communities of fighters, and even take up arms, but all with the promise that if their husband dies, if he is martyred, they too will enter martyrdom. They keep on for the promise of glory. Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Germany, in agreement with many other western leaders, has said that many of them even have a fascination with the organization’s notorious head and throat cutting—it harkens back to a time of adventure, of glory.
ISIS takes advantage of the youth of the girls, of their vulnerability, of their manipulability, and, above all, of the inherent angst that comes with teen years. Facebook pages and Tumblr posts highlight the ways in which the Western world is oppressing these young women, the ways in which their parents don’t understand them. “How does a parent who has little Islamic knowledge and understanding comprehend why their son or daughter has left their well off life, education and a bright future behind to go live in a war torn country?” a member of the sisterhood, Umm Layth, rhetorically asks on her Tumblr page. “They might assume this is a ‘phase’ you are going through or a huge mistake you have made.” But even in the face of such adversity, she insists, one must persist in their hijrah. The Facebook and Tumblr pages of the women already in the “sisterhood of the caliphate,” show women and girls carrying AK47s, grenades, and in one case, a severed head. Alongside these photos, there are snapshots of restaurants, sunsets, and a life of luxury. These recruitment campaigns, developed in the era of the Tumblr-teen, paint an idealized image of life in the caliphate. It’s a life far from the ones that these girls have experienced, where they know their place in the world, and where they are important. In reality, however, the women who have joined have, according to reports, been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry and bear children. And yet, the candy-coated, empowerment-promising social media posts of “the sisterhood” have kept these ISIS brides flowing into the caliphate.
As outlined in the Guardian’s special report on ISIS bride recruitment, there are countless poster-girls for this phenomenon—smiling, innocent (read: Western) seeming girls—whose pictures are plastered on newspapers and televisions throughout the Western world, meant to paint a picture of the corrupting, terrible force of the Islamic State. Girls like Samra Kesinovic, 16, of Austria, smiling and tanned, who, in the weeks before her hijra, was allegedly speaking out about holy war around school, writing “I <3 Al-Qaeda” on walls with markers. She was thought to be dead until she sent a WhatsApp message from the bosom of the Caliphate to her friends and family, assuring otherwise. Or there’s Nora El-Bathry, a 15 year-old French girl, who flew alone from Avignon to Istanbul before making her way to the Syrian border. The only clue to the nature of her disappearance was the hijab she accidentally left behind. El-Bathry’s brother went to retrieve for her, but she turned him away, insisting she “preferred being there.” When he finally reached her, she was thin and sick, caring for orphans, surrounded by armed men.
Aqsa Mahmood—known as Umm (Mother) Layth –has made a name for herself by writing a blog that serves as a guide to being an Islamic State Bride. A wife and mother of the “sisterhood of the caliphate,” she has devoted herself to preparing other Western women to be ISIS brides, and instructing them on how to carry out the process. Her blog posts run the gamut, covering everything from “What to do when your husband is martyred [succeeds],” to “what to pack when you go.” She speaks down to the women she is instructing, like a mother of sorts, though, in her early twenties, she’s not much older than those she is trying to recruit. In her most recent post, she berates the would-be brides for not considering what might happen when they signed up to be the wives of martyrs. “You already knew you wanted to marry a Mujahid (fighter) so why did you not read up on what will be the rulings for you after his departure,” she questions. “Sisters it is very important you read up on all the information you can find on your Iddah [the period of mourning a Muslim woman must undertake after the death of her husband], it’s rules and regulations etc.” Judging by her tone, she is appalled that women wouldn’t bother to fully educate themselves before marrying. Despite her disappointment, however, she finishes the entry with a wish for her fellow sisters: “May Allah reward and strengthen all those sisters who are going through and have experienced the Iddah and reunite them with their husbands very soon. Ameeeeeen ^_^”
In this same post, she berates these men for failing to educate their wives. In typical ISIS parlance, she reminds these men that they are “responsible” for their wives, that they must “give all of her rights to her.” While extraordinarily accepting of misogyny and the status of women as their warrior-husbands’ property, she dares speak out against them for allowing their women to be ignorant. It’s a small step, and still a sickening concession to the terroristic woman hating that ISIS perpetuates, but it’s an interesting demonstration of the power or empowerment these women seek in their hijra. Through the sisterhood, through the group’s social media activism, they can even tell the Mujahid what to do.
The ISIS bride and recruitment phenomena are enigmatic ones. Though apparently regressive, oppressive, and counter to everything modern society claims to pride itself on, ISIS is indefatigably a direct product of modernism, of Western capitalism, and has built its strength on its mechanisms and innovations. And, beyond simple utilization, the Islamic State has drawn on the alienation those mechanisms and innovations have come to effect. ISIS promise a place for those who, in a world of blinking screens and like buttons, have lost track of themselves. In a convoluted misogynistic way, it’s a modern route to medieval glory, a glory fueled by death and social media. And, most concerningly of all, it’s been a great success.