Of (some) converts and online radicalization

So, another white American female convert has been arrested for allegedly providing aid to terrorists. Shannon Maureen Conley, or as she called herself, Halima Conley, from Colorado. Only 19 years old.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what was going on with her on the basis of media reports. If what they have to say is accurate, she comes across as someone who is very naive, socially isolated, socially awkward, takes things at face value… and doesn’t think before she speaks. Perhaps more of a danger to herself than anyone else—but still, she was apparently warned repeatedly that what she was planning to do is illegal, and she did not desist. What did she expect would happen? Was this some sort of a cry for help? An unconscious effort at self-destruction that unlike cutting or drunk driving or suicide attempts would be “moral” in her mind because she could explain it to herself as “religious persecution”?

As usual, the media is trying to explain how an apparently average American suburban young woman ended up not only converting to Islam but supporting a very extreme fringe group whose calling cards are death and more death.  Some turned to social media in search of clues to her radicalization process, and pointed to pictures that she had posted of herself wearing a baseball cap, a hijab, and then a niqab, as if that “progression” explains everything.


But niqab in and of itself doesn’t signal radicalization. Lots of women wear it for a multitude of reasons, many niqabis are quite apolitical, and several different (and mutually hostile) Muslim groups have promoted its wearing in the last several decades. In fact, scholars or groups that strongly urge (or mandate) face veiling often tend to teach that women’s lives should be focused on marriage and motherhood and the home, and usually regard politics as the business of men. Some individual women decide to wear niqab for pious, aesthetic or even what they see as “feminist” reasons that would not likely meet with the comprehension of many hyper-conservative promoters of niqab. What is more significant is the context of a given woman’s decision to put it on (if only in a photo she posts on Pinterest).

What part of that context might have been is suggested by Halima’s facebook page, which links to another facebook page—“Niqab is Our right.” (Yup, that’s exactly how it’s spelled—and I’m not linking to it, for obvious reasons, but it’s easily searchable.) While the use of the word “right” suggests that the authors of the page  agree with liberal democratic notions of universal human rights (the rights to freedom of religion and/or individual expression particularly), it quickly becomes clear that they are strongly opposed to both democracy and liberalism, and promote Sunni extremist jihadi ideology.

Not being familiar with facebook extremism—which sounds just really bizarre to me even as I type it—I read through the page in order to see what the attraction was. Why would a suburban teenage new convert from Colorado think that it is worth linking to, with its shallow memes and sometimes rather uncertain English? Why might she even find it inspiring or convincing?

Reading through it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of some of the stuff that I had encountered as a new Muslim, back before there was internet. A fair amount of that had been written by Shias (and the Sunni extremists who had put up the facebook page would certainly hate to be compared with them…), which made the similarities seem all the more bizarre to me.

But there they were:

  • The glorification of “martyrdom”
  • Stories about “martyrs” and miracles on the battlefield
  • Sayings of “martyrs”
  • Highly selective quotations of verses of the Qur’an and hadiths, as well as from a few approved “scholars”
  • Memes calling attention to the persecution (whether real or imagined) of Muslims in a number of countries around the world
  • Condemnations of voting or even of  tolerating the rule of Muslim political leaders who are insufficiently pious (which would be all of them, except for the leaders of the approved extremist factions)
  • The idealization of veiled women as the most pure and precious thing ever, and as the symbol of “true Islam” that gives pride to the warriors and inspires them to fight
  • Dramatic photos of women covered from head to toe in black taking part in demonstrations.

Why would such a rather odd (and sometimes contradictory) combination of elements convince anyone (let alone a new female convert) of anything, whether several decades ago or now?

Perhaps for several reasons:

It offers uncomplicated certainty and a sense of moral superiority. It claims that there is one correct set of beliefs and practices, a simple road map that leads to paradise. There are few references to differences of opinion or varying interpretations, whether past or present, and scholars or Muslim opinion makers who do not agree with extremist interpretations are quickly dismissed as “scholars for dollars” or as misled.

