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My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad” ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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In news reports about terrorist acts in Europe and the United States, or
stories of Westerners going off to join ISIS in Syria, there are certain
similarities. They often tell of young and intelligent people who may
have ancestral roots in a Muslim country but have spent much of their
lives in the Western cities of their birth, or upbringing, or
permanent relocation. They are usually people who, often inexplicably,
and quite suddenly, drew closer to a fundamentalist view of Islam.
Friends and relatives tell reporters that, despite these young Muslims’
leanings toward radical beliefs, they had been “normal,” well adjusted,
even, and it was a surprise to learn that they had become committed to

When we talk about radicalization, the narrative moves from vague
discontent to extremism—a journey spurred by alienation, discrimination,
and poverty. In the Arab-German journalist Souad Mekhennet’s new book,
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad,” an enthralling
and sometimes shocking blend of reportage and memoir from the centers of
jihadi networks in the Middle East and North Africa, Mekhennet
interrogates those assumptions, which don’t always hold true. A
Frankfurt correspondent for the Washington Post, Mekhennet has a
singular perspective on the modern crisis of terrorist violence,
intimate and constantly questioning. Mekhennet says that she is someone
who narrowly escaped being radicalized herself—owing to the influence of
her involved parents and family friends. Instead, she turned to
uncovering what motivates the most fervent of believers in jihad, and
how they became so unrepentant.

Throughout “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet reminds us that the
work she is doing as a Muslim journalist of Turkish and Moroccan descent
comes at a cost: she is often initially distrusted by both the jihadists
she seeks out and her own colleagues. “You may be right that we face
discrimination and the world is unfair,” she tells one ISIS militant,
during a car ride on a lonely road near the Turkey-Syria border. “But
this is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if
you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot
harder.” As she makes headway while reporting on the 9/11 attackers from
Hamburg, one of her freelance employers secretly inquires about her to
German security services, wanting to know if she has any ties to
terrorist organizations because of her family background. When Mekhennet
proposes to another editor the idea of interviewing the parents of a
German teen-age convert to Islam who decamped to Afghanistan, the editor tells her not to go, saying that the parents will look at her and think she is a Taliban spy. She does anyway, and gets the interview.

Amid bantering with jihadists about second wives over tea in a Lebanese
refugee camp and enduring a Taliban militant who jokes about kidnapping
her during an interview, Mekhennet asks her subjects about the events
that led them to extremism. Sunni men in Iraq tell her about U.S.-backed
Shiite militias that torture and kill with impunity; Algerians describe
poverty and government distrust that make Al Qaeda an attractive option.
Several men talk about the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Another man, in Pakistan, says he was radicalized because of U.S. drones
that killed his loved ones—people whom he says were innocent. One
Moroccan-German woman whom Mekhennet investigates was helped by an imam while
going through a rough period, and then began moving in radical circles.
“No one cares about Muslim lives,” one Tunisian man tells her, and she
encounters others who believe that they are fulfilling their religious duties
by going to fight for oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq and,
later, Syria. The war zones are places where they can take tangible
actions to protect their pride in their faith—unlike their own homes,
where they feel increasingly powerless.

Mekhennet has no fault-proof answers as to how to prevent the
radicalization of Muslims. She observes that “the more alienated Muslims
felt in Europe . . . the more separate they actually became, embedding
themselves ever deeper in the faith and community the majority culture
was criticizing.” But she argues that we must commit to seeing Muslim
extremists as human beings and not just killers, while remaining
critical of their argument that discrimination and hardship are valid
reasons to take up violent struggle. After talking to a young man, a
petty criminal, she reflects, “There was the general mind-set that
confronted young Muslims as they came of age in Europe. Farid believed
he wasn’t accepted by Belgian society, so he saw no problem with
stealing from or even killing Belgians and other Europeans. It was as if
they weren’t real. Each side had succeeded in dehumanizing the other.”

The press release that accompanies “I Was Told to Come Alone” tells
readers that the author has long had to “balance the two sides of her
upbringing—Muslim and Western.” But Mekhennet is proof that such an easy
polarity no longer exists. The traditions and rituals of the West creep
into the lives of the Muslim immigrants who make their home there, and
the immigrants’ own practices and beliefs inevitably nest into the
cultures of their adopted towns and cities. The children of immigrants
grow up with all those elements jumbled together. Many young people now
consider being Muslim and being Western as fundamentally intertwined,
but they are dealing with the suggestion, from all sides, that those two
aspects of identity are in violent opposition. As Mekhennet writes of
the German liberals with whom she was debating whether cartoons
satirizing the prophet Muhammad fell under free speech, “They didn’t
seem to understand that by . . . being unwilling to engage in an honest
and healthy discussion about ethics, freedom of speech, and hate speech,
the West would keep losing more young Europeans into the hands of
radicals who told them that the West was at war with Islam.” It’s an
imagined war that has become recruiting propaganda for jihadists and
opportunist politicians, and it’s a tool that continues to be
disturbingly successful.

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