A few weeks ago three schoolgirls left their homes in London and boarded a flight to Istanbul in order to make a precarious journey to Syria so as to join ISIS. These teenage runaways, Shamima Begum, 15, Amira Abase, 15, and Kadiza Sultana, 16, attend the Bethnal Green Academy School in London, are considered to be outstanding students and according to Richard Walton, head of Counter Terrorism Command, “are good friends with another 15-year-old who ran away to Syria in recent months”, Aqsa Mahmood.
The eldest of the three schoolgirls is only 16 years old — these young women are still developing, are impressionable and are susceptible to grooming tactics employed by offenders, including emotional manipulation and coercive persuasion, especially if perpetrators learn of any psychological vulnerabilities they may have. The discourse encompassing the story has been concentrated almost entirely on how these teenagers and ‘their culture’ are culpable instead of the role abuse and propaganda undoubtedly play. Emma Barnett, women’s editor at The Telegraph, wrote that the girls have “joined a murderous cult of their own volition” and argued viciously against sympathizing with them. “They eloped last week and by now are probably shacked up with a hipster jihadi, locked in their homes and expected to crack on with popping out a few kids to populate the Caliphate,” she maintains. This distressing orientalist screed is about young girls — children, for all intents and purposes — and yet Barnett comfortably describes a fictitious and nightmarish scene where three young girls are “shacked up” with members of a profoundly violent militant group, sealed off from society, and having their children.
Barnett argues that the girls are intelligent, “are all grade-A students”, and so it follows that they are “capable of knowing right from wrong”, flagrantly ignoring that cognizant and astute individuals often fall prey to psychological and emotional manipulation. Barnett’s caricature of young girls who have been inexorably victimized reads derisive and almost jovial, in a sort of ‘they’ll get what’s coming to them’ sort of way. Emma Barnett’s commentary is recognizable, as it follows conventional treatise on the question of Muslim women and young girls and their role in society; and yet in a follow-up piece she laments that the criticism being offered by her detractors are unfounded, and that she has fallen victim to this criticism solely due to her having “the nerve to present opinions that differ from an acceptable line.” This is the tired adage of bigots, that their attitudes are exceptional and that they are in some way significant and memorable, that they are challenging a mythical political correctness. Barnett’s editorial is far from unorthodox and instead reflects prevailing sentiment and how deeply established these attitudes are.
Grace Dent, an author and broadcaster who writes for The Independent, penned a similar harangue in a familiar tone — repugnantly flippant and embarrassingly simple. She contends that the girls should never be allowed back into Britain, cloaking her pretentious case in layers of nationalism that certainly appealed to those clutching their flags and touting their exceptionalism. The invocation of Britishness draws a line between the girls and British identity — a segregation that condemns not only ISIS but teenagers who are now identifiable symbols of treachery, and thus undeserving of remorse and categorized as the Other. Dent draws attention to horrific crimes against humanity committed by members of the militant group, asserting that the girls accept these abominable acts, and then follows by revealing disobedient behavior during her youth:
“Of course, there’s a strong case to be made that fleeing abroad in search of Isis is simply a severe case of teen rebellion. Much, in fact, like the time, aged 15, when I pierced my nose and dyed my hair a sort of toxic cyan shade, imagining myself to look like a sexy mermaid, like Kate from The B52s, but instead resembling the Cookie Monster…I can’t imagine that time spent hanging out with horror-movie ghouls who hate Britain, gays, democracy, the rights of women and religious freedom will have done much good for your personal development.”
“Give me a call when you’re bored with all the stoning, crucifying and beheading,” she writes to the girls. “I’ll meet you at Heathrow Arrivals with your teddy.” One cannot sensibly imagine being so openly snide, and mocking what are likely three victims of a slick and dedicated campaign of exploitation if the girls were instead three white teens unassociated with Islam, and influenced by any means into joining a violent faction or religious group.
On this note, activist and editor Judith Wenga writes poignantly that childhood is denied to children of color and that “the grooming of young children of colour into war is not given the same care and compassion as the grooming of young children for sexual abuse”:
“This lack of understanding about the foolishness of children is especially reprehensible given that ISIS are not alone in using child soldiers. Indeed, the Lord’s Resistance Army regularly conscripted children, either by force or by propaganda, to carry out horrific attacks in Uganda and DRC. In Sri Lanka, children joined the LTTE after being harassed by the armed forces and seeing their friends being conscripted.”
The heart of issue when it comes to these three teenagers, and others like them, is part and parcel of the greater struggle of discussing and acknowledging Muslim humanity — that which includes existing as children, as beings capable of autonomous guilt and innocence, and having the ability to make mistakes. In light of this tragedy focus should be aimed at dismantling sensationalism and toxic political pulpitry, both of which are used to further vilify marginalized communities, and instead examine their impacts and then begin the necessary process of healing.