Why are so many Muslim women in Europe susceptible to ISIS propaganda? Many of them join ISIS to commit jihad, or violence in the name of the “sustained struggle” to advance Islamic extremism. In 2014, about 18 percent of all European ISIS members were female. As of August 2017, experts believe the total number of women is more than 550. But are women brainwashed by the Islamic State or choosing jihad of their own free will?
Many Muslim women in Europe are enticed by ISIS’s recruitment videos and social media presence. ISIS portrays the Caliphate as a utopian land where ISIS’s very narrow view of Islam is strictly enforced. ISIS uses Hollywood-level video production and a social media strategy which rivals any Silicon Valley startup. On social media, women members of ISIS promise their women viewers a fulfilling life married to a devout Muslim man in the Caliphate. These women leave discrimination and alienation in Europe to support jihadis in Syria—or to take jihad into their own hands.
But why are ISIS recruitment efforts so effective? Answering this question requires an overview of how Muslim women are excluded from European society. For example, many French people do not consider a Muslim immigrant living in France to be “French, ” regardless of citizenship. A “French” identity includes Western clothing, language fluency, and a desire to assimilate. The French government and mainstream media view national identity narrowly—“traditional” so as not to make white French citizens uncomfortable.
Immigrant Muslim women are marginalized and their religion, way of dressing, and race are always at the forefront of their minds. They are forced to define their “Muslim” identity as incompatible with their “French” identity. Many choose to perceive themselves as “Muslim” rather than “French” in a nation that shows them time and time again that they do not belong. Taub calls this phenomenon “identity choice.”
ISIS uses these cleavages created by the French government to target French Muslim women who want to wear religious coverings and marry a devout Muslim man without being cast as a social pariah. Recruiters appeal to women fascinated by extremism and enamored with escaping France to join the Caliphate. By creating media channels apart from the French mainstream, ISIS can control the slant and message of their posted content to target and lure.
The divergence of media outlets can explain why recruitment videos spread like wildfire.
The fork in the road: ISIS creates a sophisticated rival of mainstream media, which garners attention from the women who embrace this romanticized extremism
However, ISIS’s savvy productions only explain part of the phenomenon.
ISIS’s chosen messenger? Other women.
British women recruiters are master strategists at romanticizing life under ISIS: they catch more flies with honey than they do with vinegar. ISIS women reach out to other women by creating News Frames of the propaganda. Through a process called framing, they shape and interpret the content of ISIS videos and social media posts to win the upper hand in reaching French Muslim women—their target audience.
The most powerful way to frame ISIS propaganda is to create a utopian image of the Caliphate that is consistent with what many Muslim women have already determined to be their ideal society.
Women recruiters can frame ISIS propaganda to convince a woman that joining is in her own best interest. Here’s three ways how:
- They display their elite status in the Caliphate as wives and mothers and invite other women to emulate them.
- They provide detailed instructions on how to use weapons, travel to Syria, and even commit jihad.
- They distort the concept of women’s “empowerment” to mean challenging western gender norms and joining all-women brigades.
By glorifying this active role for women, recruits develop an affinity for a Caliphate ready to welcome them with open arms.
Despite its recent territory losses, ISIS still manages to release a few recruitment videos. Nations committed to countering violent extremism cannot fight fire with fire: instead of sensationalizing the videos and perpetrators to the public, European officials and mainstream media outlets must disseminate content that exposes these recruitment tactics that put women at risk.
In addition, French society must broaden their definition of “European” to include Muslim immigrants. In order for this shift in public opinion to occur, European mainstream media needs a new approach: discussing Muslim women as French citizens or residents, not permanent outsiders. Media accomplish this goal by at the News Frames stage of the model above.
Elected officials in Europe must rise to their higher calling as public servants and unite citizens of all religions and national origins under a new “European” identity. Factionalism may be good for getting votes, but this tactic has succeeded at the expense of Muslim women’s livelihoods. This is the most difficult and far-reaching change to implement, as the model suggests.
If France better integrates its immigrant communities, French Muslim women can emerge from the margins of society. ISIS’s power to prey upon these women diminishes when women can practice their religion, wear garments of their choosing, and access education and employment opportunities.
ISIS’s glossy social media images will lose their luster for the many women they once seduced. The news frames won’t be as effective for Muslim women immigrants once Europe stops treating them as “the other.”
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.