By Ladan Archin
14 Feb, 2015
Ever since the Boston marathon bombings, the question I hear most often is "why would a Western-educated individual become so radicalized?"
While everyone's path is unique, I wanted to share my journey, albeit from a female perspective, to help make sense of what has led -- for some -- to senseless acts of violence.
Every time I see a woman in "Hijab," covered in a head scarf and long sleeves and pants, I can't help but think: that was me. And more importantly, that could be me now. I used to don that scarf with the zealous conviction of a convert, even though I wasn't a convert. I was born and raised in Iran, to Muslim parents. However, although Islam was deeply respected in our home, it was relegated to funerals and religious holidays. I attended international schools, spoke English fluently, and was taught little about my religion -- at school or at home. I certainly never would have considered covering my hair -- nor would my mother or grandmother.
By the mid-1970s, things in Iran started changing. Young Iranian women wearing scarves and long tunics with pants started appearing in universities and high schools. Islam was being redefined as a revolutionary force, and covering one's hair and body was no longer a sign of backwardness; instead, it was a sign of a new generation's embrace of the changing face of Islam.
I watched from our window and the sidewalks as masses demonstrated against the Shah, even though they knew they were facing bullets and the dreaded prisons, known for torture. And I began to wonder what gave them their strength. I entered the United States in jeans, with those images seared in my head, looking for answers as the heretofore little-known Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran. Within a year, I was wearing a scarf and was studying the Quran and the Hadith seeking to understand what inspired so many, and to find my spiritual home.
When I entered the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara at age 16 to study engineering and physics, I dressed like any other student. By the time I was a sophomore, I'd shed my short shorts and was covered head-to-toe. I loved Western music and culture, but thousands of miles away from home, I felt adrift in a sea of people who hadn't witnessed the Iranian Revolution up close. When I came upon those who offered an explanation and showed a path to 'the truth,' -- members of the Muslim Student Association at my school -- I seemed to have found both my answers and my home away from home. For, as much as I thought I'd assimilated, I felt lonely and homesick too. Despite ridicule by some classmates and the stigma of looking different, I wore the emblem of my faith -- my hijab -- with dignity and pride.
Now, when I see an American or a European explain to a journalist why he embraced an extremist Islamic ideology, I recognize the stance, I hear the unrecorded words: "I'm on the right path, I pity you for yours. You just don't get it."
I watched Clarissa Ward's interview with a Dutch convert to Islam who has moved to the Middle East to fight for ISIS, in October, 2014. She explains to a bewildered Bob Schieffer, "people aren't being recruited any longer in mosques by clerics with foreign sounding names..." Well, I have news for her: they never were. I disdained the mosques in the US for being 'establishment pawns.' I believed some illegitimate" government of a Muslim country had funneled petro-dollars into the building of the elaborate structures. Those mosques symbolized a version of Islam I didn't identify with -- a group who'd sold out the 'real religion.' Some men -- my then-husband included -- did pray in those mosques, but as a way to socialize with other Muslims; they did not consider it their spiritual home. Instead of going to mosques, I prayed at home daily, and went to meetings in small rooms in nondescript buildings to get my dose of ideology. Those buildings have been replaced by a URL, which has a wider reach.
I found inspiration in reading about Muslim women pioneers who had stood against tyranny and injustice, fighting alongside men. They were the rule-breakers, they spoke truth to power, and demanded justice. I became the star pupil, studied the Quran and Hadith, and focused on the righteousness of my path -- not on its detractors.
I accepted my mentors' justifications for the hostage taking, eschewing charges of terrorism for actions that I believed were intended to retaliate against impending harm against the faithful. Later, as a married woman, I learned to appreciate unquestioning obedience to my husband proscribed by divine law. My journey mirrored the evolution of the Islamic ideology inside Iran. Preserving domestic solidarity in the face of foreign threats seemed to justify all curbs on civil liberties. But those changes inside my home and in my homeland kept chipping away at the image of the powerful Muslim woman that had inspired me, steadily transforming it into the traditional figure I'd rejected as a young girl.
At some point, I became part of the established Fundamentalists -- as opposed to the initiated, even though I was only 18 when I decided to marry a man who'd also grown in a westernized Iranian household. I learned to guard my territory with blind loyalty and intolerance. It was now 'us' versus 'them.' Yet, I was being constantly criticized by my husband and mentors about my imperfect behavior. I was too loud, laughed too much, offered up my opinion too freely. My husband was instructed to do a better job keeping me in line.
I started to realize that at school -- I went on to attend Syracuse University to get a MS in Math -- I was treated differently. Sure I made mistakes in my papers, but it was all about learning. My fellow students and professors accepted me and were kind to me even though I had to believe that as non-Muslims they were Najiss (unclean).
I realized that I was freer to be myself amongst those that I saw as infidels, than at home, trying to measure up to a standard I hadn't intended. When the constant abuse from my husband drove me to yell at my son for the first time, something inside me snapped. After years of being proud of my choices, I realized the hypocrisy in my words and actions. I was wishing 'death to America' by rote, and enjoying every bit of freedom and happiness that I was denied in my Muslim home.
So I took the scarf off with the same persuasion I'd donned it nearly a decade before. But it wasn't easy.
Two factors enabled me to escape the confines of the faith and home that was stifling me: I knew there was a safe haven for me out there, and I rediscovered logic to replace blind faith to guide me in my path. My Western upbringing and education gave me the latter. The support of friends and family to whom I escaped provided the former; they kept me from falling into the dark abyss of the excommunicated and the alienated. Extremism didn't stand a chance.
Ladan Archin is a Former Federal Reserve Bank, World Bank, Pentagon, and Treasury official