Why I Could Have Joined ISIS Back Then – The Evil of “Cultish” Mindset

When I first heard about teenage girls in the West leaving their homes to join ISIS, I couldn’t begin to fathom how and why they would overlook the obvious evil of ISIS. But as I started reading their stories, their motivations and the baits thrown their way; I began recalling my own teen days as a member of The Ameer Club* nearly two decades ago.

Honestly, I know how it feels to be trapped in a cult mentality.  Although it has been almost eighteen years and I have totally moved on from it, I can still remember the appeal of belonging to something different, tasting the thrill of rebellion especially when it is guilt-free— because it is “for a higher purpose”.

Before causing any confusions, let me state very clearly: the only thing in common between The Ameer Club and ISIS is the cultish mindset and slow brainwashing. My sole purpose is to show how– knowingly or unknowingly– young girls can become targets of a cult. This similarity highlights the need of embracing non-typical parenting by our societies, and the need for female leadership within Muslim communities.

I interviewed a 17 year old British Muslim who was almost swayed by the tactics of ISIS through Twitter last year but alhamdulillah pulled out before it was too late. (Editor’s Note: This interview will be published in a followup article). The journey she described and many ISIS strategies that she recalled showed patterns and effects on young girls, parallel to what happened with me as a teenager and to many teens who are affected by cults in various parts of the world

Some groups are more dangerous than others. But once trapped in a cult’s ideology mindset, one fails to see outside the box, and it is that state of mind that can deviate young, seemingly level headed, women into leaving their loved ones and joining ISIS, foolishly believing that they are serving a higher purpose of spirituality and religiosity; just as I did when I was stuck in such a mentality that caused a lot of harm not only to myself but also to my Muslim community as I had believed that I was establishing good and repelling evil.

TAC was an active organization led by young adults and very different from the rest of the community. It called to a unique methodology that most Islamic organizations at the time disputed. Many leading-members of TAC were fierce, outspoken and fearless. The rest of the Muslim community often sidelined them because TAC’s leading-members were unusually harsh and brash. But instead of being a cause of concern, this became our organization’s stamp of pride. It was thrilling and also fulfilling because the leadership gave us a sense of direction, laid out strong but precise goals in life and always gave specific black and white answers to all questions under an Islamic guise.

Like this?
Get more of our great articles.

If I were to go through a list of characteristics associated with cult groups, I can easily check off more than 50% of the list of traits that were present in me and the in-crowd of TAC back then. For example, one of the signs of a cult-movement is the belief that we were the only ones steered in the “right” direction and every other sect else is misguided. Most of our lectures started with the reminder about the hadeeth of 73 sects, and we were brainwashed into firmly believing that every other sect of Islam was destined to hellfire. And that other Muslims who simply weren’t as conservative as us and didn’t 100% agree with us, were entirely another sect!

This was very different from how I was raised, without any specific guidance on how to practice the religion and without a passion for it. For the first time in my life, I learned about the evil of “innovations in acts of worship”. Along with this, we were taught about the necessity of eliminating it from our community. Members were lauded for openly calling out (in extreme and offensive ways) the innovative practices that occurred within our mosques. “Establishing good and forbidding evil” was taken to an extreme level by TAC’s leading members going to gatherings where ‘innovations’ took place, just to denounce the practice. One common tactic was to purposely attend lectures by “off the manhaj” speakers to openly rebuke them while they were speaking. Siraj Wahhaj, Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Jamal Badawi were some of the prime targets. We actually went through the phase of doing whatever we could within our power to “purify” our city from Hamza Yusuf and co.

A female TAC leader once wrote a refutation in the newsletter of the largest Islamic Society in the city simply because they had added a few more lines to the Eid-takbeerat. As Bidah-phobic as we were, she sardonically pointed out the “evil” that had been done by the addition of a few lines. I personally admired that girl for her courage and strength! Whether adding takbeerat to eid prayer is an act of bid’ah or not, but criticizing an organization in such a manner for a few mistakes while ignoring the tremendous good that the organization had done for the community was not a way of establishing good. Islam teaches us that causing fitnah is a greater sin than killing someone, but I justified causing fitnah in our communities, along with other members of our cadre in the organization, because it was for Islam.

