“She used to watch ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ and stuff like that, so there was nothing that indicated that she was radicalized in any way — not at home.” So said Sahima Begum in her testimony before the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee in London this month. She was speaking about her sister Shamima, 15, who together with Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15, absconded from England last month to Turkey, eventually crossing the border into Syria.
Begum’s statement was meant to sound exculpatory. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” a brash, shameless reality TV show about young wealthy socialites, is emphatically not “Although the Disbelievers Dislike It,” an Islamic State video released in November depicting the beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers. Had Sahima said her sister “had an IS flag on her wall,” the media would have castigated the family for doing nothing to stop Shamima’s “radicalization.” The emphasis on Shamima’s quotidian interests served to immunize the family from outside censure, as well as forestall further interference from law enforcement.
This isn’t to say that Begum’s comment was not sincere, and there is no evidence to suggest that the family’s shock and disbelief has been fabricated. Neither, however, was it exactly unscripted. In fact, it closely adhered to what is fast becoming a standard narrative in news reports on terrorists, in which family, friends and former teachers are filmed or quoted expressing their amazement at how the ordinary person they knew could have committed such an outrage.
He was such “a nice lad who could get on with anyone,” said one neighbor. And, no, the subject of this bromide wasn’t the “quiet and reserved” and “polite” Mohammad Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born Londoner who was exposed recently as the Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John.” It was another Mohammad: Sidique Khan, one of the four British men who carried out the July 7, 2005, London bombings.
“Some newspaper stories,” Christopher Hitchens once observed, “quite simply write themselves.” He was referring to reports on serial killers and child molesters, and the journalistic tendency to record the disbelief of neighbors who “feel duty-bound to say that this has come as a great shock, not to say a complete surprise, and that the guy next door seemed perfectly decent — if perhaps a little inclined to ‘keep to himself.’” Terrorists are the new everyman next door who, according to the script we have written for them, transform, without warning, from angelic-looking children into megalomaniacal monsters.
How does this transformation happen, if that’s even what it is?
Foreign militants in Syria would probably say that nothing but their conscience and sense of justice “drove” them to join Islamic State. Reportage on Shamima Begum and her two co-conspirators, meanwhile, has tended to focus on how they became “brainwashed.” The emphasis is on how outsiders, like the Scottish “jihadi bride” Aqsa Mahmood, who is now in Syria and is thought to have been in touch with one of the girls, manipulated them. In these accounts, there is no sense of agency, of actual persons with real desires. More crucially, the implicit assumption is that Islamic State is a repulsive place that no normal person would want to even visit.
This needs revising. Islamic State may look like a dystopia, but this is not how wannabe fighters see it. And while their jihadi talk may sound crazy, their longings may not be wholly different from those that have prompted other radical departures.
In his memoir “The Warriors: Reflections of Men in Battle,” J. Glenn Gray, a U.S. intelligence officer in World War II, writes that “the majority of us, restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our present state. We want more out of life than we are getting and are always half-ready to chance everything on the realization of great expectations.” Gray confesses that in his early manhood he longed for one more war in which he might participate: “Though I never spoke of such a wish, and regard it today with considerable dismay, I cannot deny that it was an important part of the aspirations of my youth.”
Philip Caputo says something nearly identical about his own motives for enlisting in the U.S. Army prior to the outbreak of the Vietnam War. “I wanted a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.”
It is not inconceivable that Shamima Begum and her two fellow travelers were animated by the same desires and impulses, and were searching, above all, for an escape from their humdrum everyday lives and for transcendence of self through total commitment to a sacred cause.
Sahima Begum prefaced her remark about her sister’s TV habits by saying, “My sister was into normal teenage things.” But while “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” makes for perfectly conventional TV viewing, the reality it depicts, with its larger-than-life characters, is far from “normal.” On the contrary, it is a window into a distant, albeit fabricated, world.
Islamic State, it’s been said, is an amalgam of a terrorist organization and insurgent army. It is also, like the best reality TV, a fantastically compelling viewing spectacle. We watch aghast at its moral depravity — but we watch nonetheless, transfixed by atrocity. The Islamic State show is slick and exciting, and there are twists and turns. It is also edgy and, with its cast of sword-wielding, horse-riding, hair-raising holy warriors, profoundly exotic, offering a version of reality that is a stark counterpoint to life in the West.
For some, this carefully crafted spectacle is powerfully seductive and — entirely unlike the Kardashian world — seemingly attainable. Islamic State tells us: Come to the land of the caliphate. Do not live under kuffar. Exchange your meaningless life for the beauty and security of Islamic State. Reinvent yourself. Find peace and belonging and happiness.
Perhaps Shamima Begum, in between keeping up with the Kardashians, had also found time to watch last August’s soulful 22-minute Islamic State video “Eid Greetings From The Land of Khilafah,” in which a contingent of mostly English-speaking émigrés wax lyrical about the spiritual satisfactions of living in the Islamic State, all the while beseeching their audience to join them.
In recent months, debate over Islamic State has centered on one large question: namely, how Islamic is it? A potentially richer question about Islamic State is how much it owes not to Islam, but to more universal desires and longings — and how, more practically, it exploits these in what is arguably the most compelling reality TV show on earth.
Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at Kent University, England.