I Choose Compassion: Muslim Reformer on ISIS Brides

Photo: Ivor Prickett / The New York Times

The cases of U.K.’s Shamima Begum and U.S.’ Hoda Muthana is the story of two young girls who radicalized online and in Western countries, who then escaped to join a death cult and become ISIS brides.

I’ve been closely following the story for the last week, including gathering the respected collective views and analysis of peers, which will be published shortly on Clarion Project.

I understand the decision of Western states to revoke citizenship and deny re-entry. I understand the hatred, contempt and the distance citizens of Western states want to put between themselves and ISIS brides.

I’ve heard the testimony of both young women and recognize there is still a severe disassociation between their behavior and their understanding of their behavior. I don’t think they grasp the severity of what they have done. I don’t know if their requests to “return home” are based on circumstances or any morsel of sincere remorse. I don’t know because I’m not psychic and can’t look into the human heart and assume I know what drives it.

All week, between the cracks of my day-to-day life, I explored the labyrinth of my own heart to see — to listen. Reality is a kaleidoscope and each lens gave me a different answer.

As a Muslim Reformer, an assertion of nationally-driven values rose up, values that almost without exception all like-minded individuals have rallied around: these are not our values, and you do not belong here. Reformer or not, this was the consensus and it made shifting into another lens that much more difficult because I know that any deviation from the norm will likely be punished.

As an advocate on preventing violent extremism, I thought this is the far end of the conveyor belt. When the conveyor belt is destroyed or stops churning people, what becomes of the people left on the belt? That is a question we’re going to have answer, if not today then tomorrow.

And then there is the third lens — the lens I try very hard to shift into, or allow it to shift me. That is the lens beyond the trenches of what a dear friend calls “human stories,” beyond the noise and chaos of the tribes, reactions, and labels, and towards something bigger than ourselves.

If we were not mired by the pits of human struggle, fear, and survival, what would the pinnacle of human society look like? How would we behave? Who would we be?

At every point, on every issue, I try to look to that. God knows I don’t always get it right and I’m still learning how to shift into this third lens. Remaining for a period in the Cavity of Silence, for as long as possible whenever possible, is instrumental for me. I know what surfaces there is more true than the noise of the upper world of human stories.

And so I choose compassion. I choose to have compassion toward women who became what I could have easily become at some point myself, if my world was aligned slightly differently. It is not hard for me to imagine that that could have been me. I know what abuse and manipulation feels like and how easy it is to get swept up into it, and not realizing you’re so far off course. It’s happened to me in many ways over time. That could have been me.

Growing up in a cultural (and perhaps even theologically) maladapted home or niche society is a form of abuse that primed these women for the choices they made. Their parents failed them and their community failed them long before they failed themselves.

As a woman who suffered abuse, something in you at some point changes — especially when you become a mother. Becoming a mother changes you. Becoming a mother is an invitation to understanding the true nature of God. It is an opening.

When I look at Hoda Muthana and Shamima Begum, I don’t just see two women who have a long way to go in understanding the gravity of what they’ve done and why they’ve done it….

I also see two innocent children. I see two lives with limitless potential if and only if they are under the care and protection of an advanced civilization that understands human behavior and knows how to nourish human excellence.

No civilization on earth is there yet, but the West is the closest thing to it and we have the potential to get there.

Everything we fight for in the West with our trillions of dollars in weaponry, warfare, the innumerable human cost and suffering, is so that we can destroy an ideology. Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana are two vessels that are open to shifting their lens away from hate and toward rehabilitation and integration. They don’t have the answers or even the capacity to speak in language the shows evolution or growth. It is unreasonable for us to expect them to be transformed gurus of change. They are broken. That is very clear in just listening to them. But in being broken they are also open to a shift. And they bring with them two blank slates who will certainly be lost to war, famine, exploitation — and if they live long enough — to radicalization.

Or these two little innocent humans can flourish, maybe even learn from the compassion shown to their mothers, benefit from the rehabilitation of the most powerful female influences imprinting their lives. If we can change the mothers, we can change the children. But we have to be willing to shift into the third lens to do it.

Winning that war isn’t in the rivets of a plane or the casings of a bullet; that war can only be won hearts and minds. More literally, in the brain and in the spirit. Every single human being — if we want to momentarily shift our perspective to a language that the military industry will respect — is a tool or a weapon that can be understood and engineered to our advantage.

Of course Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana will have to pay the consequences, but a future society also understands that manipulation is a thing, and that compassion is not a binary that requires hard forgiveness. They don’t have to be granted citizenship. They don’t have to be allowed back into our countries. But we cannot ignore they exist and that more will follow them knocking at our doors… or that many are already there but don’t carry the spotlight of international stories. We cannot forever act like no one is home, that people on the other side of the door don’t exist.

If we’re winning the war against terror — if we’re doing this right — more will come. If we don’t find a way to fold them back into our values and civilization — whatever an adjunct portion of our civilization needs to look like to make space for them while keeping civilians feeling safe and comfortable — then we’re fueling more civilizational rifts. A growing multi-generational population even more vulnerable to extreme terror and radicalization, caught in the rift of having no identity, no belonging, no future, no choice, no hope.

I’m not ok with that.

I have a young, vulnerable 8-year-old son. I cannot imagine him or any child living in a state of total chaos. I don’t care whether the child is mine or someone else’s. If we can help the most vulnerable human population, we do it. We can figure out a way to make that happen. Otherwise, what is the point of us.