The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) seems to have a short memory. Although it has only been a few years since the brutal Islamic State (ISIS) was defeated, from the tone of the BBC's recent articles -- featuring a female jihadi's returning to Europe from Syria -- you could be forgiven for thinking that the ISIS bloodbath was just another government-run women's empowerment initiative.
Depending on the context or agenda of the day, the BBC seems unsure whether "radical" Islam, or "normal" Islam -- presuming the distinction can be made -- offers a path to the emancipation of women, or to their enslavement. The hijab, for example, may well act as a shield against the prying eyes of men, or a kind of "wife-branding" by husbands who treat their women as chattel, but to the BBC, it is also a "fashionable" symbol of "freedom" and "self-expression".
This muddled perception probably has more to do with how the BBC would like the world to be when it comes to Islam, rather than how things actually are. Take the sympathetic account of Shamima Begum, the Bangladeshi-British schoolgirl who felt compelled to make the hazardous journey from the British Midlands to the "ISIS capital", Raqqa, to marry a jihadist and join in the fun. By her own admission, within weeks she was used to, and evidently unfazed by, the sight of headless corpses and public executions.
Perhaps if ISIS had not been defeated, Begum would have given a plum role by now, perhaps even in the ISIS "morality police". Instead of continuing her climb to the Islamist group's topmost echelons, however, she was arrested and incarcerated in a Syrian detention camp. After several attempts by lawyers to reverse the British government's decision to revoke her British passport, she is now claiming to have been "trafficked". She would like us to forget about her apparent enthusiasm for immersing herself in the most brutal forms of Sharia law, and instead is demanding sympathy and to be treated as a victim herself.
Numerous sympathetic articles have appeared on the BBC's website, suggesting that they seem prepared to re-appraise the public's perception of her as a "black widow", stitching together suicide vests, and hunting down and punishing "bad Muslims". Conversely, she is pictured hijab-less, wearing "Western clothes", looking as fresh faced as the girl next door. Who could possibly object to her return?
It certainly didn't take long for the BBC to set aside any revulsion for Begum's actions, and instead focus on the "human rights" of this otherwise fully paid-up box-ticker: Muslim, check. Female, check. "Of colour", check. Feminist? Perhaps not.
Although forgiveness is not high on the BBC's to-do list when it comes to trashing figures whose politics they oppose, female jihadis are apparently another matter altogether. Yes, she might have aided and abetted the bloodbath in Raqqa, but now that her "mental health" is at risk after the collapse of "the caliphate'" and her confinement in a Kurdish detention camp, we are urged to re-appraise her "plight".
Essentially, people at the BBC and other outlets would like the British public to join them in rebranding Begum as a victim, as opposed to her actual role as an oppressor.
"Being a child usually means we are granted innocence," wrote Hanna Naima McCloskey, defending Begum.
"But that innocence is denied when children belong to marginalised groups -- in this case Begum's 'Muslim-ness' – under the system of oppression, Islamophobia – has her as a threat and a danger above all else".
Being "granted innocence" as a child, McCloskey fails to point out, is intrinsically linked to certain criteria, such as coercion by one's parents to commit murder; but at what age is that excuse no longer credible? To suggest that it is the "system of oppression" and the "Islamophobia" of Begum's "Muslim-ness" that turned her into a figure of hate, is not only to excuse her behaviour, but tacitly emboldens a twisted ideology, in which this author was raised, whose ultimate goal is to rid the world of "unbelievers".
While it is probably easier to indoctrinate a child than an adult, it probably made not the slightest bit of difference to any one of the five killed and 40 maimed by an "innocent" child in Afghanistan in 2019.
Or the nine people slaughtered in a Nigerian restaurant, when three children between the ages of 10 and 15 (Shamima Begum's age when she arrived in Raqqa) detonated their explosive vests.
Or the 10-year-old girl -- also in Nigeria -- who killed 16 men, women and children on market day, on behalf of her Islamist "handlers", Boko Haram.
Or the 16-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber, who, in 2004, blew himself up in a Tel Aviv market in Israel, in the wake of ten other children under the age of 18, whose attacks preceded his.
The list goes on. As far as indoctrination is concerned, there are no age limits. Indoctrinated children will most likely grow up into indoctrinated adults. The problem, therefore, is not the "manipulation of innocent children", but the ideology itself. The ideology drives a suicide bomber not to differentiate between maturity and immaturity. Any mind can be poisoned, no matter its age. The more discontented the person, the more likely a candidate; and at some point, probably, most people may not feel satisfied with everything. Thanks to the West's misadventures in the Middle East, resulting in a never-ending flow of migrants to Europe, the number of discontented people may constantly be on the rise.
