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.
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.