If You Ever Wonder Why People Would Join ISIS, Read This!
A Reddit user, Peacockroach, posed the question "Why are thousands of people worldwide joining ISIS?" in the subreddit ELI5 (Explain Like I'm 5), where other users are encouraged to respond with simple, easy-to-understand answers.
Another user, DasWraithist, a graduate student in security studies who used to live in Egypt, offered this insightful response.
Let's start with who these individuals are. The majority of foreign-born ISIS recruits come from Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Tunisia. The vast majority are from middle class, secular families. Critically, most are not well versed in the Koran at all and are only casually observant Muslims.
Let me describe a fictional but realistic narrative.
"Ahmed is a 24 year old engineering student from Alexandria, Egypt. He grew up in a comfortable, single family apartment with his parents and four siblings. His father works for a bank, and his mother teaches music at the local school.
Ahmed's family doesn't go to mosque every week, but they go on important holidays and consider themselves good Muslims. His whole life, Ahmed has been told that he must be a good Muslim, and the chief way that he will do this will be by marrying a good Muslim girl from a good family, probably chosen by his parents in consultation with members of his extended family.
But Ahmed has also been on the internet since he was 14. He watches hardcore pornography, listens to Western music, and reads a lot of blogs. When he talks about politics with his friends, it's with the bitter cynicism that characterizes the Arab world.
He looks at his father and is humiliated. Egyptians have never been free to choose their own leaders. His father has played by the rules, worked hard within the system, and he has relatively little to show for it. Ahmed himself has been unemployed his whole adult life; he's a good student, but there just aren't enough middle class jobs in Egypt.
Online he starts talking to a guy named Mahmoud who has some wild ideas. He tells Ahmed that he should be embarrassed of his father. His father, and the entire generation of Egyptian men he's a part of, have failed to live a righteous life, and have tolerated like sheep the injustices perpetrated on them by Egypt's secular regime. He points out to Ahmed that this regime will never give up power willingly, just look at the results of the Arab Spring, in which the military government pretended to cede power to democracy, only to snatch it back. He tells Ahmed that democracy, even Islamic democracy of the sort advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, is merely a Western plot designed to keep Muslims weak and fighting each other. Only a righteous theocracy, a caliphate, can be strong enough to stand against the West when the great battle comes.
Mahmoud also tells Ahmed that the life he's preparing for, a life of struggling to find work, a life married to a boring, maybe homely girl not of his choosing, isn't the only one available to him. He can live a much more meaningful, exciting life that will also be far more righteous.
Ahmed, Mahmoud tells him, is living in the most important moment in history for Muslims, and God expects him to restore God's empire on earth. Ahmed hasn't read the Koran that carefully (it's in Classical Arabic, which is poorly understood by many modern Arabic speakers, like Ahmed, who haven't studied in religious schools), so when Mahmoud quotes it from memory to him, and explains the meaning in terms of his own radical ideology, Ahmed is impressed and finds him persuasive.
Mahmoud tells Ahmed that if he comes to the Islamic State, he can live the life of his dreams. He can shoot a gun like the guys in American rap videos he likes. He can fuck as many women as he likes, because according to Mahmoud the Koran allows a righteous Muslim man like him to take non-Muslim women as concubines. His sexual life needn't be confined to just one women as he's been told all his life; all of the fantasies he's had watching porn that he'd resigned himself to never realizing can now come true, and they don't make him any less righteous a Muslim.
Most importantly, though, Mahmoud tells Ahmed that he's important. That he matters. That despite his very average life so far, he's destined to be a famous and powerful warrior of God.
So when Mahmoud tells Ahmed during one of their Skype conversations that his friend Salman is going to be in Ahmed's neighborhood soon, Ahmed is excited to meet him. Salman has all the fiery conviction of Mahmoud. He laughs derisively at the lives of the sheep around them when they drink tea in a cafe together.
He chides the waiter at the cafe for his clean-shaven face, telling Ahmed that it's pathetic that Muslim men would ape the fashions and hairstyles of European non-believers. He mocks the skirt of the waitress to Ahmed, telling him that in the Islamic State, she would be flogged for wearing such whorish clothes, and maybe she'd even be given to Ahmed as a concubine for him to "instruct" in the ways of being a good Muslim wife. This notion excites Ahmed, especially when Salman assures him that this is not only acceptable but demanded in God's eyes.
So when Salman returns a few days later with a fake passport with Ahmed's picture that will allow him to travel to Turkey, and from Turkey into Syria. Ahmed decides this is his moment. The picture of the Yazidi girl that Salman promises Ahmed will be his first bride doesn't hurt either.
Of course, life in Syria is not what Ahmed expected. There is no Yazidi bride, for one. For another, he is not commanding God's armies in battle, as he had in the fantasies Mahmoud and Salman had painted for him. He's the lowest of the low, constantly subjected to physical abuse by his superiors. He has no patron here. Salman and Mahmoud are gone, and Ahmed is sent into battle again and again until after six weeks in Syria he and the rest of his unit are killed by in an ambush by Kurdish fighters."
This story ended up being longer than I expected, but I wanted to rebut two common misconceptions, chiefly that ISIS recruits:
a) are deeply religious individuals consumed by faith. They are not. Most are poorly versed in Koranic Arabic and have had only casually religious upbringings. It is precisely this relative lack of knowledge that makes them vulnerable to the recruiters (who know the Koran very well).
b) are isolated from Western culture. They are not, which is why ISIS propaganda videos look like well-produced rap videos or action movie trailers. They are developed to appeal to young people who grew up watching music videos on YouTube and American action movies on DVDs with their friends.
This story is just one narrative. It is one that characterizes the experience of a lot of ISIS's foreign recruits from Arab countries. It does not describe the experience of Iraqi or Syrian ISIS members, nor does it describe the experience of most European or American-raised ISIS recruits, although it may not be too far off for some.
I don't have an answer. My story was purely descriptive, not prescriptive. What if Ahmed survived the ambush, and managed to flee across the border back into Turkey. He might make it back to Egypt, but then what? His parents know where he's been. They might be ashamed of him, even terrified of him. Or they might view him as a victim of brainwashing, and want to help him.
But what do we as societies do? Do we treat him as a terrorist and a criminal and lock him up for life? Do we treat him as a surrendering soldier in war, and lock him up until the war ends? Will the war ever end? Do we treat him as part victim, part perpetrator, and try to rehabilitate him? Will that work?
I don't have answers to these questions, and as far as I can tell many of those making these decisions don't either. But I think these are questions we need to ask.
Secretly, we all fear having birthdays like the one in Sixteen Candles, where nobody shows up and we're forced to deal with how lonely we feel as people. But sometimes, people have things happen on their birthday that put Molly Ringwald to shame.
It stinks to have your special day go sour. Moreover, it hurts, that if whatever happened was bad enough, you will never be able to not associate your birthday with that awful thing.