We should pay more attention to the role of gender in Islamist radicalization

The process of radicalization still lacks clarity, and relies on theorizing that is rife with assumptions. Image of flowers left at London Bridge in June 2017, by Gerry Popplestone (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

One of the key current UK security issues is how to deal with British citizens returning from participation in ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Most of the hundreds fighting with ISIS were men and youths. But, dozens of British women and girls also travelled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For some, online recruitment appeared to be an important part of their radicalization, and many took to the Internet to praise life in the new Caliphate once they arrived there. These cases raised concerns about female radicalization online, and put the issue of women, terrorism, and radicalization firmly on the policy agenda. This was not the first time such fears had been raised. In 2010, the university student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed her Member of Parliament, after watching YouTube videos of the radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki. She is the first and only British woman so far convicted of a violent Islamist attack.

In her Policy & Internet article “The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad”, Elizabeth Pearson explores how gender might have factored in Roshonara’s radicalization, in order to present an alternative to existing theoretical explanations. First, in precluding her from a real-world engagement with Islamism on her terms, gender limitations in the physical world might have pushed her to the Internet. Here, a lack of religious knowledge made her particularly vulnerable to extremist ideology; a susceptibility only increased through Internet socialization and to an active radical milieu. Finally, it might have created a dissonance between her online and multiple “real” gendered identities, resulting in violence.

As yet, there is no adequately proven link between online material and violent acts. But given the current reliance of terrorism research on the online environment, and the reliance of policy on terrorism research, the relationship between the virtual and offline domains must be better understood. So too must the process of “radicalization” — which still lacks clarity, and relies on theorizing that is rife with assumptions. Whatever the challenges, understanding how men and women become violent radicals, and the differences there might be between them, has never been more important.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You note “the Internet has become increasingly attractive to many women extremists in recent years” — do these extremist views tend to be found on (general) social media or on dedicated websites? Presumably these sites are discoverable via fairly basic search?

Elizabeth: Yes and no. Much content is easily found online. ISIS has been very good at ‘colonizing’ popular social media platforms with supporters, and in particular, Twitter was for a period the dominant site. It was ideal as it allowed ISIS fans to find one another, share material, and build networks and communities of support. In the past 18 months Twitter has made a concerted – and largely successful – effort to ‘take down’ or suspend accounts. This may simply have pushed support elsewhere. We know that Telegram is now an important channel for information, for example. Private groups, the dark web and hidden net resources exist alongside open source material on sites such as Facebook, familiar to everyone. Given the illegality of much of this content, there has been huge pressure on companies to respond. Still there is criticism from bodies such as the Home Affairs Select Committee that they are not responding quickly or efficiently enough.

Ed.: This case seemed to represent a collision not just of “violent jihadists vs the West” but also “Salafi-Jihadists vs women” (as well as “Western assumptions of Muslim assumptions of acceptable roles for women”) .. were these the main tensions at play here?

Elizabeth: One of the key aspects of Roshonara’s violence was that it was transgressive. Violent Jihadist groups tend towards conservatism regarding female roles. Although there is no theological reason why women should not participate in the defensive Jihad, they are not encouraged to do so. ISIS has worked hard in its propaganda to keep female roles domestic – yet ideologically so. Roshonara appears to have absorbed Al Awlaki’s messaging regarding the injustices faced by Muslims, but only acted when she saw a video by Azzam, a very key scholar for Al Qaeda supporters, which she understood as justifying female violence. Hatred of western foreign policy, and support for intervention in Iraq appeared to be the motivation for her attack; a belief that women could also fight is what prompted her to carry this out herself.

Ed.: Does this struggle tend to be seen as a political struggle about land and nationhood; or a supranational religious struggle — or both? (with the added complication of Isis conflating nation and religion..)

Elizabeth: Nobody yet understands exactly why people ‘radicalize’. It’s almost impossible to profile violent radicals beyond saying they tend to be mainly male – and as we know, that is not a hard and fast rule either. What we can say is that there are complex factors, and a variety of recurrent themes cited by violent actors, and found in propaganda and messaging. One narrative is about political struggle on behalf of Muslims, who face injustice, particularly from the West. ISIS has made this struggle about the domination of land and nationhood, a development of Al Qaeda’s message. Religion is also important to this. Despite different levels of knowledge of Islam, supporters of the violent Jihad share commitment to battle as justified in the Quran. They believe that Islam is the way, the only way, and they find in their faith an answer to global issues, and whatever is happening personally to them. It is not possible, in my view, to ignore the religious component declared in this struggle. But there are other factors too. That’s what makes this so difficult and complex.

Ed.: You say that Roshonara “did not follow the path of radicalization set out in theory”. How so? But also .. how important and grounded is this “theory” in the practice of counter-radicalization? And what do exceptions like Roshonara Choudhry signify?

Elizabeth: Theory — based on empirical evidence — suggests that violence is a male preserve. Violent Jihadist groups also generally restrict their violence to men, and men only. Theory also tells us that actors rarely carry out violence alone. Belonging is an important part of the violent Jihad and ‘entrance’ to violence is generally through people you know, friends, family, acquaintances. Even where we have seen young women for example travel to join ISIS, this has tended to be facilitated through friends, or online contacts, or family. Roshanara as a female acting alone in this time before ISIS is therefore something quite unusual. She signifies – through her somewhat unique case – just how transgressive female violence is, and just how unusual solitary action is. She also throws into question the role of the internet. The internet alone is not usually sufficient for radicalization; offline contacts matter. In her case there remain some questions of what other contacts may have influenced her violence.

I’m not entirely sure how joined up counter-radicalization practices and radicalization theory are. The Prevent strategy aside, there are many different approaches, in the UK alone. The most successful that I have seen are due to committed individuals who know the communities they are based in and are trusted by them. It is relationships that seem to count, above all else.

Ed.: Do you think her case is an interesting outlier (a “lone wolf” as people commented at the time), or do you think there’s a need for more attention to be paid to gender (and women) in this area, either as potential threats, or solutions?

Elizabeth: Roshonara is a young woman, still in jail for her crime. As I wrote this piece I thought of her as a student at King’s College London, as I am, and I found it therefore all the more affecting that she did what she did. There is a connection through that shared space. So it’s important for me to think of her in human terms, in terms of what her life was like, who her friends were, what her preoccupations were and how she managed, or did not manage, her academic success, her transition to a different identity from the one her parents came from. She is interesting to me because of this, and because she is an outlier. She is an outlier who reveals certain truths about what gender means in the violent Jihad. That means women, yes, but also men, ideas about masculinity, male and female roles. I don’t think we should think of young Muslim people as either ‘threats’ or ‘solutions’. These are not the only possibilities. We should think about society, and how gender works within it, and within particular communities within it.

Ed.: And is gender specifically “relevant” to consider when it comes to Islamic radicalization, or do you see similar gender dynamics across all forms of political and religious extremism?

Elizabeth: My current PhD research considers the relationship between the violent Jihad and the counter-Jihad – cumulative extremism. To me, gender matters in all study. It’s not really anything special or extra, it’s just a recognition that if you are looking at groups you need to take into account the different ways that men and women are affected. To me that seems quite basic, because otherwise you are not really seeing a whole picture. Conservative gender dynamics are certainly also at work in some nationalist groups. The protection of women, the function of women as representative of the honour or dishonour of a group or nation – these matter to groups and ideologies beyond the violent Jihad. However, the counter-Jihad is in other ways progressive, for example promoting narratives of protecting gay rights as well as women’s rights. So women for both need to be protected – but what they need to be protected from and how differs for each. What is important is that the role of women, and of gender, matters in consideration of any ‘extremism’, and indeed in politics more broadly.

Ed.: You’re currently doing research on Boko Haram — are you also looking at gender? And are there any commonalities with the British context you examined in this article?

Elizabeth: Boko Haram interests me because of the ways in which it has transgressed some of the most fundamental gender norms of the Jihad. Since 2014 they have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks using women and girls. This is highly unusual and in fact unprecedented in terms of numbers. How this impacts on their relationship with the international Jihad, and since 2015, ISIS, to whom their leader gave a pledge of allegiance is something I have been thinking about.

There are many local aspects of the Nigerian conflict that do not translate – poverty, the terrain, oral traditions of preaching, human rights violations, Sharia in northern Nigerian states, forced recruitment.. In gender terms however, the role of women, the honour/dishonour of women, and gender-based violence translate across contexts. In particular, women are frequently instrumentalized by movements for a greater cause. Perhaps the greatest similarity is the resistance to the imposition of Western norms, including gender norms, free-mixing between men and women and gender equality. This is a recurrent theme for violent Jihadists and their supporters across geography. They wish to protect the way of life they understand in the Quran, as they believe this is the word of God, and the only true word, superseding all man-made law.

Read the full article: Pearson, E. (2016) The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad. Policy & Internet 8 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.101.

Elizabeth Pearson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.