Aqsa Mahmood, the ISIS bride
I might be wrong but I believe I can almost imagine her. I can imagine her thoughts, her anguish, her pain and her emotions. I can imagine her heart nagging her as she would watch those numbers, those scenes of brutality, death and destruction on television, newspapers and social media; feeding on the truth and on Western propaganda against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
I can imagine as she would study extremist religious content and wake up every day feeling that everything she has done, everything she is doing, this whole world, is so pointless. She should rather be doing something for her real life – her afterlife. She should do something for her brothers and sisters being killed, raped and wounded in Syria.
So Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old British woman of Pakistani origin, left her home to go to Syria last year where she joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), married an ISIS fighter and moved on to Iraq.
I am not apologising for her, I am not even justifying her actions or showing sympathy for her. She does not deserve it.
I am just trying to understand her.
It is painful and unfortunate because she was someone who, apparently, had the opportunity to achieve so many other things. Yet, her emotional depth, will and strength of character to feel the pain of others and to work for them in the way she deemed right, made her take the path that she did. In the process, however, she has been wasted and destroyed, because she went off in the wrong direction.
And she wasn’t the only one either. There are many others like her with similar sentiments, who have ended up where she did. Another 26-year-old Malaysian doctor, calling herself ‘Shams’ on social media, also travelled to help in Syria, joined ISIS and married an ISIS fighter because she believed it was her ‘duty’ to help her brothers and sisters.
If Aqsa Mahmood’s parents are to be believed, and I admit they are not the best source since they must be scared for themselves and her siblings, there was no other fundamentalist involved; no one egging her on to the path she took. She was an integrated member of the society and attended college as a successful student. She only studied religion on her own, as highlighted by the phrase the media has been using for her – she was a ‘bedroom radical’.
This puts question marks on a lot of things. While it is true that we only see what we want to see, no one is born knowing what he/she wants to see. While of course our disposition plays a part, it is the society and our experiences which shape our paradigm. So before anything else, her radicalisation puts a question mark on the British society. In the larger context, it also puts a question mark on the actions of several governments, for example the USA, Saudi Arabia, Britain itself among others. But more than anything else, it puts a question mark on Muslims and their interpretation of Islam.
I know the popular argument; the one presented by people of all religions whenever they tend to disagree with interpretations of religion: this isn’t what our religion really is, this isn’t real Islam.
One might question, what is then? For some, Islam is, apart from some basic injunctions and boundaries, exactly what the believer understands it be, at least for those of us who bother to think. For others, unfortunately the majority, real Islam is the Islam that the clerics present, the radical Islam. This Islam is the one that drives ISIS, Taliban, al Qaeda and their cohorts; the Islam that is based on the literal interpretation of some of the Quranic text and the Islam that was indeed practised centuries ago. It is the Islam that is out-dated for the realms of the contemporary world.
What religions need today is the adoption of the spirit behind the religious texts and the practice of prophets; what Muslims need is Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) political sagacity and pragmatism, his kindness and perseverance; we need the rationalism of Mu’tazilites and the open-mindedness of Sufis. We need to learn to care about this world and its people; we need to understand that the way forward for any religion in the contemporary world is through its ability to instil compassion and humility in humans and to work for the economic wellbeing and scientific progress of the world at large and not fighting or conquering others.
Perhaps learn a bit from the people who, according to us, control the world through economic means and whom we claim to understand and know. And above all what we need is to live in 21st century – not in seventh century like we have been living for the past 1400 years.
We need all this and more. On one hand, I imagine Aqsa Mahmood, ‘Dr Shams’ and many others like them could have led a different life had they not set out on the path of violence and militancy. On the other hand, however, I imagine their wasted life and imminent deaths for fake words and false promises. The life that is leading them to nothing but what they set out to cure: death and destruction.
And this comparison, this imagination is so heart rending that I don’t want to imagine anyone else like that again, ever.