Of course, people can tone down -- or at least claim to have toned down -- their views, as is Begum's current position, and many Muslims in the West find it easier to present themselves as "moderate" -- even if they are not.
Circumstances will often dictate how to "present" one's religiosity. A malleable child at the hands of a fundamentalist parent, for example, will likely find it easier to accept the extremities of "Allah's will", or concepts such as martyrdom, than those who have not been offered those thoughts. The same goes for a disenfranchised Muslim, who, in the West, might feel persecuted or pushed into a corner, rather than praised for his "commitment". Many of them, however, will have already been radicalised, and -- like "sleeper cells" -- are perhaps even unconsciously biding their time. They are not under direct orders from any human authority. Allah holds dominion over them. Should they fail to flourish within the alien "kuffar" society with which they have become entangled, or should they misread or excuse their lack of success as "oppression", this is when their indoctrination -- seeded as a child -- has a chance of re-emerging.
This changeability is part of the reason that Islam is so problematic: its chameleon-like tendency to adapt when necessary, and appear "moderate" if circumstances dictate. There is even a term for it, "taqiyya," meaning to dissemble, including the degree of one's religious identity when "in fear of persecution".
Of course, the perception of "persecution" is almost impossible to measure: it is often totally subjective. People with a tendency to feel offended can see it even if it may not actually be there. Feelings of being persecuted, sometimes referred to as paranoia, can be as just adaptable or acrobatic as the mind of any man, woman or child. In Islam, it often seems that the only requirement for perceiving persecution is if one can successfully make the argument to oneself. Indeed, Islamic scholars often depict taqiyya as being equal to, or even superior to, other virtues such as courage, fortitude or even martyrdom.
Which brings us back to returning jihadis and their supporters, whose "progressive" outlook matches that of many politicians who seem to dwell in ivory towers and BBC executives who have seemingly decided to back Begum's bid to return to the UK. All these people have one thing in common: they appear to have little idea of what Islam actually is, or worse -- how hardy and insidious an ideology it really is.
Campaigning to bring jihadis back to Britain is a really bad, terrible idea. The situation is dour enough as it is, with the risk that the refugees from the war-torn Middle East -- they and their terrorist cohorts displaced -- may one day "revert" to the fundamentalist Islam in which many of them were raised, as was demonstrated by 22-year-old Libyan, Salman Abedi, a who massacred scores of pop fans at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017.
"We will not tolerate hate towards any part of our community", declared the authorities, demonstrating just how out of touch they are by issuing the warning -- not to terrorists -- but to the understandably outraged people of Britain.
It was an apparently irony-free statement, whose implication appears to be that they care more about political correctness than the people they are supposed to serve.
One can sense the frustration of those faced with what must be this dismaying contradiction to the preferred narrative. If only a case could be made for Muslim female empowerment! You can almost hear the cogs turning: how to reconcile Islam with feminism -- despite the inconvenient polarities? How to align a "democracy-loving" public broadcaster with the values of a dictatorial 7th century belief system? Easy -- contrive it by interviewing an outspoken, self-appointed female Muslim spokeswoman who shares the same fondness as the BBC for self-contradicting psychobabble.
"What struck me was the extent to which religious tradition can be used to excuse violence or challenge it", said a UK-based Iraqi migrant, Huda Jawad, upon hearing about female jihadis travelling to war-torn Syria.
"I was enraged to hear that Islam was used in the most perverse ways to maintain women's vulnerability and persecution and enable the perpetrators, who are usually men, to coerce and control them."
Begum's decisions, in other words, were ostensibly not her own. She was groomed, not by extremists she had met online, but by the patriarchy of coercive men -- probably including her father -- who over time presented her with a version of Islam that seeks to persecute and control "vulnerable women". She and her friends' misadventure, we are to believe, had less to do with their determined actions or quest for excitement, than it did with men's dominion over women. I wonder if Begum pondered this revelation as she sewed explosives and nails into suicide vests that would kill and maim both sexes indiscriminately.
"I share their [female jihadis'] hunger for wanting to learn and their confusion about Islam", Jawad continued.
"Like the young women who are targeted to make the journey to Isis-controlled territory, I sincerely believe in my faith, in the innate way it seems to call for justice and equality and for collective territory... for seeking the fairest & most just solution to problems – for the value it places on human life, whether human or animal. On reason, on learning and on equality."
The lack of awareness in delivering such a bizarre statement -- equating Islam with "equality" and "justice" -- is not surprising to me, having heard it all before, countless times from my religious siblings. The assumption that Begum and her friends were "targeted" however, is as laughable as the suggestion that my Muslim siblings were "targeted". Indeed, my sisters would be hugely insulted at it being inferred that they were targeted, and not "chosen" by Allah Himself. To misunderstand this point, is to misunderstand what Islam is. The prism through which the West sees the world simply cannot be applied to Islam.