I can only thank Allah that although TAC-leadership made extreme demands of us to fit their particular worldview, it never posited or supported violent positions, nor did it call for any bloodshed. TAC was not pro-khilafah, nor was it interested in changing governments. We were told to never sign any petitions, and never participate in any protests because we were taught not to “beg the kuffaars”. In fact, we were taught to stay firm against politics and any political involvement, that’s why we opposed CAIR, MAS or any Muslim organization that showed support for civic engagement.

TAC was pro-Hijrah [migration for the sake of Allah] and “change via education”, not through khilafah, government or politics. We were taught to focus on educating “deviant” Muslims (which constituted majority of Muslims!) and calling non-Muslims to Islam.

Everything was “haram”, from voting to participating in on-campus food fairs, even bake sales were forbidden! We opposed local Muslim organizations, mosques, and we especially hated ICNA and ISNA. We were bent on importing “fatwas” from Saudi scholars and implemented them blindly without ever distinguishing the legitimate cultural differences, hence most western non-religious norms became wrong and any Muslim involved in those “norms” was “imitating kuffar”.

We weren’t allowed to “befriend” non-Muslims either because we were taught that it wasn’t allowed in Islam. We avoided befriending non-Muslim classmates, co-workers and even neighbors. There was a clear us vs. them mentality.

The verse often quoted to back up this claim forbids from taking non-Muslims as “Auliyah” which does not translate to ‘friends’ but has a specific meaning.  A Wali (singular of auliyah) is someone you take as your religious/spiritual guide, not a mere friend.

As I said, we were always given a very black and white answer. Every action was either right or wrong, there was no in between. So we lived in a bubble—a bubble guided by very selective “scholars”.

This phase incited me to rebel against the wider Muslim community, to unnecessarily become and act different from my parents and even to break long bonds of friendship. Although a straight-A student, I eventually dropped out of the university because I was made to believe that it was not allowed for a female to attend mixed classes (unless it was a necessity), and that necessity would be nullified by my marriage! So I gave up my life-long dream of pursuing a career in the medical field and to this day not completing a college degree in secular studies remains a source of regret.

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

Little education of religion with the belief that “we know it all” is more dangerous than no education at all. At least with the later, a person acknowledges his/her ignorance, but to believe that one’s limited knowledge of religion that was learned over few months is most authentic and valid is a serious sign of concern.

Islam teaches us to obey our parents but I often disobeyed them because I looked down upon their understanding of Islam as rudimentary (while I ASSUMED mine had reached advanced levels by virtue of attending a few classes). So disobedience became cognitively justified as (ironically) a way to “please Allah”.

Knowledge without manners is like a cactus tree, though it’s a plant but is harmful when touched

A speaker taught us eating with three fingers was sunnah. In my zealousness of establishing sunnah, I started eating with three fingers. It wasn’t easy and often messy. My mother noticed once and asked me not as she was particular about table manners. I, on the other hand, was trying to “establish sunnah” and hence disobeying my mother was completely justified. I still remember the argument, my mother’s disappointment and my audacity of walking away from dinner table with pride because I had “obeyed the Prophet” over my mother.

Strange are the traps of shaytaan, every wrong seemed right and every right was wrong. Establishing sunnah wasn’t the issue but the manners in which it is established is the key to obeying the Prophet, but we weren’t taught the manners of our Prophet. Besides, whether eating with three fingers was a sunnah or not, obeying my mother was obligatory!

TAC was Our Life

For many of us, TAC wasn’t only an organization, it was our life. As one of the girls from that phase often says whenever we talk about our TAC-days, “We had gone totally crazy!” TAC dictated us how to eat, dress, interact with others, marry, and live our lives. Men with beards and women with hijabs had a “higher” ranking in the organization. The more “super-salafi-conservative” views one held, the more respect s/he earned.

Again, it is the similarity of cult behavior, narrow interpretation, and brainwashing young minds that made me think of my days in TAC when I read about young girls joining ISIS. Other than that, TAC of the 90s and ISIS share no common ground.