It offers an approach to Islam that is apparently open to everyone and anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, family background, convert or born Muslim status, class, educational level, etc, and is seemingly concerned with Muslims’ affairs regardless of their geography. As a result, a reader can fairly easily imagine her/himself as part of this umma, regardless of background.

It presents a simple and idealistic call to action—Muslims are oppressed worldwide, governments everywhere (including those in Muslim countries) as well as nearly all Muslim scholars are corrupt and oppressive. The only answer is to fight them all and install a caliphate. (How exactly that is going to solve any actual problems is never really explained, but then such uncomplicated certainty is part of the attraction of the message—and the creation of a powerful esprit de corps based on “us” against “them.”)

It allows converts to mentally disassociate themselves from almost every problem in Muslim countries or communities by classifying these as “not true Islam” or the results of Muslim societies being ruled by “taghoot.” This cuts down on the dissonance that many converts experience between the theoretical, idealized Islam they read or hear about before they convert and the often disillusioning lived realities that they soon encounter.

It offers adherents the promise of entering into a fantasy world, a myth. An epic struggle between good and evil, where there are no moral complexities or shades of gray. In this fantasy world, young men bravely battle the forces of evil (agents of imperialism, “bad” Muslims, hypocrites, kafirs…) against considerable odds, guided by the wise words of a select number of upright and never-compromising bearded scholars and senior warriors, and inspired by the unmatched purity, modesty and strength of faith of their womenfolk.

Although warriors die in battle, their deaths are miraculously painless (!)—because a hadith says that “the shaheed does not feel any pain from killing except as one of you feels the prick of a needle.” Most of the blood and gore pictured on this site is in pictures of Muslims unjustly killed (mostly by non-Muslims), and the purpose of these is to motivate readers to support the extremists. But although average Muslims die painful and gory deaths, somehow the extremist fighters are made to seem as though they gloriously float above the horror and suffering of war. The reader never has to face some fairly obvious questions about the ethics of violence, or whether supporting yet more murder and mayhem could possibly lead to anything other than more pointless suffering of the innocent.

As for what it offers women in particular: On one hand, it is clear enough that like any other strongly conservative Muslim group, it expects women to veil, get married, bear children and be obedient wives and mothers. Some of the exhortations on the page are chilling indeed, such as the statement that wives should never talk to anyone about any problems in their marriage, “not even under the pretence of seeking help.” Yikes. The meme proclaiming that part of a woman’s beauty is in her silence rather than her speech (and in her veil rather than her face, and in her submission rather than in her leadership, and in her offspring rather than herself) is even more troubling.

But at the same time, the overall tone of much of the page does not focus on advising women to be submissive, and it says little or nothing about a number of common conservative ideas that often are found on hyper-conservative Muslim sites, such as the notion that women cause fitna, or that the majority of the inhabitants of hell will be female, or that women are somehow intellectually or religiously defective. Instead, it emphasizes women’s choices, women’s faith, women’s strength and steadfastness, women’s political action. It presents female members as rebels against convention, as bravely and uncompromisingly resisting social pressures and unjust laws that would strip them of their niqabs and suppress them due to their political views. One meme even acknowledges the possibility that some women may not marry, and states that unmarried women (like Maryam) can achieve spiritual heights. Another speaks of a wife as her husband’s “best friend.”

One theme that this facebook page returns to again and again is the idea that veiled women are beautiful and precious. And what do women have to do in order to be considered beautiful? First and foremost, to wear the niqab, and also live as a faithful, practicing Muslim woman. Nothing is said here about makeup or fashion or cellulite or even (unlike most hyper-conservative Muslim sites) the importance of women adorning themselves for the pleasure of their husbands. The niqab itself as well as the faith of the woman wearing it is spoken of as beautiful. This is an ideal of beauty that in theory is easily achievable by any woman, regardless of her looks or economic resources.

