By Radhika Sanghani
25 Sep 2014
In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State has committed horrific acts of terrorism. They’re thought to have murdered British hostage David Haines, and American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. But they're also taking young British Muslim women from their families.
So far we know of around 60 young women who have been persuaded to join their ranks through radicalisation, including girls such as Aqsa Mahmood, 20 - who had a private education, wanted to be a doctor and had never shown any signs of extremism. Naturally, when she abandoned her life here to go to Syria, her parents were devastated.
But they’re not the only ones – a recent video shows a number of Frenchwomen who have joined Isil in the Syrian city of Raqqa. The undercover filming shows them in internet cafes telling their clearly distraught parents that, no, they won’t be coming home because they love what they're doing. (Most have married male Isil fighters).
This reality of educated, privileged young British Muslims heading over to join an extremist organisation prompted dozens of Muslim mothers to come together for the ‘Making A Stand’ campaign, launched by counter-extremism organisation Inspire, in London on Wednesday.
The idea was for them to stand together and condemn Isil - but also to raise awareness of what’s happening, to help British Muslim mums spot signs of their children being radicalised, and to put a stop to the real culprit: Sheikh Google.
'We Blame the Internet'
Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal, a British Muslim mum, tells me that the internet is the real problem when it comes to young people being radicalised: “The biggest issue right now is the internet - it's Sheikh Google.” She recounts an incident where a young Muslim boy told her that he’d searched on Google for advice on how to stop feeling sexually aroused by his teacher.
He was told, by a website claiming to be full of Muslim advice, that he should change class. If that didn’t work, he should change school. If that failed? He should leave school full stop.
It’s frightening to think that so many young people can be radicalised online. It’s why Haroon-Iqbal is speaking up about it. Though she isn’t worried about her own children being radicalised, she’s seen it happen first-hand to her friends’ children.
“It is very important that we as women and as mothers stand out so that our children can hear our voices loud and clear,” she stresses. “We are our children’s first teachers and we will always lead them on the right path and our voices need to be heard by them and by society at large.”
The concerns of these mothers are particularly valid now, as a new study shows that young British Muslims whose families have lived in the UK for generations, and who are financially comfortable, have a high risk of radicalisation. Now families like Mahmood’s – who may never have expected their kids to abandon a comfortable life to go and become housewives to terrorists – are worried.
'Girls Are Living Out a Sick Fairytale'
Khola Hasan, an assistant judge for the Islamic Shariah Council, and a mum of four, tells me her concerns: “I think a lot of these young people [who are being radicalised] aren’t communicating with their parents and their parents don’t know what they’re thinking. I can understand a little bit that young men want to join because they have a gun and can feel important.
“For girls, for them to want to be that bride, it’s almost Romeo and Juliet – it’s a weird fairytale. They think, there’s these lonely men, I’ll be this wonderful companion, and perhaps I’ll get to shoot a few people. I think they need psychological help.”
Like Haroon-Iqbal, she thinks a big problem is social media, with young people visiting a number of websites, or interacting with radicals online. She isn’t too worried about her kids, because conversations about politics and religion are frequent in her house, but she does worry for others. In her view, families need to counteract the propaganda their kids might be viewing online.
But what do young people themselves think? Are their parents right to be so frightened that they’ll get radicalised by Sheikh Google?
Parents Need To Speak To Their Kids. Urgently
Aisha Khan, a 20-year-old student at Goldsmiths University, thinks so. “Obviously it’s sort of understandable as people have been getting radicalised online recently. But it’s up to the young person what sort of things they’re exposing themselves to. Maybe sometimes it’s an accidental thing, but it’s down to the individual.”
Having said that, she does agree with concerned Muslims mums that this needs to be something they deal with. Urgently. “You can’t censure completely everything online because that would be ridiculous. Parents should keen an eye on what their children are doing. I wasn’t allowed Facebook until I was 16. Back then I was like, oh my god, but now I’m glad.
“For young people post the age of 18, their parents need to talk to them. Young people, to be honest, don’t really watch the news or know what’s happening. But their parents should have conversations with them about it. The reality is we do have to talk about it or we’ll let ignorance prevail. If you don’t talk to your kids, you’re letting ignorance prevail – then everyone’s really shocked their child is going to Syria.
“All you can do is speak to your kids. Don’t brush it under the mat.”