Western Culture, ISIS, and the Longings of the Heart


Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase, and Shamima Begum seemed like three typical teenage girls; they grew up in normal middle-class families, went to high school at an academy in London, and enjoyed spending time with their friends at the mall. Then they made headlines in news outlets worldwide when they left their country and their families last month and traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. Their teachers and school friends were horrified to learn that these three straight-A students had run away to a war-torn country with the intention of marrying ISIS fighters, and the rest of the western world was equally shocked by the story.

They weren’t the first young women to run away from home to join up with ISIS, however; and it’s almost certain they won’t be the last. While it’s impossible to know exact numbers, it has been estimated that up to 500 young women have traveled to Syria so far in order to join this radical Islamist group. These three teenage girls aren’t an anomaly—they’re part of a dangerous and growing movement that requires our attention. What causes these young women to go from teenagers concerned with homework to terrorists concerned with holy war? What makes girls from typical western families leave everything behind in order to become jihadi brides?

Diary of an ISIS Bride

One blog, believed to be authored by a young woman named Aqsa Mahmood, provides unique insight into the beliefs and rationale that motivate young women to support and seek out ISIS. Mahmood, originally from Scotland, left her home in 2013 at the age of 19 and crossed into Syria in order to join the Islamic State. Some news outlets (such as CNN and the BBC) have reported that at least one of the three teen girls who recently crossed into Syria had been in contact with Aqsa Mahmood before running away from home. Through her blog, Mahmood paints a picture of life as an ISIS bride and offers information and advice to young women desiring to travel to Syria to marry ISIS fighters.

That’s not to say that the information disseminated through social media by women like Aqsa Mahmood accurately reflects the true conditions that ISIS brides are living under, but it does represent the narrative that young women raised in the west are increasingly buying into and seeking out. This narrative encourages women to put action to their religious beliefs, reject the hollow and self-centered culture they find themselves in, and seek a life of purpose and meaning by joining the cause of the Islamic State. As I read the writings of this ISIS bride I came to realize that these teens who run away from their homes recognize certain truths, but they have latched on to a flawed and dangerous means by which to live these truths out.

Craving Purpose over Pleasure

A telling passage penned by Mahmood describes why these young women are motivated to leave their modern culture and loving homes in order to travel to a dangerous land and face the harsh realities of life in the turbulent areas of Syria. She argues that the media is wrong in reporting that teen girls joining ISIS are troubled youths from broken homes. She writes, “Most sisters I have come across have been in university studying courses with many promising paths, with big, happy families and friends.” The author recognizes that the young women had every opportunity “to stay behind and enjoy the luxury,” and writes, “if we had stayed behind, we could have been blessed with it all from a relaxing and comfortable life and lots of money.” Mahmood continues, “that’s not what we want, and in these lands we are rewarded for our sacrifices.”

These women have rejected a culture of materialism and self-centered pursuits and are instead seeking a life that they believe holds greater meaning and purpose. They recognize that something is missing in their lives, and they believe that the culture depicted in the propaganda created by members of ISIS is superior to the culture in which they were raised. These women have discovered that the material things of the world aren’t enough to satisfy their souls, and they have turned towards a radically different way of life that they believe will fill the voids in their hearts.

In the mind of these girls, running away to join ISIS looks like a romantic and exciting adventure. The lure of marrying an ISIS fighter and actively supporting a cause they believe to be just and right is more appealing to them than the idea of living the typical teenage life filled with classes, homework, and trips to the mall. Becoming a jihadi bride is a way for these teens to step into adulthood and be recognized as women. On her blog, Mahmood writes about the responsibilities and roles that women marrying ISIS fighters can expect to take on. She paints a vision for womanhood meant to inspire and enlighten young readers. “[S]isters,” she writes, “our role is more important than any other…we are not created like man…We are created to be mothers and wives…the western society has warped your views on this with a hidden feminist mentality.” The young women turning to the Islamic State believe that its teaching on womanhood (even under the incredibly oppressive framework of Sharia law) is more personally satisfying than the version offered up by our present western culture.

