By Akbar Ahmad
Farhana Qazi, an American Pakistani, a senior counter-terrorism professional is the nearest equivalent to a female Muslim James Bond or Felix Leiter, forever battling the bad guys in a penumbral world. But as her writing sillustrate, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys and pin-point where the truth ends and falsehood begins.
Farhana’s recent book, Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals, allows us extraordinary insights. To it she brings a rare combination of compassion and experience in dealing with terrorist cells and groups; this is where she parts company from Flemings’ spies whose cynicism remains high at all times. In contrast, Farhana becomes more and more compassionate as she proceeds deeper into what she calls “the dark and disturbing world of religious extremism.” Indeed Farhana has, almost inevitably, rediscovered her own sense of identity through her work; her dedication references mercy from the Quran and the saying of the Prophet (pbuh).
Farhana’s interest is both academic and humane. While she wishes to help us understand why women become terrorists, she hopes that we will also understand their motives with empathy. This is where her faith influences her academic objectivity. In the end she is the nurturing guide rather than the betrayer of secrets. It is a fascinating journey into a murky, violent and unpleasant world.
Rather than a problem contributing to terrorism, as has been argued by commentators, Farhana believes Islam to be the solution. “Islam is a religion of peace, mercy, and compassion,” she writes,“radical women (and men) destroyed the teachings of Islam by recreating scripture through visions of death.” For Farhana, the genuine teachings of Islammay provide an alternate route for such women.
Born in Lahore and raised in the US, the self-described “Punjabi girl from Texas,” joined the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism Center in 2000 as one of the center’s youngest analysts and its first Muslim. That same day, Al-Qaeda launched an attack on the USS Cole, killing 17 American sailors and injuring another 40. Farhana had a mission to “fight the enemies of America.”
She struggled, however, as the only Muslim in the center, but recalled, “I knew I had to persuade and prevail in an environment where intolerance and ignorance of my faith persisted.” She was guided in her work by her graduate studies professor at George Washington University, Dr. Jerrold Post, a prominent psychiatrist who studied terrorism.Farhana writes that Post, the author of her book’s foreword, taught her that terrorists “could also be heartbreakingly human.”
Farhana recounts one question from a senior official that consumed her for her entire career: “Why do some women kill?”“For years,” she writes, “I have had to address this simple question with complex answers.” What, she wanted to understand, were the factors motivating these women dying for a cause, or what she calls “love’s martyrs.”
The primary draws to extremism, she argues, can be explained through what she calls “the Three Cs”: culture, context, and capability. Culture has a significant impact as in some Muslim cultures male terrorist leaders find it acceptable to extol female martyrs when it advances their cause, while in other Muslim cultures “a woman’s taking on the role of a man can be perceived as shameful to a man’s pride and ego,” which helps explain why there have been so few female bombers in Afghanistan and Pakistan compared to Palestine.
The second C, context, relates to looking for contextual clues about the draws women feel to extremism, “such as exposure to trauma, violence, or abuse, or…feelings of rage, anxiety or depression.” Capability, she argues, relates to the competence of the women who are drawn to violence as it indicates the ability of such women to inflict harm.But she admits, “the Three Cs is anything but an all-inclusive model…it may appear limited by other macro-level root causes” and “there is no absolute guide to the drivers of violent extremism.” “Above all,” she writes, “I have learned that the motives of women are personal.”
She gives the example of Sadia, a Kashmiri woman in “Indian-held Kashmir” who volunteered for a suicide mission. She contrasts Sadia’s mother who fought for Kashmir with Sadia, a woman who looked toward suicide as a way to bring attention to the conflict in Kashmir. She recalled:“The young woman I called Sadia led the protest with one arm swinging through the air… In sharp tones, they chanted: ‘What do we want? Azaadi! What do we need? Azaadi! What are we fighting for? We want freedom! Kashmir belongs to us!’”
While Sadia had wanted to volunteer for a suicide mission, the men denied her request. To Farhana, this exemplified the importance of culture in determining the violence of women.
For younger girls, these organizations and their international contacts offer an escape from the suffocation and ennui that everyday humdrum life brings. Farhana looked at a case of three girls from a Somali immigrant community in Denver, Colorado, and what their lives were like before and after they were caught trying to run away to Syria. The community is very protective, so when the girls returned the adults tried to crack down on their daughters. Many were only allowed to go to school, to the mosque, and back home. One of the three girls was even taken out of school, so she had even less freedom.
Yet women who pursue positive, peaceful means of enacting change, she observes, far outnumber the women that prefer violence. The problem will not fix itself, however. Family units need to be strengthened so that there is not a need for parents to be overly strict since strictness can lead children to seek religious guidance online, which can lead them to inaccurate and destructive religious interpretations. Most importantly, children need to learn the loving, caring Islam from the time they are young so that they know what the real Islam is and what the wrong Islam is when they are confronted with it.
Invisible Martyrs should be considered essential reading for anyone wanting to better understand why individuals join terrorist organizations and how the circumstances that lead women to violence can be understood and addressed.Farhana, who teaches at George Washington University,is widely acknowledged in her field and has won many awards. She has much to give to her community. Neither she nor her work are as well known as they should be. It is time for her to step out of the shadows and into the sunlight. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will benefit.
(The writer is the IbnKhaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity)