Why Terrorism Is Still A Personal Choice For Girls and Women

Terrorism is a personal choice for most girls and women who join violent extremist groups. For years, I have been speaking and writing about the very personal reasons to explain why Muslim females enter the dark world of violence. The following is an excerpt from my new book, Invisible Martyrs, that addresses this subject:

Terrorism is personal. Each woman’s story is unique. Local contexts, cultures, and circumstances are critical motivators. Above all, a woman’s choice to join terrorism is, in part, the result of a rewards system. Martyrs without a doubt will go to Paradise, or so they believed.

The martyr’s death is firewood for Islam.

Undoubtedly, violent extremism is one of the most complex subjects of the modern century. The reasons why women commit acts of violence are multifaceted. The diversity of Muslim women is often explained in extreme contrast: modernity and antiquity, luxury and poverty, sensuality and asceticism, tenderness and violence; a multiplicity of cultures, clans, families, and tribes describe the “Muslim woman.” She is a product of local cultures, traditions, histories, and politics.

Even violent Muslim women are more than the constructs of patriarchal practice or norms codified by men.

Statistically, women are not the deadlier sex. Women represent less than two percent of the world’s serial killers, and today’s female suicide bombers are a small fraction of bombers. So unusual are Muslim female terrorists that they are vilified for committing the type of crime that men are most likely to commit but also for the fact of being female. How could a woman have done such a terrible thing? For years, I have had to address the question by providing an assortment of answers: some Muslim girls and women choose to die for a cause, a companion, community, country, or creed.

A myriad of motivations explain why females seek an external source of comfort: it could be belonging, an identity crisis, a familial issue, possible psychological and societal stressors, pining for a higher purpose, to love and be loved, and more. Child psychologist Dr. Karyn Hall, the author of The Power of Validation: Arming Your Child Against Bullying, Peer Pressure, Addiction, Self-Harm, and Out-of-Control Emotions, writes that belonging is a reference to those who exclude others. It is the behavior of religious extremists, who isolate themselves from those who reject their worldview and practice of Islam.

Research has shown that females of all ages are lured by the extremists’ formulaic sentiments: recruiters, male or female, claim to empathize with the females’ psycho-biography, personality and/or trauma. Recruiters act as psychologists and Muslim counselors when they engage in so-called empathetic conversations with girls and women. Which is why extremists act as caregivers, protectors, redeemers of faith, and liberators. “ISIS gives our girls freedom,” a Sudanese mother told me in Colorado, where the East African community nearly lost three of its teenage girls to ISIS when the girls escaped home and fled to Syria—the girls’ were arrested by authorities in Germany and returned to their families in Denver. Given their young age, the Attorney General pardoned the girls.

Why Islamic Counseling Is Important 

According to Islamic psychotherapy, the cure for a diseased heart is a purified soul. In Islam, the heart and the soul are interlinked and inter-dependent on one another for personal growth and reflection. It is the heart that connects the self to the divine through the soul. As the Quran says, “Those who believe and whose hearts are set at rest by the remembrance of Allah; now surely by Allah’s remembrance are the hearts set at rest” (13:28). Both the heart and the soul are a part of the nafs, or the self, and the Islamic science of the self is called nafsiyyat. The Quran offers over 140 references to the nafs and descriptions on the development of the self: how to be in a successful relationship with oneself, with others, with the universe, and with God.

When the heart is wounded, the self invariably suffers, which is where Islamic counseling and psychotherapy is a treatment that can be helpful to Muslim females considering or leaving religious extremism.

Unlike other therapy practices, an important feature of Islamic counseling is that it encourages an understanding of one’s place in the world by focusing on knowledge of the universe and its signs. “And He is Who spread the earth and made it firm mountains and rivers, and of all fruits He has made in it two kinds; He makes the night cover the day; most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (Quran 13:4)

Thus, Islamic counseling moves beyond the realities of this world and works with what is beyond the self by emphasizing a spiritual connection. This therapeutic approach accepts and applies the significance of faith, especially for Muslims living in Western countries. Islamic counseling takes a holistic approach to healing the emotional, psychological, social and subconscious self. Islamic counseling practices connects the afflicted Muslim to the divine truth and reorients followers to a more peaceful and hopeful future that honors one’s place in this world while being conscious of that world, the heavenly kingdom we call Paradise.

By comparison, Islamic counseling is similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, a model that other terrorism researchers and scholars including U.K.-based Dr. Erin Saltman firmly believe is the right treatment for radical Muslim women. In her London office, Saltman told me she disliked the term deradicalization, a process by which a religious extremist changes behavior and beliefs and denounces the use of violence under the guise of Islam. Deradicalization is a concept largely accepted by U.S. government officials and a wide group of scholars, whom I personally know, but this treatment is singular in approach and fails to account for a person’s religious background.

Instead, Saltman prefers a therapy that helps people see the relationship between beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy is grounded in a person’s perception of events, rather than the event, itself, which determines how she will feel and act. When I was studying under Dr. Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at The George Washington University, I was taught that individuals with emotional and behavioral problems had the most to gain from cognitive behavioral therapy because it can treat a wide variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, persistent pain, and anger management issues.

Unlike cognitive behavioral therapy, Islamic counseling encourages Muslims to reconnect to the divine in a peaceful, loving manner or to their final goal, the Afterlife.

To read more, visit www.farhanaqazi.com

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