As I looked down at the photo of the two extremely beautiful Indian girls I wanted to both laugh and cry. Laugh because their handsome, wealthy father standing before me must have been joking and cry because I knew that he wasn’t. I peered at their faces intently and the only thing that I recognized was their lipstick colour: Cherries in the Snow. An absurd name: what were cherries doing in the snow? Cherries grew ripe and juicy in the summer not in the winter. Whatever would have them lying in a snow bank? Ironically, my thoughts on the marketing of lipstick ran parallel to the situation in which these girls found themselves. Girls grown and raised in privilege in the USA being transported back to Rajasthan, India for the eldest’s arranged wedding. As I alighted on their goofy, scarlet smiles and noted their LA fashion topped off by Disney Baseball Caps, I wanted to ask their worried father: What in the world were you thinking?
I was sitting in a police station in Jaipur. I was there willingly at the request of my friend Deepak with whom I had been travelling around India for a few weeks. Whilst we and his friends were travelling around separately, but in the same area, these transplanted girls along with their also engaged cousin, had disguised themselves with full-on burkas, stolen their mothers’ gold jewelry and ran away before any marriages could take place. Unbeknownst to Deepak and I, two of his friends had been secretly communicating with the girls; writing them letters and calling them clandestinely. When the girls fled, their relationship with the young men was uncovered and the police had picked up the unfortunate Casanovas for questioning. The richer one of the two had been bought out of his cell, but the poorer one was still in his, so I agreed to go to the police station and talk to Inspector Gopal Singh. I will never forget the intelligent, sympathetic yet professional man who interrogated me at the behest of the distraught father. He asked me the obvious questions, when had I come to India, who was I travelling with, where had Deepak and I travelled, did we see the three girls, were we hiding them and on and on. It soon became apparent to him that I had nothing to do with the affair, so he led me to a courtyard where an English girl I had seen off and on while we were in Goa was seated at a table. She had also come to the station for the same purpose. The police gave us cheese sandwiches and left us alone but guarded, until the father had his turn with us. In response to his questioning, we assured him that we sincerely did not know where his girls were and that we had never laid eyes upon them. We also assured him that if we knew anything, we would tell him. After all we were educated Western women in our mid-twenties and we knew how hard it could be to travel in India so we could not imagine how these immature, inexperienced young girls were faring. He seemed equally resigned to the fact that we were telling the truth and soon our respective companions showed up to collect us.
I relay this story now because it is so pertinent. Two rich brothers take their very young families to live in the USA. Their little girls grow up watching MTV, eating MacDonald’s, going to Disneyland, dressing and acting like American teenagers. They probably read teenage romance novels and fantasise about how they will fall in love with their future husbands. They have been allowed to assimilate into American culture until they feel American but when they are taken back to India on holiday after high school graduation, they realise that they have been tricked. They are not American at all! They are Indian and as such they will, at what we in the West consider to be very young ages, have to marry men they have never met. They are adults now. No more MTV and romance novels. It is time for conjugal duties and meddling mother-in-laws. No wonder these young girls were desperate to escape their fates much like the young people in the UK who run away to join ISIS.
It is very difficult to understand how anyone could want to join those barbarians in their crimes, but when your soul and psyche want freedom so badly they sometimes run to the wrong place. So the young British school girls who told their parents they were going to a wedding but instead flew to Turkey where they were met by ISIS to start their new lives as jihadi brides, were perhaps just trying to be free in a world where they were free on one hand but repressed on the other. Let’s just say it as it is. You cannot bring up a child in a Western setting where they are being surrounded by a culture of individualism, innovation and freedom and then expect within the family home to instill in them collectivism, tradition, and restriction. It just does not work! It does not work so much so that even grown, married women from Bradford have now left their husbands and taken their children with them to join ISIS in Syria.
Let me be clear here: I am a British/Russian woman who grew up in Canada and is married to a Muslim man. My Turkish husband and I live with our daughter in Southern Turkey. My in-laws reside in a village and live as traditionally as you can live with a television and a car, but without any central heating and Internet. I understand a traditional, male-dominated, Muslim culture and were my husband not a deviant renegade then our set-up would never work. Even such as my husband is, we still have issues when his cultural mores rear their head and trust me Southern Turkish mores are not that heavy compared to those in other parts of Turkey and in the greater Muslim world. Turkey is very modern and gender equality is present in society (more and more women work outside the home and a record number were just elected in the recent government elections) but people are still practicing traditional gender roles that we have all but eradicated in the West. That also still practice hard core filial piety which means that in every family, the father rules the roost. Even adult sons must do what their fathers tell them to do. Coming from a culture where I was emancipated from parental control once I turned 18, I cannot tell you how strange this is. I am very fortunate that my father-in-law is a kind, caring, sweet man who gets great joy from his family and is far from a despot but what if you had a father who was a tyrant, a bully? What if your father raised you in the secular UK, but expected you to go to mosque and pray five times a day. What if you were a shy, awkward young man who was embarrassed to have to excuse himself to go to his university’s prayer room but was too scared of your father not to? Wouldn’t your resentment of your father’s rules combined with their juxtaposition to your environment’s rules (or lack thereof) confuse and frustrate you? Wouldn’t you want to be your own person calling your own shots?