However, and this is important, once fully inculcated, had “leadership” called for participation in violent movements abroad, I may have been “brave” (and foolish) enough to heed the call! I fear that under those brainwashed circumstances and “religious high”, I may not have been able to differentiate right from wrong.  Of course it would require the addition of poisonous political narrative, as we know that it is almost never piety but politics that drives violent radicalization.

At the same time it must be mentioned that not ALL TAC members fell into this cult mindset. The organization had earned a bad reputation within the extended Muslim community and many members, especially novices, were warned to keep away from core leadership.

The percentage of the girls affected severely by this were literally two or three out of hundreds of Muslim girls in TAC, just like how only a handful of girls are joining ISIS in comparison to the vast majority of Muslim girls who are denouncing ISIS.

Aunty Politics and Lack of Female Leadership

No teen goes to join a cult, they join a religious movement or a political organization that reaches out to the feelings of angst or isolation that many troubled teen’s experience. I was young, searching for spiritual guidance that should have been made available at home and within our masjids. Unfortunately typical parenting with “cultural religion” doesn’t attract or satisfy young, inquisitive minds; and “aunty politics” at masjids pushes teens away from the main Muslim community. This is basically what made me loyal to TAC.

In hindsight once I got married and moved away from the “cult”, my husband and I had an opportunity to break off from the cultish mindset. As I gained more knowledge of Islam through proper academic channels, and I opened myself to listening to other scholars and not just a handful “shaikhs” of TAC, I found room to grow. As time passed, I continued to learn more and more from a variety of scholars, moved from one community to another, traveled and most importantly I was lucky enough to find teachers who focused on ikhlaaq (manners) and character building. More so, I was no longer a 17 year old teenager rather I got space to mature under more broad and visible circumstances– outside the box!

I want to reiterate, becoming more religious and spiritual is not wrong or dangerous. However, Islam is supposed to make a person peaceful, not aggressive. Becoming a better Muslim is supposed to bring us closer to our families, more respectful towards parents, more patient with elders, and more involved within our mosques/communities. But, if someone starts taking an opposite route in the name of “Islam” then there must be something wrong with his/her understanding of this peaceful faith…

* Name changed of the organization for security reasons.

29 / View Comments

29 responses to “Why I Could Have Joined ISIS Back Then – The Evil of “Cultish” Mindset”

  1. Hassan says:

    ISIS is evil, but it seems sunnis of Iraq and Syria prefer them over shias militias and Bashar Asad. Is that correct assessment? I am sure if they had better sunni alternatives, they will ditch them.

    • Omar says:

      You are confused. ISIS is not ahul al sunnah, they are ahul iblis. Why have you narrowed it down two a pick out of isis and shia militants.. I am pretty sure they don’t want either. By who can speak against the oppression of either side, the ones that did were slaughtered and the others are remaining quite to ride out this fitnah.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJo4B-yaxfk

    • omar says:

      The Majority of Iraqis and Syrians don’t support ISIS against anyone, they want to get rid of ISIS.. and the ones that do support them are a confused minority and I mean minority and they are only with them until their common interest (Bashar) is gone. The Majority of Iraqis and Syrians don’t want either ISIS or The Shia militants.. They are just as evil as each other. This sectarian bull needs to end…

  2. Sarah says:

    Umm Reem – I think that this is one of the best and most honest articles EVER written on MuslimMatters. I have never seen any of us admit the presence of these cultish groups, and how easy it is for people, especially the newly religious/young/converts to be pulled into them, for the simple reason that they are projecting themselves under the cover of the texts very, very ‘legitimately’ as you pointed out. I myself also suffered under something similar for a while, and I have seen people’s lives ruined by them.

  3. Yusuf Smith says:

    While I do agree that the inadequacies of some mosques are what push young people towards movements like the one you were part of (in this country, they still insist in some cases on using languages from the Indian subcontinent, which many of the youth and the newer immigrants, e.g. Somalis, do not speak and never did), the group you were part of does not sound like a cult. A cult is more than a group of young people believing and doing very silly things; it is a closed group which commands obedience and prohibits questioning or independent thought. It usually is heavily focussed on the personality of its leader, or on set ideas or rituals. The nearest thing I have seen to cult-like behaviour among Muslims is the Murabitun, which I did have a brief association with when I was first Muslim.