The repeated comparisons of women to diamonds and pearls contrast rather oddly with the photos of young women identically veiled in black holding protest signs with in-your-face slogans such as “Democracy call of the kaffirs” and “Freedom go to hell.” In this mythical world, women get to imagine themselves in different, even opposing ways—as precious, fragile princesses that good, brave and handsome young men will fight in order to protect, and at the same time as strong mujahidas who unhesitatingly stand up to “the kuffaar” and steadfastly support their male counterparts. The illusion is created here that women can in a sense have it all—the outward appearance of a pious and unquestionably authentic “true Muslim woman” along with individual choice, self-determination, and a powerful role in changing the world.

How this vision would actually work out in reality is not discussed. Questions such as domestic violence or marital rape, or what options a wife has if her husband takes a second wife or divorces her and refuses to allow her access to her children are not dealt with. What is presented instead is a rosy, idealized picture of husbands and wives striving together harmoniously, united by their devotion to God and their allegiance to a common political cause—which not coincidentally relieves the reader of having to consider such troubling matters. (Marriage to a gun-toting battle-hardened “brother” you hardly know in a war zone on the other side of the world with no one to turn to if things turn sour except maybe some other “brothers” who share his worldview—what could possibly go wrong??)

All in all, it is a good example of jihadi marketing aimed at the vulnerable. While the page does occasionally hint at a darker side of this shiny picture, overall it avoids acknowledging that there could possibly be any moral objections or real-life problems to the worldview that they are promoting.



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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on July 7, 2014 - 1:08 am

    I think also a common issue that perpetuates this mythology is the oft repeated reminder that Muslim women should not go out unless necessary. Converts do not have a wide circle of Muslim friends who can address this cognitive dissonance or dispel the idealization by their examples or conversations. So the fantasy remains long after conversion, in many cases, I am sure.
    I think all your points ring true, very alluring stuff for youth searching for their own identities.
    By the way, I was one of those told by a very well respected woman in the local ummah that I should never speak to anyone of what goes on in my marriage. It was the only advice I was given upon nikah, and I held to it. Oops. Not my best decision.

    • #2 by xcwn on July 7, 2014 - 1:43 am

      Wow, that’s appallingly bad marriage advice—that’s basically designed to shield abusers. It’s a huge red flag, and people giving that sort of advice should be held accountable. (Yeah, I know, such accountability would only happen in my dreams.)

      I’m glad you’re out of that situation now.

  2. #3 by nmr on July 7, 2014 - 2:34 pm

    Just an excellent analysis! Are you the equivalent of Facebook-reality-check-ism?

    • #4 by xcwn on July 7, 2014 - 7:11 pm

      Thanks, glad you like it… but what is facebook-reality-check-ism??

      • #5 by nmr on July 7, 2014 - 7:37 pm

        The direct opposite of facebook-jihadism = anti-marketing device. Kinda like “Consumer Reports”.

      • #6 by xcwn on July 7, 2014 - 8:58 pm

        Oh. I guess that’s what I’m doing, although I didn’t plan to.
        It would be great if someone (not me) would start a Muslim version of Consumer Reports. 🙂

  3. #7 by Laury Silvers on July 10, 2014 - 1:27 pm

    I like that idea that SSL is the Consumer Reports of “Muslim Discourses on Women.” Agreed with NMR, solid analysis. I would love to see this kind of thing get onto the news instead of the drivel we get.

    • #8 by xcwn on July 11, 2014 - 1:34 am

      If we want to see this thing get onto the news, we have to write it.
      For those of you on facebook, can I suggest a day of critiquing jihadi recruiting blogs? (Or a day for taking apart RIS talks on women, or… etc). An army of facebook posters cannot fail. 🙂

      • #9 by A on July 13, 2014 - 11:04 pm


  4. #10 by Tahir on July 27, 2014 - 6:58 pm

    That’s a comprehensive analysis you have done there yet some more reasons are like government’s failure to be vigilant of jihadi activities on social media, ban on religious hatred and promoting religious harmony among communities.

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