I think that I am painting a clear picture here and it is this: 1) Traditional Eastern cultures by their natures are opposed to liberal Western culture, 2) Children of traditional, strict Muslim parents who grow up in a Westernised country are confused because 3) Their familial culture dictates one lifestyle to them and their environment dictates another, so 4) These individuals are seeking not only freedom from repressive environments, but agency and identity for themselves, all things that radicalism responds to. Put this way it is simple. What is the biggest, most talked about radical Muslim movement at the moment: ISIS and that is why many confused individuals have joined it. Can you not see it? Let me illustrate further…
When I first moved to London I had a little studio flat. After moving in, I noticed that I had a couple of leaks so I called the landlord who sent over a plumber. As the fellow did his work, we got talking and he told me that he was from Iraq. He had come over to escape the aftermath of the war and ended up in the Midlands area of the country where there is a large population of Muslims. He told me that when he first came over as a young man, he had trouble adjusting to life in the UK. He described longing for the comfortable life he had in his country before the trouble began. Initially, he spent all of his days with his fellow Muslims. He didn’t work instead he collected social assistance. He said that he sat around doing nothing, day in and day out listening to the negativity about his new country as spewed by his cohorts. He began to get very depressed. He remained this way for two years, until one day he got up and made a total change. He realised that he had a choice: he could accept the version of Britain that those closest to him had painted or he create an alternative. To that end, he went and got his plumbers ticket, moved to London and started working. Eventually, he started a business and a family. He was now a happy guy. You can bet that his children would be happy too and that they would be raised liberally in their birth country within their father’s tradition. I assert this because had this fellow not told me his story I would never have believed that he was a Muslim man, so complete was his transformation and assimilation. So he took a positive route, but what if he had taken a negative one. What if that day he had woken up only to make a negative change? A change that saw him leave Britain for a place where they were training extremists for war? Put this way, it further shows that radicalism is not the problem, instead it is the solution to some people’s discontent. So how are countries to tackle this solution?
I grew up with many different people of all faiths, creeds and cultures. We had one thing in common however: we were Canadian. By the time we all graduated high school together we were indistinguishable from one another. Most of us went onto higher learning, and careers. Many of us went on to marry and have families and all of us have kept our individual identities whilst being part of the Canadian social fabric. This is what a country with a mostly successful immigration program looks like. I experienced a good example of this last summer when I flew back home with my daughter and we were transiting in Ataturk Airport. In boarding our plane to Canada, we were stuck in a mass of unorganised people trying to get into the departing lounge. A woman waiting near the entrance to the lounge noticed that I was struggling with a baby, a pram and two carry-ons. She caught my eye and yelled over to me suggesting that I just go to the front of the crowd. I told her that I appreciated her idea but with all of that stuff I couldn’t make it past the people in front of me. She immediately came over to me, got a hold of the luggage and pram and led me determinedly through the waiting passengers. Once we stopped I laughed. She was so Canadian. She too was transiting, but from Lebanon with her very Lebanese husband. It was obvious that she had been born and bred in Canada and he had not. He commented disdainfully on what he perceived to be her aggression and then the two of us women laughed. We understood each other. We were the same. We had more in common culturally than she and her husband who came from the same racial tribe. We had been brought up with the same social values and mores which we adopted with our family’s participation. We were Canadians first and our parents’ cultures second.
Unless the British Muslims who already live in the UK and those that will come in the future, do not allow their children to be British first and Muslim second, then some of those children will continue to feel like they have more in common with maundering murders than they do with their British cohorts. This is where the roots of radicalisation lie. David Cameron recently asserted that somewhere in the Muslim community there must be some whisperings in support of radicalism and it is these whisperings that are leading people astray. I think I have made my point that this phenomena has less to do with ideology and more to do with individual psychology. This problem is complicated and deep. How can you change thousands of years of tradition in one generation? How can you only allow liberal minded immigrants who want to assimilate fully into your country? How can you strengthen a sense of Britishness that has been eroded by years of illogical human rights and immigration policies? How can you make all immigrants in one generation British first? Until you can answer those questions, it seems that you will always be faced with people who feel caught between two cultures neither fully integrated into one or the other. People that will do very drastic, unthinkable things to change that feeling. People who are like those run away Indian brides. People who are like cherries in the snow.