    I’m not sure the young people from the west going to join ISIS are a cult either (as opposed to ISIS itself, although even there, there isn’t the charismatic leadership you normally find in a cult). There isn’t a single Muslim group in the west which has a position broadly sympathetic to ISIS, and the Muslim leadership are all anti; the jihadis are a shadow of their old self since the post-9/11 crackdown (they used to be all over several London mosques until about 2003); there’s just a few people talking about it among themselves and on social media, and a few recruiters who are already out there. I believe some of them do it because they think it’s an adventure, but they also do it because they feel under threat from a continually hostile political climate and media; they do not want to be part of a minority anymore but to live in a country where Muslims rule. Very few of my generation feel the same way because we remember a time when Muslims were left alone, and where fights for Muslim rights — to wear hijab in public places, to halal meat in schools etc. — were mostly successful.

    That has all changed and the white west is turning in on itself. These days people see difference as hostility — look at how they employed a cop with a background in terrorism to investigate Muslim schools for things that were nothing to do with terrorism, or how people talked about “extremism” when Jewish rabbis (and a tiny group of them at that — I’d never heard of them before) told women not to drive this past week. People turning 18 now were only 4 or 5 when 9/11 happened; they do not remember a time when the wider community was not hostile to them. There is a total lack of awareness of this in the mainstream media; if anything they will claim they are more tolerant of us than we deserve.

    • I think you misunderstood. I am not talking about cult rather cultish mentality which can exist without an actual cult. As you know we can find cultish mentalities in many groups and organizations.

  4. Sumayyah says:

    Jazakillahu khair for the amazing article, may Allah protect us all from the fitnah of ISIS and such organizations.

  5. s halit says:

    a cult doesn’t always have to be violent and aggressive. there are cults out there that are very peaceful, loving and kind. they don’t hurt others, but they are still being lied to and following falsehood in the name of islam. so though i can see the sis is clearly talking about salafis here, some sufi, and modernist type groups can be just as much of a cult.

    i’m not a fan of salafis myself, but when you see the sufis and shiites attacked “wahhabis” just as much as the salafis attack them, to an outsider, neither one looks very appealing. each side has its followers and each side has it’s qur’an based arguments. also just because there’s a majority that doesn’t mean they’re always right.

    the problem is most communities are not offering any viable alternatives. teens looking for identity are very vulnerable, especially in the west. instead of shunning them and calling them extremists, maybe we should be engaging them in intellectual discourse and learn to admit that maybe some of their concerns might be legitimate.

    • Aaishah says:

      One of the biggest problems that I see in the community (having been salafi for over 20 years) is the confusion of what salafiyah is. It is viewed as a cult because so many have no idea what salafiya is or means. It is like the famous poem about Layla… many claim to know her but layla claims to know no one. Just because a group called to salafeeyah doesnt mean that they adhered to the way and ideologies of the Saalaf, and that is the crux of what “salafiyyah ” is. It follows the understanding of the Sahabas when it relates to Islam.
      If you understand that in its fundamental application then you will never fall victim to the cult mentality or the ideologies of what Isis is.
      Salafiyyah doesnt call to overthrow the leaders yet 99% of those who claim “salafiyah” advocate this. (Remember Layla)
      Salafiyyah doesnt call for us to abandon our non muslim family members yet those who claim salafiyah advocate this.
      I could go on. I prefer to call them what Islam calls them and that is khawarij. Those who rebel. Rebel from what? From true Islam.
      Most of these “salafi groups” are anything but. They have deviated from the true meaning and application of Islam and have “hijacked” the term :”salafiyyah” so as to seem legitimate but they are not. Far from it. They hold the ideologies of Syed Qutub and Hassan Al Banna (who are almost considered folk heroes in the Arab lands) and it is this ideology or manhaj that has created such fitna as we see n the modern world.
      Islam is balance and we need to be balanced in what we say and how we say it. Sadly we are not.
      These people (Isis and their Ilk) blurry the lines between lies and falsehood and it is that blurriness that lends itself to the confusion as to what Isis’ agenda is. Remember… It is Isis that bombed 2 Saudi Masjids in the past month… that is not a quality of anyone who 1) adheres to the true Ulema in Saudi or 2) adherents to the ideology of Salafiyyah. It is the ideology of true mischief makers. Understand what is happening in context.

