This line from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, captures the spirit of my research process and the way I approach people. Mercy is synonymous with love. Love forced me to look at myself through the eyes of women in conflict. Who are they? What do they want? Why are they victims or victimizers of war? And how can they return to the essence of Islam, a faith based on the principles of love, compassion, mercy, and peace? 

When I began this work,  on what I thought would be an easy journey of storytelling and gathering stories (and data), I soon realized how painful and piercingly real research can be. I began to feel and see and experience conflict and the tragedies of war. Writing and speaking about the women of my books is more than simple storytelling. Their lives matter and need to be understood–even the Muslim woman or girl who joins violent extremism has a story to share, albeit complicated and complex. 

Like a historian, the women of my books are unmistakably on the side of what actually happens in a time of conflict. Their realities are more than small details that informs research. I recognized in some of these women and girls a longing to be “whole” again, to be loved, nurtured, and understood. Other stories of women–both victims and victimizers–are difficult to comprehend, which makes it more challenging to create a complete picture of their lives before and after war. 

Through decades of research and storytelling, I began to feel that I had been destined for the women of my books. They have given me an opportunity to share their stories, which had they not been written or spoken of, would be untold, unseen, and unknown. Thanks to these women, I have literally changed the way I see conflict, women, and Islam.


My Research Journey 

I am a Southern woman with a foreign face. I grew up in the heart of the American Southwest in the state of Texas. Before I began qualitative research, I had written a few stories and poems published in the local newspaper, Austin American Statesman, as Farhana Mahmood, my given birth name. One of my first articles in the newspaper described the impressions of a young girl visiting Pakistan in the 1980s to discover affluent people in love with life as the poor searched for a new destiny. I was fifteen.   

In college, I studied at a private Methodist college, Southwestern University where I fell in love with stories of revolution and resistance. Why do people protest? was a burning question that Latin American expert Dr. Eric Selbin, now the Chair of the International Studies Department, provided answers to in his books and classroom lectures. I was hooked. 

At the time, revolutionary stories were imbued with signs of romantic fatalism. From the 1980s-1990s, protestors and freedom fighters, as they were called back then, had an uninterrupted view of the world as theirs–to belong to a world that promised freedom, privacy, and protection for every individual. Something about these early revolutionaries and guerrillas made me want to understand the ideals of honor vs. shame, heroic imagination vs. unjustified violence, and love for God vs. the glorification of hate. Eventually, examining these early conflicts and the tragedies of war in the Muslim world led me to a study of narrative logic, religion, and the subtleties of human nature. 

As a graduate student at The George Washington University, I enrolled in The National Security Studies program, where Dr. Jerrold Post mentored me. He gifted me his knowledge and interviewing skills used with terrorists. A psychiatrist, he understood the multiple drivers of violence and continued to ask–and engage me–on the role of religion and terrorist behavior. We traveled together. We presented at conferences together. Dr. Post was and is my role model, my guiding light in academic research. 

As time went on, I needed to find a spiritual guide to teach me Islam. I learned very little about Islam at home or from a fragmented Muslim community in Texas when I growing up. In time, I had many guides, teachers and scholars who embraced my emotional vulnerability that came from an unstructured education in Islam. My teachers, for whom I dedicate my books, understood my desire and urgency to learn. They prodded me to read and study classical Arabic as well as seek help from the Beloved. I knew from experience that ignorance is not a gift.

And so my journey of Islam began by letting go of cultural traditions and parental expectations. And by understanding that this journey, like well-grounded research, is a step-by-step process. From which love and mercy are essential attributes. Love yourself. Forgive yourself. And find yourself again. These are the teachings of my spiritual guides.


Research Never Ends…

As a counter-terrorism researcher, I continued to analyze and discover violent women and girls. For a long time, I had expected the trend–the very obscure topic of women in radical groups–to disappear or in time, dissipate. That the first female radicals would be, as I once told the US government, “a riding wave of Al Qaeda’s success” seemed obvious to me. I knew radical men had adopted an unoriginal policy of manipulating Muslim women and girls. But for how long? When would the practice of exploitation end?

Sadly, the trend never ends. Today, more women and girls are being drawn to violent groups for a myriad of reasons. My research highlights the nexus between religion and violent extremism, which is often perceived to be a complex relationship. In truth, Muslim females ignorant of Islam disempower themselves–they are vulnerable to recruitment when violent men propagate a message of empowerment and equality in radicalization. Because these women and girls are clueless of their rights in Islam, they allow themselves to be coopted by men. Oddly, some women and girls, regardless of their misreading of Islam, join violent groups for very personal reasons: revenge, redemption, respect from family/community, and rebirth–they believe they will enter Heaven as born-again brides.  

Since 2000, when I became the first Muslim girl to join the Counterterrorism Center, I have been asking myself this question: If Islam is a peaceful, loving religion, then why do some Muslim women and girls choose violence? Behind the research question rested an impatient attempt to get to the most direct (and clumsy) question of all: Is Islam a violent religion

By accident, my counter-terrorism work informed my understanding of Islam. Because I had to address questions on scripture, I began to learn more about the early wars in Islamic history, contemporary political conflicts that contribute to violent action, and scriptural readings from the Quran and the hadith literature, also called oral traditions–these are the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, the messenger of Islam. 

Though I am still learning to read and understand classical Arabic, the language and syntax of Islam, I press on. I have contacted and connected with scholars and teachers whose knowledge is profound. They have helped me see that blind repetition of holy verse is to live in perpetual ignorance and can lead to a terrifying absence of the Beloved. Without an understanding of the Quran, for whom the radicals use to justify violent action and barbarism, I also know that one can not develop sound solutions to dismiss and ultimately weaken the extremists’ so-called narrative logic. But with knowledge of Islam, it is possible to degrade the extremists’ fundamentally selfish impulses, their altruism and egoism, immorality and evil ethics. 

Today, my research journey continues.


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