Pancakes & Propaganda

October 15th 2013 - At what point does an authentic self portrayal turn in propaganda? In the case of extremists, it is often hard to tell. People who fully commit to an extremist ideology tend to see themselves less as individuals and more as examples; whatever happens to them is interpreted as a symbol. Whatever they do, is considered a signal.

And yet, no text and no personal account can ever be 100 per cent propaganda. Somebody describes something, an every day experience, a thought, an encounter - and unless the entire text is just one big lie, it will reveal parts of a deeper truth that lies beyond the realm of propaganda. Studying it can be telling.

Last month a young German woman started a blog, describing in it her life as the wife of a Jihadist fighter in Syria; I believe her blog is a case in point.

She describes herself as "the wife of a Mujahid, a mother of mini-Muhajirin and a neighbour of Ansar, Muhajrin and Mujahidin. It is a story like out of a picture book. No, it is even better. It is just like the story of our beloved prophet and his family and the sahaba."

There are five blog entries so far, all from September. They touch pancake recipes as well 9/11, the sound of gunfire in the night as well as the family cat called "Nonah".

Of course the blog is partly propaganda. For example when she celebrates the anniversary of 9/11 with "American pancakes" that "fly into our mouths", while expressing hope that other ingenious heads will device new plans for different planes and calling Osama Bin Laden an "honorable Sheikh".

But more interesting are those passages in which it becomes palpable what she finds attractive about the Islamist-Jihadist ideology which she of course considers to be the purest form of her religion: "In the land of the Kuffar, you are subject to their laws, you do, what your boss tells you, unless you are busy filing for welfare. But here the laws of Allah prevail. Here you don't work for Hans-Peter from 7 to 4, having to pray in sometimes dirty and inappropriate places. Here you work for Allah in full concentration for 24 hours per day. Allah's religion is not an aside, it is the centre."

The "dunya", the worldly life, she considers to be "trashy" and worthless: "It makes you forget how close death is. But here you won't forget, because of the sounds of bombs, hitting afar and close by… and suddenly you realize your mistakes and you ask yourself whether you are ready for the Akhira (the afterlife). Do I please God? Am I among the saved ones?"

All the known factors of radicalization mix right here: Seemingly simple answers to the complicated questions of life; a radical break with an earlier life; a vacuum that is suddenly filled with meaning. 

Unfortunately we don't learn about how she got to know her husband and who may have been the driving for of radicalization. But is is quite clear that the author is very happy with her life as the wife of a Mujahid: "'Get ready, we will go to a nice place and eat Fallafel and Kebab', my husband said. We packed and took to the river. We, the women, sat in own place, the men in another. Food was great. We had salad with it and water from the well. Suddenly shots rang out. Our men were aiming at an orange object on the other side of the river with their assault rifles. That was fun! And it was a wonderful feeling to see my own husband shoot his rifle. A real man,  a Mujahid. Not a blue helmet or a German soldier." 

She also talks about her bad conscience when the family needs to evacuate because of a bush fire and the emergency bag, which is her responsibility, isn't properly packed. 

But of course in the end all is well: "What might my brothers and sister in Germany be doing right now? It is late at night. I am hearing bombs hitting the ground, answered by barking dogs. And there is the sound of chirping crickets, of course. Just like every night." 

This is what Jihad romantic looks like. 

German authorities believe there are now as many as 170 fighters from Germany in Syria, numbers still rising. We don't know how many women are among them, but she is certainly not the only one. 

We also don't know with what groups the German fighters end up in many cases.  In the case of the blog author, there is some indication that she is with a larger German colony, as her blog is hosted by Sham Center, a media enterprise that has German members. They also seem to have connections to "Jund al-Sham". There is no way of telling whether they participate in battle. But the fact that the blog author hasn't posted anything for almost three weeks may be an indication that the situation got tougher. 

Of course five blog posts aren't enough for a full profile of any person; neither are they enough for full-on generalizations. But I think that something transpires here nonetheless: For some who have gone to Syria, it is not necessarily all about killing. And surely not all about the demise of the Assad regime, either. For some the battlefield is apparently attractive for other reasons: As a stage to enact role models inhaled at home. As an ultimate test allowing them to prove they are serious about their convictions. Perhaps also as a place to flee to from a sense of being under attack, but also maybe to flee to from doubts. And lastly as a kind of virtual time machine that seemingly makes it possible to re-invent oneself in a pseudo-7th-century kind of environment where you are free to imitate the examples you have heard so much about. 

The price, of course, may be your own death - and the death of your own children; but apparently the factors pulling some of these people in are stronger than that fear. 

I find it difficult to understand all that. But at the same time I am convinced it is important we don't ignore this sentiment. More Western Islamists, male and female, will travel to Syria. Many will come back. Once they are here again, it will be decisive we have an idea what drove them there and what may be driving them now. 

PS: It is not easy to verifiy this blog is actually written out of Syria. In theory it could be a fake. I don't think so, though. The content, the stlye, the place it is published - all of this seems authentic and plausibel to me. I asked other experts, and they agree. Should I change my opinion in this regard, I will let you know. 

PPS: This is an English version of my German blog post at DIE ZEIT online, where I work. It can be found here. 

PPPS: I have to thank @lizzypearson who came up with the English headline for this post after reading the German version. 

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