Ideological Motivations

These teen girls are also driven by their strongly held religious beliefs. In joining with ISIS they are willing to give up safety, material possessions, personal freedoms, and even their family connections, all for the sake of their faith. The theme of leaving family behind to travel to Syria comes up over and over in Mahmood’s blog posts. She acknowledges how hard it is for girls to leave their mothers and informs her readers that, “preparing yourself to leave is difficult because you are leaving the woman who kept you in her womb for 9 months, who breastfed you, who stayed up till night taking care of each and every one of your needs…Even if you know how right this path and decision is and how your love for Allah comes before anything and everything, this is still an ache which only one who has been through and experienced it can understand.”

Another entry describes the religious convictions that compel young girls to take the drastic step of running away from home, perhaps forever: “We are seen as ruthless cold hearted youth who have no care and love for their relations…we have left our families heart broken…The only thing which makes one take this actions is Al Wala Wal Bara. Love and Hate purely for the sake of Allah.” In writing about how to handle the first phone call home after arriving in Syria, Mahmood counsels, “How does a parent who has little Islamic knowledge and understanding comprehend why their son or daughter has left their well off life, education and a bright future behind to go live in a war torn country? Most likely they will blame themselves, they will think they have done something. But until they truly understand from the bottom of their heart that you have done this action sincerely for Allah’s sake they will live in hope that you will return.”

These young girls desire to live out their beliefs in a radical way. They seek to put their faith into action by means that they believe are more authentic and significant than the ways they’ve lived while in their parents’ homes. They aren’t content with going to school or hanging out with friends because they sincerely believe that they need to be a part of the war they know is raging. “This is a war against Islam,” Mahmood writes, “and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us.’ So pick a side…”

The Great Deception

Satan has been twisting truth in order to deceive since the day he spoke to Eve in the garden of Eden. The deception continues to this day, and Paul warns us that even those in the church must be on guard. “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). The Bible tells us that God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but the human heart has been deceitful, easily swayed, and broken since the time of the Fall. Women especially, we are warned, are in danger of being swayed by evil men. “For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:6-7).

These young women who have left their parents’ homes to join ISIS, or who are considering such an action, have been utterly and completely deceived—they have zeal without knowledge. They have been swayed by a system of beliefs that they think will fix the emptiness they feel in their hearts. These girls recognize the shortcomings of the culture in which they live, but they have seized onto an equally false ideology as a replacement. They believe they can work their way to righteousness by taking extreme measures and following a new and radical life. However, the answers they need can’t be found in the teachings of Mohammed or the tenets of the Islamic State.

In Christ Alone

Biblical Christianity stands apart from all other religious systems in that it does not require man to do works in order to receive salvation. The beautiful message of the gospel is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards, God has made a way for us to be declared righteous. We cannot be justified by any works of our own—justification is only possible “as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). The knowledge and acceptance of the gospel has the ability to fundamentally transform the human soul, bringing light where darkness once reigned and bringing freedom to hearts formerly enslaved.

Knowledge of what can be found in Christ alone is the only thing that can save young women from the path of destruction. In Christ alone we find a life of purpose and are able to live out our faith in a meaningful way. Rather than endlessly trying to climb a ladder of righteousness or working our way to heaven, we recognize that our salvation is assured because of what Christ has already done on our behalf. Only in Christ are we able to find truth and make sense of the world and our position therein. Instead of waging holy war upon other nations, we recognize that the front lines of the real battle are first and foremost on the grounds of our own hearts. In Christ alone we have the true guiding Light, and in Christ alone we are able to find the path to Eternal Life.

The Bible tells us that we must guard our hearts, and the safest way to do so is to make sure that our hearts belong wholly to Christ. There is a battle raging across the world and in our very homes; it’s the same war that has been fought since that day in the garden—the war for human souls. May we do all we can to protect the hearts of the young women we know, and may we continually pray for the deceived girls and their suffering families. May we tirelessly and boldly speak truth into the lives of the women around us, pointing them always to the cross of Christ.

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