When she was 16, the daughter of a diplomat from a secular family and newly returned home to Kuwait after four years in Morocco, Elham Manea encountered a girl a year older than she was leading an Islamist religious group.
The sessions were fascinating. Our leader explained about the love of God. The moment we enter into Islam, she said, all our sins are washed away and we become equal. The fate of those who are not Muslims was never mentioned. She told us that we could be better people if only we embraced the message of Islam – the true Islam, not the corrupted form of our society. For a teenage girl, lacking direction, the message was mesmerising, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
The changes in me were gradual. It started with language. Instead of greeting others with “good morning” or “good evening”, I used only the salute of Islam: “assalamu alaikum”, peace be upon you. Later I would learn that this salute is only reserved for Muslims. “Do not use it with non-Muslims”, I was told.
See that? That’s so ugly. Why would you not wish peace on people who are not part of your religion? Why would you choose and enforce that refusal just because they’re not part of your religion?
“You have to wear the hijab”, I was told. “Hell will be filled with women hanged by their hair because of the way they seduced men by their beauty”. I was used to walking with my hair open. I covered up nevertheless. I did not like it. It suffocated me. But I did it – if this is the price for God’s love, how could I object?
By wondering why a good god would want to suffocate you, as a first step.
I was told all those around me including my practicing mother were living in Jahiliyya – “the state of ignorance and false belief that prevailed before the time of Islam”. I was told that painting, sculpture, art and music were all part of Jahiliyya and prohibited by Islam. I started to feel uncomfortable.
Religious fanaticism is religious fanaticism is religious fanaticism. It hates everything good and loves only obedience to an imaginary god.
The more I embraced their message, the more I was drawn away from my father – an intellectual, a philosopher. He was a man of wisdom who taught me about life, philosophy and religion through poetry, books and critical thinking. My father was not my father anymore; he was an enemy of Islam, I was told. He objected to my wearing of the hijab. He objected to what I started to tell him about Islam and the world. He was telling me this is fundamentalism, and I was starting to be angry with him. When I told my group about our fights, they repeated the message about the companions of Mohammed and how sometimes they had to fight their own fathers, brothers and uncles, even on the battlefield.
As fanatics do.
Imagine how painful that must have been for Elham’s parents.
It was not just the militant dimension of their message that finally made me realise that something was fundamentally wrong with this group, it was the gender aspect. It was when I was told a saying of the Prophet about a woman who ignored her husband to visit her sick father. I was told the Prophet said, “the angels are cursing her, for she defied her husband’s order”. Later I came to understand that the Prophet might not have said this at all.
I left our meeting that afternoon knowing I would never return. Who should be cursed here, I asked myself, the woman who wants to visit her sick father, or this husband who has no mercy in his heart?
She was lucky enough, she points out, to have the tools to question what she was told. Not everyone does.
I am sharing this personal story with you because it connects with the phone calls I receive nowadays from Swiss teachers, overwhelmed with changes they are witnessing in their students. It connects with the questions raised by European and North American policymakers on how to tackle militant Islamism. Those policymakers often seem content with policies that address the security dimension of radicalisation, focusing on violent Islamism but ignoring its non-violent version. When they attempt to chart preventive or de-radicalisation policies, they conclude that working with “non-violent extremism” can be the best antidote to violent extremism.
Wrong, she says. The “non-violent” version is just the entry to the violent version. Also, I would add, it’s violent itself in many non-literal ways. Saying “peace be on you” only to your in-group is a kind of violence. Ordering girls to suffocate in hijab is a kind of violence. Telling young people their parents are “enemies of Islam” is a kind of violence. It’s all intellectual violence.