VI Addressing this issue without exploiting already traumatized victims
I’ve already noted no support mechanisms exist for those wanting to leave, or for after-care following a successful exit. This is something in dire need of attention. But it must be done in a way that provides a safe climate for women and children to leave, and safe climate allowing them to rebuild their lives wherever they settle.
Owing to the tendency of most counter radicalization or de-radicalization programs to be focused on exploiting counter radicalization benefit from those previously involved in the milieu, I fear that as it currently stands there is a very real likelihood that any assistance programs developed would be conditional on those assisted speaking out—particularly if these programs originate in the West. The reason for this is political; support is unlikely to be found in the West for such an initiative without public disassociation being a pre-requisite for provision of assistance and/or support.
So it is worth making clear how counterproductive this would be by raising some important points about how the pressures and safety issues for those leaving these lifestyles do not necessarily end after they have left. Here I’d note that the higher the jihad pedigree of the family the more criticism children and wives are subject to for leaving and/or speaking out, and this just doesn’t stop once they have left. It is ongoing. This is why it shouldn’t be that the only way out would be conditional on participating in a counter radicalisation narrative and publicly condemning the actions of their families and friends, and the only support network they’ve ever known. It’s counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst, owing to the factors I’ve described above, and would make it all the harder for others to safely leave and start a new life.
Besides, the simple act of leaving speaks more than thousands of words or statements ever could. And in this instance, the quieter it is done the better; because quietly is how al Qaeda and other groups do their internal business and react to internal pressures such as this. Pressuring or forcing children and wives to speak out would thus be as counterproductive as labeling them, and draws from the same well of ignorance of both children’s situation within the milieu, how the issue of their leaving is dealt with inside these communities, and the impact pressuring them to speak would have on them, their willingness to leave, and their ability to do so safely.
Of course if they want to speak out they should be able to—but it shouldn’t need to be a pre-requisite for getting help. There is also much work to be done for creating safe spaces for them talk, if that is what they wish to do. It is worth remembering that those who have already left find themselves in a world where they and those they know continue to be dehumanized; a world that seems to reinforce what their parents and community have told them; that they would not be treated as human.
Consequently, in addition to creating a safe climate for them to leave if they wish, we need to address the issue of dehumanizing labeling. If we don’t, others watching who may want to leave will have their sense of being dehumanized and doomed reinforced and wonder “why bother, they hate us anyway.” If we don’t, we only reinforce the narrative of those seeking to pressure people and in particular women and children not to leave, and make those who have left vulnerable to being made an example of in their former communities. This not only impacts upon their safety, but also the willingness and ability of others to safely leave.
Walking away is a tremendously brave thing to do. Those who do face great risk and danger, and are turning their backs on all they know, with little to no support and often equipped with limited education or skills for a trade they can use to build a new life. They might not like America’s actions, or Australia’s actions or the actions of the West, or a raft of other countries for that matter. Nearly all of them have had family members and friends die. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not something they celebrate, it’s something they mourn. Over the years, I’ve seen this first hand.
They may be deeply embittered at their treatment and that of their families while also feeling anger towards their own family for its treatment of them. So many are struggling with conflicting emotions and feelings born from a life they did not choose, and paying the price of the actions of their parents—those who were meant to protect them. They are traumatized. Couple that with being isolated, cornered and targeted, and if you do manage to get out seeing yourself and others you care about (the only people you’ve ever known and who understand what it is like) being dehumanized and it adds up to some very powerful forces for radicalization. In view of this, it is truly remarkable that so many of them still choose to leave this lifestyle and don’t hate us to the extent they want to stay and fight, or take up the fight if and when they get home.
When they do get home, they don’t want our pity or even necessarily our charity. As I’ve repeatedly been told, all they want is to be treated as humans and to try to live a normal life. We should show them tolerance and understanding, not ignorance. We should not dehumanize them, or scorn them. When we do so, we only prove their parents and community right, and fail to provide a safe environment for them and others to leave. These children deserve better than this. They deserve to be treated as humans. And for those who have managed to leave against the odds, well they deserve our respect and support for making such a brave decision.