To find out the answer we need to study their storiesby Kawther Alfasi / November 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
After three teenage girls from East London—including Shamima Begum, now stripped of her UK citizenship—left to join Islamic State (IS) in 2015, analysts were in a quandary. “Making sense” of their actions, argues Iranian-American journalist Azadeh Moaveni, bore a perilous resemblance to sympathy. This tension lies at the heart of her new book. Can we understand the grievances and motivations of these women, while also condemning their actions?
On one level, Moaveni humanises her subjects—13 women who joined IS from Europe and the Middle East—through skilful storytelling and novelistic intimacy. There is a vivid account of Lina’s forced marriage in Germany; political corruption and a rigged economy faced by Nour in Tunisia. The seemingly unfathomable decision to join a jihad in Syria, says Moaveni, can be “a dignified exit from a life that offered nothing else.”
Then there is life under IS, with its indiscriminate brutality and claustrophobia. There are absurdities here, too, such as Emma’s bid to flee IS with her cats in tow. After IS falls, we emerge at the desolate Ain Issa Refugee Camp, where the task of “how to sieve out the regretters and dissenters” becomes insurmountable for Moaveni.
She cleverly punctures the analytical models developed by terrorism experts, who rely on opaque terms such as “Islamist,” and place IS women into a simplistic passive/predatory binary. IS, she argues, has become a “popular intellectual fetish… one that overlooked the contributions of American wars and policies.”
At the same time, the book cannot promise remorse from these women, nor advocate sympathy for them. It is “exceedingly hard to say” if they are regretful, and “judgment remains the prerogative of the reader.” The government might want to wash its hands of Britons who joined IS, but for the rest of us this burden should not so easily be disavowed.
Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni (Scribe, £16.99)