Conflict & Justice

Why my fascination with 'jihadi brides' hits close to home

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Jihadi brides posing with guns in an Islamic State propaganda picture.

Until the stories about Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe pushed them off the front page, I could not stop reading the articles about the young western women who flirt with becoming Jihadist brides.

These are teenagers and young 20-somethings living in England, France and even the US who get drawn into ISIS. Girls hundreds and thousands of miles away from fighting in Aleppo and Palmyra. Girls you'd think would be more interested in makeup and music than ISIS and the Koran.

Until something starts on social media.

These girls are usually disaffected, lonely and isolated. For one reason or another they'd ask questions or post on Muslim forums. Then they end up lured into online relationships with ISIS recruiters and commanders.

Put an article in front of me about some 19-year-old exchanging flirty texts with a middle aged militant and I won't get anything done until I finish it. What are these girls thinking? Why are they so desperate for these guys' attentions? Why do they want to get schooled in the ways of being a proper Muslim woman from men who play with surface to air missiles? Why would they give out their home addresses so they can be showered with cards and chocolates and hijabs? And on what planet does your teenage self agree to sneak away from your home to fly to Syria to marry some middle aged dude you've never met?

But after months of following these tales, it dawned on me why this script is so familiar and so fascinating.

I grew up Jewish in the south. The teachers at Sunday school exhibited two big fears. First, the Holocaust might happen again. Okay, reasonable if you survived from the camps like a bunch of them did. That meant every other Sunday we sat in the dark watching films documenting the trains, the gas chambers, and the piles of dead emaciated bodies. Maybe I exaggerate, it might not have been every other Sunday. But it sure seemed like it.

When it wasn't Holocaust Sunday, we gathered in a circle on hard plastic chairs to talk about cults.

Cults were apparently terrifying to Southern Jewish families and others involved in the Anti-Cult Movement of the 1970s. We spent hours learning about Patty Hearst, Jonestown, the Moonies and Jews for Jesus. They warned us that cults preyed on lonely confused young people. Kids who felt out of place and different. Kids like us! We were targets, the adults worried, because we were the odd Jewish kids growing up in the buckle of the bible belt.

The culties would find us, they'd become our friends, convince us we could be a part of something more meaningful than our boring suburban lives. Then they'd wrest us away from our families and friends. They'd lock us away by ourselves, break our spirit and we'd become dependent on them for all our physical and emotional needs. We'd turn our backs on all we've known. Our families would be distraught. And if on the off chance Mom, Dad, or the police found us, we'd have to be deprogrammed. Whatever exactly that was, but it sounded bad. And chances are even after being deprogrammed we wouldn't be able to stay away from the cult for long.

It was terrifying.

Yet no one I knew ever got taken by the cults. Sure, kids I knew did drugs, got pregnant and did all kinds of other things adults warned us would ruin our lives. But there weren't even rumors of the cults getting someone I knew or knew of.

For years I've wondered whether what they told us about cults in Sunday school ever really happened to anyone other than perhaps Patty Hearst. Remember, they also said Moses parted the Red Sea. Lot turned into a pillar of salt. Eve was made from Adam's rib. And, yes, nice little southern Jewish kids could get brainwashed by cults. It all seemed equally improbable. But for months nearly every other Sunday, the papers have another big piece about disaffected girls who get sucked into ISIS. So deeply they sneak away from their homes, board a plane, and are never seen again.

Were these ISIS guys in my Sunday school classes taking notes on how the cults did it? They are just modernizing an age old formula for how to steal away a young impressionable kid who feels out of place by making them feel a part of a bigger, more important, higher cause than they can imagine realizing in their childhood home.

I prided myself on the belief I'd never be duped by that kind of flattery or attention. But I can't help wondering if the real reason I'm so fascinated by the stories of these teenaged jihadi brides bestowed with texts and affection, is that, deep down, I worry it could have been me.

Tamar Charney is program director of Michigan Radio.