In the aftermath of the horrific Manchester Arena bombing, in which children were targeted at an Ariana Grande concert, an opinion piece by renowned journalist Lauren Wolfe was published, called “ISIS targets ‘dangerous women’ in Manchester Attack.”
In it, Wolfe makes the premise that Salman Abedi targeted “Girls who want to grow up and be beautiful like her, wear makeup and tight clothes when they want to, and talk about who and how they love without consequences, as Grande does in her songs.” The attack was, according to Wolfe, “It was a double-hit for the terror group: The attack told us that they can kill an invaluable part of our society at will, and that they will not stand for women having any kind of freedom.”
On the other hand, Abedi’s sister has said that his motivation was not to make a statement about women’s freedom, but to hurt children in retaliation for US airstrikes in Syria that killed Syrian children.
Wolfe’s article makes pertinent points about ISIS’s attitude towards women’s freedom. We have seen them commit the most egregious crimes on women in Iraq and Syria: rape and sexual slavery, as well as forcing them into veils and making them leave any sort of public life.
But did Abedi select the Ariana Grande concert as a way of intimidating young Western women into abandoning their cultural and societal values? I have a hard time completely accepting this premise.
These home-grown jihadis are steeped in Western culture from the day they’re born in Manchester, Brussels, Paris, Berlin. They are drawn to it because it’s the predominant culture, and assimilation and acceptance in society come from accepting and practicing it. At the same time they face immense pressure from their home environments, if they grow up in conservative households, to reject this culture. The boyfriends and girlfriends, the relaxed dress codes, the teenaged experimentation and exploration are all seen as grave aberrations from the family’s culture and way of life. If they go to a Western madressa, they are told this is not just aberration, it is sin.
But it still attracts them. These boys and girls still want to be part of mainstream Western culture, they long for boyfriends and girlfriends, and to go to parties and clubs, to wear what they want and look “cool”, to take part in experimentation with alcohol and drugs. Like any teenager, East or West.
What they see in the news taking place in Iraq and Syria, coupled with the racism that they experience in their home environments, slowly begins to convince them that they should reject this culture. It is inferior, it is unjust, and it is destructive. What attracted them at first begins to confuse them, and then repel them. They may still want to participate in it. They will sleep with “Western” girls while their own girls are unavailable to them. But they will not see this is as freedom; they will see this as markers of a corrupted culture: these girls are whores, and their own men are too weak to control them.
The Norweigian-Pakistani documentary film maker Deeyah Khan made a film called Jihad. She spoke to both men and women who’d taken part in Islamic extremist fighting in various parts of the world, and found herself entering a world of toxic hyper-masculinity. Stemming from a feeling of alienation, both from the Western cultures they were a part of and the South Asian cultures that their parents tried to raise them with, these men and women rebel against authority.
Here’s what Khan has to say about this hyper-masculinity:
“Where anti-Muslim prejudice is strong, the feeling of humiliation festers with ever insult assault. Complex, ‘weak’ emotions of fear, shame, and insecurity become redirected into the more ‘manly’ emotional expressions of anger and aggression. Assuming the identity of a ‘holy warrior’ provides a veneer of masculine nobility to rage, transforming an individual from a resentful loser into a fearsome warrior.
“Many of these people were previously lackadaisical Muslims. They radicalise suddenly, redirecting their sense of personal failure into self-righteous anger against the world. Into this sense of inadequacy and failure, the Islamic State’s narratives are crafted to offer a life of manly adventure, military glory, wives and sex-slaves: a means to become a ‘real man’. Men who in the past felt invisible and insignificant are now seen and heard … and feared.”
In my own country, Pakistan, where the Taliban have terrorized innocent people and killed 50,000 of our citizens, the same dynamic holds sway. The men who join them are not necessarily hyper-religious. Many are petty criminals, powerless, looking for a way to gain power. Who have they targeted? Certainly, girls who want to go to school, the most famous of whom was Malala Yousufzai. But they have also attacked young boys watching a football match; Christians in a park celebrating Easter; and 144 students and teachers in an army public school. They look for soft targets who cannot fight back.
So the Muslim boys who become jihadis in Europe: do they hate little girls who have the freedom to go to concerts, dance, wear what they want, love whom they want? Of course they do, just as they hated people at a concert in the Bataclan, or walking down the promenade in Nice. Do they hate those girls because they represent a freedom the jihadis want to get rid of? Perhaps. But it’s more likely their terrorism is a result of the hatred they feel, most of all, for their own weaknesses and failings.
Why else would they commit suicide, annihilating themselves as well as their targets?
They kill not just because they hate liberated women, or innocent partygoers, or dancing children, but because they hate themselves.