Why Do Westerners Join ISIS?

By Ken Chitwood 9-26-2014
ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com
ISIS flag, Trybex / Shutterstock.com

Whether ISIS is "Islamic," or a "state," it is definitely terrifying. As it terrorizes the Levant — killing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and other religious/cultural minorities in Syria and Iraq — and takes the lives of Western journalists, it strikes fear in the hearts of many.

Swirling around the alarming analysis are the rumors and realities of individuals from Europe and the U.S. joining the ranks of ISIS and fighting for their "cause."

The intelligence organization Soufan Group recently released a report stating that fighters from at least 81 countries have traveled to Syria since its three-year conflict began. Hundreds of recruits come from nations like France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S.

Of all the fearful intimations of this conflict, this feature seems to be the most frightening to many in the West. Could it be that my neighbor is a secret jihadi? Are redheads (a "pure" European stock) more prone to terrorism? Are mosques their hideouts? Regardless of the judiciousness of these questions, underlying them all is the question "why?" Why would someone leave the West to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq?

According to the Soufan report, those that leave for the Middle East to fight are typically 18-29 year-old men (some as young as 15) and some Western women who join with their spouses, or come alone to become "jihadi brides." These men and women are Islamic, often second or third generation immigrants, though very few have prior connections with Syria.

Why do they join? Is it religious devotion? Psychological imbalance? Tendency toward radical movements and anarchy? All of these motivations may play a part, but my argument is that these men and women who leave their Western homes for the dunes of terror are lonely.

These Western jihadis are isolated — that is why they join ISIS.

In his book Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Olivier Roy says that in the passage to the West, Islam as a religion (and its practitioners) undergo a deterritorializing, deculturalizing, and destabilizing process that, both of us argue, leaves individuals in search for a new ummah (global Islamic community, on the macro level) and a new community (on the micro level).

As Islam is less and less associated with a specific nation, tribe, or territory (deterritorialization) the lines between Islam and the West become blurred. This leads to Islamization and a renewed and revived effort to stake a clear claim for Islam in the modern world. This Islamic revival can be either progressive or conservative, but it leaves the individual Muslim with a choice. This choice is problematized by the fact that, often, to be "Muslim" is necessary for the sake of identification in the West.

In the West, Islam undergoes a deculturalization process, which leaves the term "Muslim" as the sole identifier (as opposed to Egyptian, Somali, Indonesian, Bosnian, Argentinian, etc.). Muslims lose their sense of culture in the West, no longer able to identify according to their ethnic heritage or national identity. In this environment, where religion defines identity, two things happen: 1) Muslims feel they must ratify their credentials — prove they are really, and truly, "Muslim" to people within, and on the outside, of their community, or 2) having broken with the culture of their past, second and third generation Muslim migrants who are part of, but do not feel integrated into, Western society choose to reconstruct their identity along strict Islamic lines.

This whole process is quite destabilizing as it continues to isolate the individual from their former identity markers — family, culture, nation. Everything that used to define them — their culture, their dress, their economic standing, their political affiliation — breaks down in the West and they are left with Islam alone to rebuild themselves. In this process is offered, what Roy calls, "the realization of the self." (37) Islam becomes the way that the marginalized and lonely Muslim in the West can reconstruct their identity.

Of course, this self cannot be reconstructed alone. There needs to be a community within which it can be rebuilt and resurrected. Enter ISIS.

"Neofundamentalist" (Roy prefers this term over 'Salafi') jihadi groups offer answers to what ails secluded Muslims in the West. Their community is built upon the free association of individuals and voluntary devotion to the community's cause. It is a "reconstructed ummah," one in which the individual plays an oversized role.

However, the ummah is never really reconstructed. Terror groups rarely have an end goal in mind. They do not wish to establish an "Islamic state," no matter what they call themselves. They are comfortable with the deterritorialized condition and the destabilized nature of the world and continually leave it up to individuals to construct the community and define its norms. In the process, fanaticism and radicalism germinate as insecurity about the borders of the community intensify. The lonely jihadi who left the West for "true Muslim community," finds that the lines are blurred even within ISIS. The loneliness and deep inner questions continue.

In the midst of this "imagined ummah" undertaking, groups like ISIS inculcate a sixth pillar of 'individual jihad' to give purpose to the life of the wayward Muslim. "This overemphasis on personal jihad complements the lonely situation of the militants, who do not follow their natural community, but join an imagined one." (42) Fighting and, to a greater degree, giving one's life to the cause, becomes the "ultimate proof" not only of one's religious devotion, but also of one's "reform of the self." (289) All the while, in search of a new community, the jihadi remains alone, isolated, and solitary especially in suicide attacks.

This is why bombing, however "strategic," will not stem the tide against terror organizations such as ISIS. Unfortunately, where integration or assimilation into Western societies is eschewed, the neofundamentalist path towards isolation, both externally and internally imposed, begins. Of course, not all marginalized Muslims in the West join jihadi groups. Some of them simply choose to live shut off from Western influence even as they live in the West. However, for those who do not find that such closed communities fit the bill, radical Islamic terror groups call out ever stronger.

Thus, programs for integration and assimilation — at the national, local, and personal levels — are the only way to "fight" ISIS and restrict the flow of Westerners joining their ranks. Assimilation should not mean that Muslims must give up the authentic beliefs and practices of their faith. Integration does not lead to Islamization or the imposition of shariah law. It is, instead, a friendly policy towards Muslims in the West that leads all of us, Muslim and Christian/Jew/agnostic/etc. deeper into a real community where identity is not solely defined by religion, but also historic cultural, and new national, characteristics.

Christians can be engaged at both the personal and congregational level. It begins with paying attention and recognizing the Muslim communities and individual Muslim families in your neighborhood and community; then, the impetus to find, and form, appropriate and respectful relationships. Once a friendship is established, take the time to listen, learn, and value their Islamic faith and practice. This friendship is best established, and nourished, through dining together, dialogue events, and interfaith community projects. These friendly encounters will not only build new bridges between Muslims and Christians, but also integrate isolated Muslims into the fold of their new communities making a home for them beyond the boundaries of religion and ethnicity.

These types of efforts, more than bombs and bombastic rhetoric, are how we can combat the lonely jihadi and make a significant contribution to peace in the Middle East, and indeed, across the globe.

Ken Chitwood is a religion scholar, PhD student, & graduate assistant at University of Florida studying ethnography of Religion in the Americas with emphases on globalization, transnationalism, immigration, Latina/o religion, & Islam.

Image: ISIS flag,  / Shutterstock.com

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