These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims

Three schoolgirls from East London have left the UK to join ISIS, and everyone has an opinion. Some people say they are no better than Jihadi John, and that joining the fighters for Islamic state is tantamount to participating in the beheading of aid workers. they should be considered enemy combatants and we should not care one joy for their safety.
Other people say that these girls are victims: of brainwashing, of a culture that doesn’t value them, or of a society that offers the youth no aspirations. They’re essentially kidnap victims and we should mobilise to secure their safe return.
Here’s an idea: perhaps they’re both? Fully culpable genocide-enablers; and victims.

Too often in our political debate we treat blame as a zero-sum equation. When someone does something criminal, and we blame an addiction, his lack of opportunity, ‘society’ or whatever, that feels like we’re taking the blame away from the person who made the choice.
But that’s not how we should think about ‘blame’. Consider the wife who hires a hit man to bump off her husband. When they are both arrested for the murder, it’s not the case that the blame is shared and halved. The wife is 100% culpable and so is the hired gun. That’s because it’s a conspiracy and everyone involved is equally to blame.1
I think we should consider crimes and catastrophes that have a social dimension to be conspiracies too. The case of the three teenagers backpacking into Syria, it’s a conspiracy between the girls themselves, their social environment, and (it appears) some malign individuals who recruit and inspire this Jihadi-tourism.
If you consider most crimes to be conspiracies then the approach to stopping such acts must act on every element of that conspiracy. So of course it means punishing the person who committed the crime – sending them to prison, &cetera (I’m not sure what the law mandates for 15 year olds in the case at hand). But it also means making social interventions on the micro and macro level in order to neutralise the other ‘conspirators’ such as poverty, unemployment, the failure of politics and prejudices like sexism and racism.
This might seem obvious but it’s amazing how often our discussions on this subject devolve into a one-or-the-other approach.


Speaking of the one-or-the other mentality, Howard Jacobson penned an important critique on this kind of debate last month. He attacked the ‘buttery’ of much discourse around fundamentalist violence.

Let me remind you how the Chomsky “but” operates. “The attack on the Twin Towers was an atrocity,” you concede, “‘but’…” And here you insert whichever qualifier takes your fancy.

Jacobson suggests using ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. For example: The three schoolgirls are endorsing ISIS murder and are the victims of brainwashing.

1. I first read this point about blame and a hit man about seven or eight years ago, in a blog post about where to assign the blame for terrorist activities – with the perpetrators or with Western foreign policy. I have always remembered the structure of the argument but have forgotten who wrote it! I’ve tried and failed to locate the post online… So this pseudo-acknowledgement will have to suffice.

5 Replies to “These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims”

  1. “But” is only a problem if it’s interpreted as a negation of the clause that went before. I’d say it only negates the zero-sum blame that would have been implied by using the clause alone. Having a go at Chomsky on spurious/tenuous grounds is an academic sport that I don’t feel shouldn’t be dignified as having any further substance than that.
    As to those girls, surely they have been groomed. Do we blame the groomee when this happens?

    1. Calrie is correct, unless you believe a rape victim is also culpable? Any other adult approaching 15 year old (real or virtualy) would be done for grooming perhaps ISIS fighters need counselling besides what fighters they are that need a 15 year old girl dont remember this when reading about other ‘wars’??
      As regards Israel Jacobsen is either deceitful, disingenious or deluded not to know that they DELIBERATELY target journalists.

      1. Aren’t grooming and rape different crimes? Appreciate that one may (usually) lead to another and that any ‘consent’ given as a result of grooming should not be considered legitimate.
        But – aargh – to say, it’s grooming, end of, full stop… That just doesn’t feel like the whole story to me. Fifteen year olds have some agency, don’t they? They’re not being lied to about what awaits them in ISIS controlled Syria, and yet they go anyway…

  2. They may well have been lied to by the recruiter about what their role will be when they reach ISIS controlled Syria.
    But they can surely be under no illusion that this is an organisation that beheads people – not just British aid workers, but many hundreds if not thousands of Muslims too.

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