The arrest of “JihadJane,” aka Colleen Renee LaRose, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 46-year-old American, ought to make us reflect on a major ingredient in contemporary jihadism: Westernization. European internal-security and intelligence officers have long feared Western converts to radical Islam—the type of people who once embraced Europe’s Cold War-era hard-core left-wing organizations.
But with convert holy warriors, there’s an expanded target pool: down-and-out misfits like LaRose, who have brushes with the law or become criminals. Finding militant Islam is like finding a forgiving family. Past personal failures and insults to one’s dignity are consumed by the possibility of imminent, righteous revenge. Through the Internet, newly minted believers can now touch an enormous “virtual umma,” a borderless community of radicals and holy warriors. LaRose found the home and a higher calling that she never had through jihadist Web sites. Carrying Western passports and names, fluent in the idiom and manners of non-believers, usually distant from family, friends, and social organizations, and often imbued with a Nietzschean sense of an individual’s historic possibilities, such Westerners make ideal holy warriors.
America’s dynamic equalitarian ethic among men and women could produce, if applied in radical Muslim conversions, competent female killers.
We don’t know now whether LaRose really wanted to kill herself in the process, as authorities allege, of plotting to kill the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who’d once depicted the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog. (LaRose, charged with conspiracy to commit murder, is slated to appear in court March 18.) But we do know that the more Westernized Muslim militants are, the more likely they will embrace jihad as a suicide mission. Westernization is the dominant factor in the significant growth of death-wish believers among Muslim women. Thirty years ago, when the first suicide bombers appeared in revolutionary Iran, where Marxist-Islamist guerrillas warred against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists would have recoiled from using women in such a way. In the traditional Middle East, women carry male and family honor. They are the moral loadstone of the remarkably strong Muslim home, where hierarchy reigns supreme. According to customary tribal law, devout Muslim men may beat or even kill their wives, sisters, and daughters for sexual transgressions. But such severity can be directed at women because they and their wombs are sacred. They are, above all else, non-combatants.
It’s not a coincidence that the Iraq War and the conflict between Palestinian Muslims and Israelis has produced so many female suicide bombers. Saddam Hussein, the most vicious totalitarian in Middle East history, both modernized and pulverized Iraq. Fundamentalist Sunni Islam was gaining ground fast in Mesopotamia in the 1990s as Baathism collapsed as an ideology. But Iraq’s Baathists-turned-Sunni Islamists carried with them the ethical order—the moral mayhem—of Saddam. The American invasion, and especially the subsequent Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife, further stressed what was left of traditional ethics. Iraq’s radicalized Sunni Arab men—the children of Saddam—who are among the most Westernized of Arabs, were ready to kill their sisters as holy warriors. And their sisters were ready to kill and be killed. The age-old Muslim categorical imperative for women to be mothers and nurture life was overwhelmed by a modernity that worships death.
Cheek by jowl with Israelis and wide-open to the West’s socialist ideologies of revolution for 60 years, the Palestinians have become über-modernists. This is as true for the Hamas loyalists of Gaza as it is for the faithful of the Palestine Liberation Organization on the West Bank. Under the tutelage of Yasser Arafat, the true father of modern Middle Eastern terrorism, Palestinians learned the flexible ethics that allow men to slaughter women and children and call it “resistance.” With this morality in play, with the traditional Islamic respect for istishhad martyrdom, converted into a modern battle cry, the evolution of a machine-gun toting, grenade-throwing Palestinian fighter into a male suicide bomber into a female suicide bomber seems, in retrospect, inevitable. To listen to Palestinian Muslim mothers proudly describe how they’d sent sons to die as suicide bombers and were now eagerly waiting to send more sons or daughters to die for the cause is to realize the true horror of what can happen when the dark side of the West’s modernity obliterates traditional cultures.
So far the United States has been lucky. We’ve seen Muslim Americans radicalize and kill. But their numbers in the New World are still small compared to those who have done so in the Old World. LaRose, a high-school dropout, was obviously an operational disaster who allowed American and perhaps foreign-security officials to lock onto her easily. Islamic holy-warrior organizations, like al Qaeda, really have not been able to attract the best and the brightest to their cause. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, isn’t stupid. The upper crust of jihadists, who almost never send themselves or their loved ones to die a martyr’s death, are bright and clever enough to attract others willing to die. We can only hope that LaRose isn’t the cutting edge of a new wave of jihadist recruitments in the United States. The holy-warrior success with Major Malik Hassan at Fort Hood and other recently discovered want-to-be jihadists in the United States are worrying. America’s dynamic egalitarian ethic among men and women could produce, if applied in radical Muslim conversions, competent female killers.
We can certainly hope that Iran, the birthplace of suicide bombers, is a bellwether for violent fundamentalists. Despite the claims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sees a legion of 10,000 eager for a martyr’s death against the United States, we haven’t seen an Iranian willing to immolate himself for God and theocracy in years. Even among Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, revolutionary Iran’s dearest progeny and the iconic vehicle for suicide bombing in the Arab world, the cult of the suicide jihadist has vanished. Influential clerics rose in anger against the practice, which they saw as a violation of God’s laws. It’s been years since chador-clad Iranian women carrying German assault rifles on their shoulders have been seen on Tehran’s streets. The truly wicked modern side of Iran’s Islamic revolution has been pushed back. This hasn’t happened yet with the same finality among the Sunni faithful. But it’s a decent bet that on this issue, “so goes Iran, so goes the Middle East.” Societies where men encourage women to become killers, or target women as non-combatants, are literally suicidal.
As ethically troubled as the Islamic Middle East is, that truth is probably still strong enough to eventually roll back holy war, even in the most damaged Sunni Arab societies. And if Islamic holy war dies in the Middle East, it will die in Europe and America. LaRose will be forgotten, like the young violent women who once fell in love with communist causes—before the Soviet Union and Western utopianism collapsed.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.