II: The situation of children born into jihad
Over several years I have come into contact with a number of people who have been involved in the militant milieu. They’ve been involved by choice or by accident of birth. Some I have gotten to know well. Below is a list of some of the things I have heard from children born into jihad, when conversation has turned to their hopes and fears and how they feel they are viewed by the outside world:
- Why do they hate us?
- Don’t people realize we are cursed and were condemned into a life we didn’t choose?
- What have I ever done to anyone?
- Why do they treat us as monsters? Why can’t they see us as human?
- All I want is to live in peace. Why can’t we be given the opportunity to live peaceful normal lives?
- Why are we judged on the actions of our parents?
- Why will no one help us, hear us?
- There’s nowhere we can go, nowhere we can safely speak; we have nothing, we have no one.
- I just want to be treated as me, and not judged by my parents’ actions.
- Don’t they understand we had no choice? We had no options.
- I just want to be free, free of this life.
I’m not thinking for them, and I’m not claiming to be recounting stories from everyone. But I am telling you what I’ve heard, first hand. I will try to tell you what I’ve seen, but that’s harder to put into words.
What I have seen is the toll of being born into this lifestyle, reflected in drawn and haggard faces aged well beyond their years. And I’ve seen and heard and tried to comfort pain, the kind of guttural pain and psychological wounds that are so deep I find myself wondering if they will ever heal. And being from ‘the other side’, I’ve had a barrage of questions. I’ve welcomed them and I have tried to explain that dismissive or mocking comments, which reinforce what their parents and their closed society have told them about “us,” do not reflect everyone’s opinions. I’ve tried hard to point out that many people understand that they too are victims and as such would never treat them with disdain.
Some may be reading this post wondering why I or they should care if children of militants are dehumanized and labeled, when bin Laden’s and others’ actions have killed or orphaned the children of their fellow countrymen. It is understandable to question why we should care when bin Laden and others have not only harmed so many in their attacks, but are also responsible for putting their own children, family and friends in harm’s way.
But just because something is understandable doesn’t mean it is right. Surely we need to show moral fortitude and do what is right regardless of the actions of the others. And the right thing to do is not to label children and in doing so to dehumanize them. It only reinforces the stereotype of hatred these children have been raised on, and makes it all the harder for them to walk away.
Perhaps you are thinking “but so few of them do walk away?” Here I’d like to share some knowledge I have only gained since putting myself out there and engaging in dialogue. Although there seems to be a widespread assumption that children wish to follow in their parents footsteps and that most have done so, this is not the case. I had for a long time been unaware of this and made the above assumption. But I’ve come to learn that the majority of children born into the Arab-Afghan jihadist milieu and that surrounding al Qaeda more generally have, wherever they could, tried to escape that life and chosen not to follow in their parent’s footsteps. This is particularly true for the children of the first, second and third generation mujahideen and bin Laden’s children.
And I’d also like to share with you the broader sentiments and fears that have been expressed to me in communications I have had with the children of militants. I can tell you that what they fear is being labeled and dehumanized and judged. They fear they will never be given a chance, never be seen as human. They fear they will never get to live peaceful normal lives. They fear that they will have to (or will be forced to) live cloistered away from the world because the world will only ever judge them on their parents’ actions. They fear making new friends. They fear associating with their old friends–in case this is misunderstood to be some sort of terrorist conspiracy in the making–despite these friends being the only ones who truly understand their situation.
They are alone and isolated.
They too are victims.