Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals

Invisible Martyrs: Inside the Secret World of Female Islamic Radicals
By Farhana Qazi.
(Oakland, CA: Berrett – Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2018) 188 pp.

Reviewed by David Firester, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, The Graduate Center (City University of New York)

Farhana Qazi investigates females who commit violent acts in the name of what she steadfastly argues is a peaceful faith. Written as a (small n) case study, but supported by some social science, the book’s value is enhanced by the author’s earlier work and experience, making it relevant among the literature that explores why girls and women have increasingly adopted violent jihadist causes. It is also a bold reaffirmation of Islam’s peaceful core, which she asserts has been subverted by novices in the interest of furthering the violent means by which some have sought to wield power over, and retain control of, Muslim women.  

Ms. Qazi repeatedly notes that women who commit to violence are no more or less crazy than their male counterparts. They exhibit rationally oriented thought processes, despite the moral repugnancy of their intent. She uses what she calls the “three Cs” – culture, context and capability – as broad explanatory variables for what most people, including Muslims, regard as abhorrent behavior. This tracks with social science etiology, which concludes that terrorism isn’t caused by any singular variable. Rather, it’s a choice that stems from a confluence of factors that coalesce around a violent solution. As Qazi notes, “… it’s useless and unnecessary to place violent women in classification boxes and create profiles…” since “… no two Muslim women are alike” (66).   

Culturally, the author discusses the all-too-common repression of women by men in Muslim societies, as one factor engendering isolation. This is especially so for young women, who are sometimes compelled to undermine their situational despondency by seeking a virtual community that enables a sense of belonging and identity. Thus, despite the resultant abnormal choice made by some, it is under-girded by normal human impulses.

Contextually, the author’s capability argument is that online access to those who offer a voice, however perverted it may be, is a means for terrorists committed to violent jihad to seek and influence Muslim females. To wit, “… terrorists give women a voice” (13). However, it isn’t simply male manipulation that spawns female violence. The author also explores the role that women play in grooming, recruiting, and directing their co-gender affiliates to carry out heinous acts, while noting that “… each woman’s story is unique” (57).

In one chapter, the author discusses one female’s desire to become a suicide bomber in the battle for Muslim Kashmir, which she believed would draw attention to the cause, while proving to men that she has, and can wield, power. In another chapter, Ms. Qazi explains the recent uptick in female suicide bombing as a function of regional and cultural variations. For instance, in Syria, she assesses that females “… believe that they are agents of change” (131), whereas in Afghanistan she notes that women in their own family are “perhaps the greatest threat of all…(147). In Iraq, insurgents who would otherwise prefer males to accomplish their repulsive aims, have sought tactical surprise through stealth and propagandist allure through novelty, as a strategy for adapting to the battlefield disadvantages inherent in the loss of male combatants.

Analyzing younger Western Muslim females seeking to join the Islamic State, the three Cs are again invoked. Culturally derived myopic expectations of females’ roles, in combination with the contextual nature of their resultant isolation, yields a necessary search for meaning that leads young girls to harness available technological capabilities. She ponders, “I wondered if being under too much parental control, and leading isolated lives, with only three places to go – school, the mosque and their home – compelled the girls to seek freedom online” (81).

One recurrent theme of the book is that people who tend to attach themselves to terrorist causes assume a collective identity. This necessitates the individual’s full purchase of a narrative centering on real or imagined grievances, for which they believe their action forms an essential part of the solution. Ms. Qazi also deals with ways scholars, activists and organizations have sought to undercut this psycho-social substitution impulse.

Invisible Martyrs reflects a very personal voyage. Authenticity derives from Ms. Qazi’s reverence for her mother’s prior (foreign) military service and guiding philosophy, combined with her own experience growing up as a Muslim female in the U.S., and her physical journey to understand female extremists. Accessibility results from her story-telling style, healthy use of alliteration, and occasional scholarly citations. As a patriotic American Muslim, she repeatedly renounces terrorism carried out in the name of her faith, which is a distortion of both American and Muslim values.