  6. s halit says:

    you can’t really blame these people. they didn’t get these ideas from nowhere, there are plenty hadiths and fatwas from old school scholars which are telling you to do exactly what ISIS or w/e other manifestation of extremists are doing. the only difference between them and us is that we don’t follow through.

    i’m not saying we should, but we need to revise and re-think our past traditions. you can’t stop extremists by just calling them names. they’ll start digging up old tafsirs, fatwas, hadiths, whatever they can find and just make us look like hypocrites. they’ll say we say we believe yet we don’t wanna follow it and condemn those who do.

    • BobH says:

      Halit, you say: “i’m not saying we should, but we need to revise and re-think our past traditions” …

      I think you are almost there – if the old school scholars views and fatwas inciting violence are irrelevant and inconsistent with modern society (as they surely are), Muslim scholars today need to be frank and dismiss them. I realize however that this wouid raise a chorus of protest from literalists and probably further fragment the Islamic community. But better this than to pretend that all utterances by presumably revered scholars of the past and present are beyond criticism.

      In my own field of finance which I have studied a bit, I see fatwas and judgements from Tantawi (Al Azhar, Egypt) that bank interest is not the forbidden riba, while Sharia Court Justice Usmani (Pakistan) says that it is. Take your pick. I expect similar differences exist in other fields.

    • Arif says:

      Its does not matter who they are or where they are funded from if the basic teachings of islam itself is not met by them. Takfeer of ummah calling for khilafah and not having a single well known scholar from any denomination of muslims is itself point of concerns.

  7. brother says:

    Well written – ma sha Allah

    I thought fitnah in the ayah you mentioned had a different meaning. Please elaborate when you can.

  8. Amina says:

    MashaaAlah for the very beautiful article. It is so true, i can relate. So please is there any suggestions on how we can tackle those that have fallen victims to this type of ‘cult’? Coz its so painful to see the one you love fall into this trap

  9. Ahmed says:

    Very good personalised article. I don’t want to be pointing fingers here but don’t u think ppl should have a better idea of the root cause here. Even though isil is bloody violent and TAC wasnt. They both have their beginings in the Wahabbi ideology.
    Its the same Virus, but with different strand. And I think the root cause has to be dealt with to eradicate it.

  10. Uğur Dinç says:

    In my opinion, you are partially right but miss the most important point. Now let us remember that most young Muslims joining ISIS are not young women but young men. What we Muslims lack is male leadership. To be more precise, it is masculine leadership. I’ll try to explain more clearly.

    The reason why people join ISIS is because most Muslim leaders -politicians and scholars alike- are now quite feminine when facing Western occupation of Muslim lands and Western seizure of Muslim governments and resources. In the face of the horrifying scenes of massacre, mass rape and mass torture by the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq and its semi-official militias committed against the Sunni population of the land and in the face of even more violent oppression by the secularo-Alawi regime of Bashshar Assad, no young Muslim man, who is actually a Muslim and not a hypocrite and a man and not a coward, can remain stolid. Under these conditions then, ISIS appears like (but is not) the only masculine leadership available, the only way to do something against Western aggression. The promise of ISIS is not genuine, for it collaborates with the Assad regime and the Iranian and Lebanese militias in Syria -but not in Iraq apparently and that for obvious reasons- against the real mujahideen of Syria who are defending their land and their Muslim brethren.

    You just can’t defend yourself against someone pointing a gun at your face by talking about how peaceful your beliefs are and what a delicate and vulnerable butterfly of love you are. You have to use counter-violence, you have to point a gun back at his face. If you’re not doing so or aren’t allowed to and if you are a man, you feel angry, enraged even. Then you either are defeated by the rage you feel, fed by the disgraceful passivity of the so-called male Muslim leadership and join a group like ISIS giving you false hope and telling you lots of lies, or you trust in Allah and wait for the appropriate day. This is the day when Allah will give you the opportunity to let off your rage in the acceptable and healthy manner, as He describes in Quran 9:14-15.

