In November 2015, when the world was shocked as a group of militant youth brutally murdered 130 people in Paris, many people found themselves asking: what kind of person would do such a horrible thing? Who are these people who are doing this?
The problem is that we are asking the wrong question: the issue is not what kind of person, nor who they were before they became a human weapon; the correct question is, how are people being persuaded to do such a horrible thing, and how can any of us become capable of becoming the tool of another.
There is one young woman in Brussels who understands this all too well. In an article published in The Guardian on November 26, correspondent Jason Burke paints a vivid picture of an idealistic student who, like so many of us, was only searching for a bit of community, a place to contribute, a way to make a better world for herself and others. Described as a ray of sunshine by teachers, this girl was an ordinary Belgian student, wearing jeans and nail polish, listening to gangsta rap and chatting with friends in bars, fluent in both Flemish and French, as well as speaking the Arabic of her grandparents and even a bit of English. In every way, this young woman was just like any student found at any university in a developed nation: friendly, intelligent, passionate, and idealistic.
In countries where young women can make their own choices, traditional garb such as hijab, chador and jilbab are adopted and discarded according to personal taste and desire for cultural expression. This student first donned the headscarf and loose-fitting robe to hide a few extra pounds a fashion choice almost any woman would readily understand (indeed, its a wonder that Western women have not adopted the ayala, or any of the headscarves worn by their Muslim sisters, as these styles would certainly be a boon to anyone suffering from a bad hair day).
Social media is a wonderful thing; today, billions of people connect with others through the internet, and we all make new friends every day. Nothing could seem more natural, then, for the student to accept an invitation from a new friend who contacted her to compliment her on her new look; the initial shopping trip together led with a group of women who talked fervently about a better world a place without crime, without the callous racism she had grown up with in a country of her birth, where many still considered her an outsider for her religion. When the women spoke of how wonderful life was in the Islamic State, and how a good husband would be easy to find, the student found it easy to imagine a better world, where she could live without persecution or fear. She withdrew from her old life, saw her former friends and her family less and less, spending all her free time with this new Sisterhood. Every discussion was swayed to the group opinion; every experience was colored by the perceptions fed to her by this new clique. She was told of how she must do her duty and go to Syria to do her part.
Soon, she was given a cellphone and instructions. What would have happened to her if she had gone to live in the Islamic State is not clear, but it is safe to say that her family and her old friends would never have seen her again. In recalling the experience, the young woman can only say: I was not thinking my thoughts.
The missing element here is the hours of social cues, the slow indoctrination, the recruit carefully led through an education program designed to turn a malleable and thoughtful university student into a hardened and unthinking radical, ready to obey any command.
It is a blessing indeed that this young woman did not follow through with the plans of her sisterhood; she ended up refusing to follow orders, the cellphone smashed on the railway tracks. However, countless young people still remain in danger, and we at the OMF are committed to finding ways to educate them to the perils of following the crowd.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about radicalization that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!