"Brand Caliphate"

ISIS has understood the “female factor” better than the west, expert says

Sasha Havlicek, of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, said ISIS has successfully radicalized women in unprecedented numbers because it offers the ideal of building a utopian, pure Muslim world

The West must tackle Islamic extremism head on, fighting it with the same vigor that Europe has brought to fighting fascism and the rising tide of extremist racist groups, London’s Women in the World summit audience heard on Friday.

According to Sara Khan, Founder of Inspire, a women’s human rights organization, and Sasha Havlicek, CEO of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, the radicalization of young people must be battled with counter­narratives that reject extremism in all forms.

Khan said there are Muslim women, like her, who spend every day of their lives in the Middle East fighting extremism and fighting the oppression of women. “We have to challenge the ISIS narrative,” she said.

Havlicek said that ISIS has understood the “female factor” better than the west; “Women are not a sideshow, they have a very explicit careful strategy to recruit women. They have done incredibly well.”

“Radicalization of women is nothing new in history but this is unprecedented in numbers. Brand ‘Caliphate’ — and it is a brand because they have a marketing department and are incredibly high-tech — are targeting specifically women. Of the 7,000 who have gone to fight with ISIS from western countries, we have some 550 to 700 women. Not to fight, because they are prohibitive, but to help ISIS.”

Havlicek, whose organization works with reformed extremists and on the ground to counter youth recruitment, said ISIS has been successful because it offers hope and the ideal of building a utopian, pure Muslim world.

The statistics collected by the Institute, she said, show that there has now been a leveling off in the numbers of men going to Syria to join ISIS, but that the numbers of women are rising dramatically.

“There has been a continuous increase in women and those who are taking their families.”

Baroness Joanna Shields, the U.K. Minister, Internet Safety and Security, said that this new generation of children, who are being raised with a “24/7 connection to the Internet,” create special problems for security. Parents can no longer influence all the conversations that their children are exposed to, and ISIS is exploiting social media platforms to fill the vacuum.

Moderated by Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor for Channel 4 News, the panel members agreed that the best intervention to identify and help vulnerable adolescents and young adults is to find those who will listen to their anxieties and fears and counter the message that life’s answers can be found in jihad.

“We are building a global network of former extremists who have come out of that, of survivors of extremism, of mothers who have experience. But these sorts of voices rarely have the capability to be heard widely and at scale,” Havlicek said.

“It is a challenge of scale and we have been working with organizations like Facebook and Google and Twitter and asking ‘how to get this message across’ to individuals at risk. We have an engagement rate of over 60 percent, which means young people are desperate to engage. Nobody is doing that.”

Khan agreed, challenging “civil society” to play a role in the face of a political far­right narrative that Europe’s Christian culture needs to be protected against Muslims. That narrative, she believes, plays directly into the hands of ISIS.

“We don’t realize just how damaging this sort of ideology is. The issue of identity is central in all this; that Muslims don’t belong. We need to say to Muslims that they belong to Europe, they are equal citizens.”

Baroness Shields spoke of the need for societies to be inclusive, prompting a lighter moment: the moderator, Lindsey Hilsum, noted to the amusement of the large crowd that the Great British Bakeoff had been won by a 30-year-­old Muslim woman, Nadiya Hussain – “the ultimate British value.”


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