Similarly, the BBC's concept of "feminism" also sits awry next to the "Islamic feminism", in that in Islam there is no higher authority than Allah -- very much a "male" entity, steeped in medieval traditions. All Muslims understand that their Creator's sensibilities and desires come before theirs, and if those sensibilities rub Western feminism the wrong way, then that is where their paths diverge.
"Islamic feminism can provide [potential female jihadis] with the intellectual and religious tools they seek", said Jawad, whose "passion" for it did not prevent her from moving to the West.
"I share their rejection of the media's portrayal of Islam and Muslims as inherently violent. I share their frustration at experiencing prejudice and disrespect for being a Muslim. And for being a woman and a Muslim woman, whether by mainstream society or their own religious communities. "
Believing that the violence associated with Islam in the 20th and 21st centuries is unfairly depicted is to stick one's head in the sand. Claiming that female jihadis, from Leila Khaled in the 1960s to Begum in 2015, are being "disrespected" for being "Muslim" – rather than being disrespected for planning to massacre non-Muslims, "wrong" Muslims, or anyone-that-gets-in-their-way Muslims, is to be in denial.
Another British schoolgirl turned wannabe-terrorist, after being arrested in 2020, had all of her charges dropped. A Home Office "expert" concluded that she had been "groomed" online by an "extremist" in the US. She was 14-years-old at the time of the offence, only a year younger than Begum. The distinction between the two is that while Begum was presumably indoctrinated by her parents' devotion to Islam, the unnamed girl was "groomed". What is the difference between "grooming" and "indoctrination"? One offers you "victim" status, the other does not. If it sounds oblique, it is probably meant to.
In 2020, a 14-year-old boy who had recently converted to Islam was charged with plotting a terror attack. Within a month of converting, he was alleged to have "developed an extremist jihadist mindset". After learning online how to make explosives out of bleach, tin foil and screws, he also filmed himself in his own "martyrdom" video.
Despite a glut of recent cases, the police, working with counter- terrorism officers, are keen to make the point that there is nothing to worry about. The Hampshire Constabulary issued a statement reassuring the public that they believe the investigation to be an isolated one – "with no known wider risk to the community". Local MP Paul Holmes tweeted:
"I was briefed on this issue this afternoon and thank the police for their informative release. As they've said they believe this to be an isolated incident and speculation on social media is not helpful. Thank you to our police force."
The "speculation on social media", we can safely assume, counters this bright and breezy upbeat take on what could have been yet another terrorist outrage.
Meanwhile, the case against "the youngest girl" charged with terrorism offences in the UK has been dropped: the Home Office decided she was a victim of trafficking. The British schoolgirl, now 16, was accused of possessing instructions for homemade firearms and explosives. But "experts" decided she had been groomed online by a US-based extremist. The Derbyshire teenager, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was arrested in October 2020 and was alleged to hold extreme right-wing beliefs.
This is the first time a terrorism prosecution has been halted after a decision of this kind.
Then there is the US case of Alison Fluke-Ekren, a convert to Islam, charged with organising and "leading an all-female battalion". She is also accused of teaching children to use assault weapons; and in the FBI affidavit, a witness is quoted as saying that one of Fluke-Ekren's sons was seen holding a machine gun. He was 5 or 6 years old at the time.
Fluke-Ekren allegedly trained women and children to use AK-47 assault rifles and suicide vests in Syria. She is also suspected of recruiting operatives for a potential future attack on a US college campus.
She also allegedly told a witness of her desire to carry out an attack on a shopping mall using explosives, and reportedly said that it would be a waste of resources if it did not kill a lot of people. She is charged with providing and conspiring to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
Details of the complaint were given in an FBI affidavit from 2019, which was released on January 29, 2022, after she was returned to the US to face charges. It alleges that in 2016, an all-female ISIS battalion, known as Khatiba Nusaybah, was set up in Raqqa, Syria. At the time, the city was the de facto capital of the Islamic State group. The battalion was said to be comprised solely of women who were married to male ISIS fighters.
The UK government now says it is targeting "terrorists, war criminals and spies" as part of a "shake up" of immigration law. If a new bill being debated in the House of Lords is passed, they will be able to remove someone's citizenship without telling them. This may be so, but that will not prevent the inevitable legal challenges that Begum's lawyers, and her acquiescent advocates, deem appropriate -- challenges that not only undermine the powers of a sovereign state, its legal processes and the will of its citizens, but fail completely to comprehend the actual problem with Islam, which unfortunately is that it is not compatible with Western sensibilities. If the media were to consider this thought and spent less time demonising matters that are not serious threats, they might have understood that by now.
Andrew Ash, born in Great Britain to Anglo-Egyptian, Muslim parents, is based in London, England.