In 2015, east-Londoner Shamima Begum, along with two friends, all aged 15, flew to Syria to join ISIS (aka. Daesh). In 2019, Shamima requested to return to Britain, leading the right-wing media to go into meltdown. She now refers to her decision to travel to Syria as being the biggest mistake she ever made.
This month, Sky released a documentary filmed in the Syrian camp where Shamima now lives, along with other ISIS brides. The documentary follows a small group of women in the camp, focussing mainly on Shamima.
Shamima and the other women speak out about the abhorrent conditions they faced as ISIS brides. They tell the filmmakers that when they left the house – which was a rarity – they were shouted at by passersby, telling them to fix their hijab more securely, or cover any remaining hints of skin that were showing. These of course, were no friendly suggestions, but were demanded at pain of beatings, rape, or death.
Alienation and discrimination
More interestingly, however, they speak of what led them to join ISIS in the first place. Every woman shown in the documentary details the isolation and ostracisation they faced in their home countries.
The young women in the camp recall their feelings of complete hopelessness about their future. Without exception, all the women speak about how they lacked connections with their family and friends, and how they felt that nothing would change.
This hopelessness and alienation is a growing problem in young people – and is especially common for minorities who face regular discrimination.
At the time that Shamima was being radicalised, British society was seeing the rise of UKIP, alongside (and fuelled by) endless reactionary rants from prominent media figures such as Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan.
Plastered all over the television and newspapers every day were questions of whether people who look like Shamima were really British. In reality, this was (and still is) unsubtle dog-whistle racism, questioning not just their Britishness, but whether they should even be treated as humans.
Propaganda and vulnerability
It is not surprising that, in this context, young girls like Shamima and her friends were persuaded by ISIS propaganda – propaganda that told them they were different from the people around them; that they belonged somewhere else, with people who claimed to understand them.
ISIS recruiters knew this, and deliberately prayed on the most vulnerable people they could find. All of the women in the camp speak of the promises that were made to them upon their recruitment: promises of community; of purpose; of a free life, where they would be fighting for a better world.
This, of course, is very different from what they faced once they got to Syria.
Fundamentalism and imperialism
Although ISIS and other jihadi groups have now almost entirely collapsed in the Middle East, at the time that Shamima joined, they played a prominent role within the region’s – and world’s – politics.
Despite the rhetoric surrounding the so-called ‘War on Terror’, these groups have historically been supported and built-up by Western imperialism and their allies, such as Saudi Arabia. On the surface, this may seem like a contradiction. But the truth is that these reactionary groups have a symbiotic relationship with capitalism and imperialism.
In the past, Western imperialism supported jihadi fundamentalism across the world, using these reactionary groups and gangs as a counter-balance to left-wing forces in the region. For example, during the Soviet–Afghan war, the Taliban were actively armed and promoted as ‘freedom fighters’ by US imperialism.
More recently in the Syrian civil war, the USA, Saudis, and Erdogan’s Turkey all funded and supported various jihadi militias, using them as proxies in order to maintain their spheres of influence in the Middle East.
The problem is that, in the process, the imperialists have created a Frankenstein’s monster that they can no longer control.
Division and repression
At the same time, the ruling class – in Britain and internationally – use the threat of jihadi terrorism back home as an excuse to further divide and repress the working class and oppressed minorities: beefing up the apparatus of the capitalist state; bringing in new surveillance laws, which are then used against the left; and whipping up xenophobia.
The ruling class are very conscious in cynically utilising the fears surrounding fundamentalism and terrorism. In fact, when Shamima requested to return to the UK, this was used to stir up hysteria and racist attitudes in the press.
This provided the perfect distraction for the Tory government, who were repeatedly bungling Brexit at the time. Even a short respite from their own incompetence was welcomed with open arms by then-PM Theresa May and her cohort.
The whole of the Tory Party are no strangers to fomenting Islamophobia and xenophobic hatred. May was well known for her ‘hostile environment’ and anti-immigrant Home Office vans during her time as Home Secretary. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, infamously referred to niqab-wearing Muslim women as ‘letter-boxes’.
It is precisely this racism from the ruling class and its representatives – along with the material conditions faced by oppressed minorites in society – that creates the fertile ground upon which jihadi fundamentalism thrives.
There should be no mistake: groups such as ISIS are thoroughly reactionary. But it is the capitalists and imperialists who fuel the fire of jihadism through the wars, racism, and poverty that they and their system are ultimately responsible for.
Socialism or barbarism
Fundamentalism and capitalism; terrorism and imperialism; ISIS and the Tories: these are two sides of the same reactionary coin.
Neither of these sides has anything to offer the working class or the oppressed, in Britain or internationally. The only way forward is a united, international movement of the working class against capitalism, and for socialism.
The first step in this is to overthrow our own imperialist ruling class. Western imperialism is the biggest terrorist of them all. Only by abolishing capitalism and imperialism can we genuinely rid the world of the scourge of terrorism and groups like ISIS.
In the final analysis, this is what this documentary shows. If the hopelessness and anger fomented by capitalism didn’t exist, then recruitment to these cults would quickly dry up.
In order to create a society free of division, war, and terror, we must build a world where young people feel like they have a future. We must build a world based on genuine equality, not one divided by race or religion. We must build a society based on the needs of the many, not the interests of the super-rich elites.
In the final analysis, neither groups like ISIS nor the establishment can offer a real alternative to the dystopian horror and barbarism of capitalism. Only an international movement of the working class can create a future where girls like Shamima cannot be groomed by reactionary propaganda.