It reads almost like a Greek tragedy when a New York Times newsfeature tells of three teens who suddenly left their homes in the United Kingdom for the Syria-based Islamic State.
In starting with the ending, the Times makes it seem chillingly inevitable. But with its incredibly lengthy, 6,000-word narrative, the paper shows how the girls might have been stopped. Yes, apparently religion plays a role in this. Shocking.
Khadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase are, of course, only three of the estimated 550 girls and women who leave western nations for the ruthless jihadi territory. And other mainstream media have dealt with the topic before, like a searing piece in The Guardian last October.
But for its telling details and the anatomy of the girls' radicalization, this Times feature stands out. It does have a few places for improvement, but we'll get to that later.
Mustering two writers and two researchers for this article, the article blends narrative with analysis, personal details with an attempt at the whys. It quotes educators, activists and family members. It reveals how the girls' school and police failed their families.
And it shows how they and other jihadi women can affect the rest of us:
Their profiles differ in terms of socioeconomic background, ethnicity and nationality, but often they are more educated and studious than their male counterparts. Security officials now say they may present as much of a threat to the West as the men: Less likely to be killed and more likely to lose a spouse in combat, they may try to return home, indoctrinated and embittered.
Much of the story details how the girls hid their growing radicalization. Outwardly, they were bright, serious girls. But they were also covering their hair and reading militant messages online, then getting in touch with men who spirited them out of Britain and into Syria.
Sasha Havlicek, head of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, furnishes valuable insights on why the girls are drawn to ISIS:
Social media has allowed the group’s followers to directly target young women, reaching them in the privacy of their bedrooms with propaganda that borrows from Western pop culture — images of jihadists in the sunset and messages of empowerment. A recent post linked to an Islamic State account paraphrased a popular L’Oréal makeup ad next to the image of a girl in a head scarf: “COVERed GIRL. Because I’m worth it.”
“It’s a twisted version of feminism,” said Ms. Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who testified about Western women under the jihadi group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 29.
“For the girls, joining ISIS is a way to emancipate yourself from your parents and from the Western society that has let you down,” Ms. Havlicek said. “For ISIS, it’s great for troop morale because fighters want Western wives. And in the battle of ideas they can point to these girls and say, Look, they are choosing the caliphate over the West.”
The myopia of those around the girls is a damning part of the Times story. "The families, who noticed the girls’ behavior changing, attributed it to teenage whims; school staff members, who saw their homework deteriorate, failed to inform the parents or intervene; the police, who spoke to the girls twice about their friend who had traveled to Syria, also never notified the parents."
And you may blink in disbelief on reading how the girls' school has thrown a blanket of silence over their departure. According to the Times, the principal won't talk to the Times, and teachers are threatened with being fired if they speak about it. Yet several other students have been caught talking about turning jihadi themselves.
For all its length, though, the Times story has the "ghost" we notice so often in mainstream media pieces. There must be a direct religious appeal of a religious would-be state. The social aspect is spelled out, often in unexpected ways. The religious side, much less clearly.
The story hints at a "jihadi, girl-power subculture" that views Islamic submission as rebellion ...
They were smart, popular girls from a world in which teenage rebellion is expressed through a radical religiosity that questions everything around them. In this world, the counterculture is conservative. Islam is punk rock. The head scarf is liberating. Beards are sexy.
Ask young Muslim women in their neighborhood what kind of guys are popular at school these days and they start raving about “the brothers who pray.”
“Girls used to want someone who is good-looking; nowadays, girls want Muslims who are practicing,” said Zahra Qadir, 22, who does deradicalization work for the Active Change Foundation, her father’s charity in East London. “It’s a new thing over the last couple of years. A lot of girls want that, even some nonpracticing girls.”
... but I don’t see the theme developed well. Perhaps an anti-ISIS religious leader -- and I have to believe they still exist in the U.K. -- could spell out differences between mainline Islam and the radical strain. But this article doesn't quote any.
The idea of deradicalization is also intriguing. I'd have liked to learn more about how Zahra Qadir does it. She probably could have told us something about the religious appeal of ISIS as well. But I don’t get the impression she was asked.
Finally, this may be an odd complaint, but I was lost in the very length of this story -- with at least 25 names and several foundations and activist groups -- and I struggled to keep everyone straight. I was tempted to draw a chart showing everyone's relationships, like those old newspaper stories on Mafiosi.
Maybe I've just become one of those attention-deprived modern readers, but the story might have even been better as two or more, running as a package. The background and analysis, for one, could have been broken into a sidebar.
Photo: Model in traditional Muslim headscarf, via Shutterstock.com. Signed model release filed with Shutterstock Inc.