    At the moment, the only major leader coming near to providing this masculine and healthy leadership for Muslims is Turkey’s Erdogan, but he hasn’t been able to strike yet due to the all that terrifying worldwide and domestic plotting against him and against the conscious Muslims of Turkey voting for him. I pray to Allah that this leadership strengthen and spread very soon.

  11. Abu Aliyyah says:

    A misleading article. Completely misleading.
    Isis not a body devoid of mistake. Some of brothers make mistakes as acknowledge in dabiq magazine. But you can’t throw away the baby with the bad water. It is still the ONLY voice Muslims have today. May Allah correct their mistakes and strengthen them against their enemies. Ameen. What is even more worrisome is ‘muslim leaders’ supporting the kufar govt to throw drones and kill innocent children and mothers. Hmm.. And before you say jack… You hear khawarij!!!

  12. Abu Aliyyah says:

    Muslims are being slaughtered in Burma. No help from anywhere. In Iran and Iraq sunnis are like paper. To the arab leaders what happened beyond your country is less of your business. Unfortunately, this is not the aqeedah handed over to us by our noble prohet (saw). This is the ideology of the UN. Muslims have been separated by borders. And that is why i cant live in saudi bcos i am not a nationale of saudi even though i am a muslim.And our blood have become cheap to the kufar. May Allah return the khilafah via Isis and correct their mistakes. Ameen

  13. derek lambada says:

    Refreshing and valuable honesty that should be greatly applauded.
    It is only by being honest and facing up to this sort of thing that we can overcome it and save misguided people (and if we’re honest their potential victims) from this kind of thing.
    Well done.

  14. Steven says:

    Hi there

    Great article. Very informative.

    What do you mean by “Aunty Politics”?

    Thanks

    • Thanks Steven,
      I explained “Aunty Politics” in the 3rd part of this series. Basically, older women take over mosque executive board, or take charge of the activities etc. and minimize youth’s role. They don’t give younger generation an opportunity to lead or hold any key positions in the mosque which discourages a lot of teens to withdraw from the community.

  15. Mahamoud Haji says:

    The narrative is strangely familiar too in other parts of the world. In East Africa, more so Kenya, graduates from largely Saudi universities led the same ‘inquisition’ against the khuraafis (innovations followers) and like in your case, everything was either black or white, no gray areas. They encouraged rebellion of women against their men folks and even nullified/broke marriages. I believe that they had the correct knowledge but the wrong methodology and indeed very intolerant. I remember a bizarre incident 20 years ago when a group of youth in our halaqa raided a mosque at dawn and dug a grave therein, removing and relocating the remains! Nevertheless, It is amazing how the correct understanding of religion can be liberating to which we thanks Allah (SWT)

  16. […] retrospect I became a part of what I believe now was a cult because I had a strong personality, leadership […]

  17. Zeinab says:

    Hello my friend

    I follow your articles and enjoy , appreciating your open shining mind .

    I’m a Shia girl , Muslim as you are . I believe in God and prophet Muhammad many ahl Al sunnah believes we are kafir but we are not. We pray five times a day and recite shahada . We just have life paradigm based on prophet’s children life. We are not prejudiced and respect all religions.

    Unfortunately there is groups of Muslims ( sunni or Shia ) which couldn’t understand Islam , interpreted it as a hard , brutal and limited way of living . They bother people in the name of Islam and they can’t think about even a word of it .

    I am so sorry that Taliban , Al-Qaeda , Isis , … Are know as Sunni groups.

    ISIS is not Islamic group at all . Most of Shia people have accepted it . Although all these groups wants to vanish Shias and have killed thousands of them during history , but we all know that true Sunni brothers and sisters hate Isis .

    Shias love all true Muslims who are HUMANS .
    Islam is humanity and not more .

    Thank you .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *