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Fifty shades of ISIS

As more young girls leave their homes to join Islamic State militants, Deborah Frances White considers the power of cults. She should know – she was in one.


The last five British girls who have left to join IS (formerly known as Isis/Isil) in Syria have all been 15 and 16 years old.

Current media debate seems to centre on whether these girls are attracted to the evil of IS or whether they’re adolescent victims who have been let down by Britain and America’s foreign policy and radicalised by a violent regime. However, it’s unlikely that either viral videos of beheadings or the worst excesses of American drone warfare are the driving force in a teenager’s decision to leave everything she’s known and head to a dangerous and unknown land: I believe that there is something else at work.

I joined a cult at the age of 14 and was baptised at 16. Admittedly, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a much less hazardous and more homely outfit than IS, but I believe they are a cult because The Watchtower Society bans social contact with non-members and then threatens excommunication as a punishment. They also use techniques that are hard to distinguish from brainwashing. My parents were equally seduced by the community and wanting to please them was a motivating factor but I could have resisted. In fact I fell so deeply under the spell that while I wouldn’t have killed for my fundamentalist doctrine (even in times of war Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists), I certainly would have died for it. That may seem unbelievable to those who know me now as a comedian and gender diversity lecturer, but it’s true.

Like the girls heading for Syria, I was a good student: confident, imaginative and headstrong. There’s a pervasive misconception that young people who join cults or caliphates are not very bright or poorly educated. It’s more that your brain is very plastic when you’re an adolescent, so it’s ripe for shaping. It’s a prime time to find a new love of heavy metal or ketamine…or IS. A cult has an extremely strong moral code that provides a certainty to an adolescent whose world is changing rapidly. When you’re turning into an adult, your life becomes a maze of new decisions you’re suddenly expected to make while still feeling like a child.

There’s a pervasive misconception that young people who join cults or caliphates are not very bright or poorly educated. It’s more that your brain is very plastic when you’re an adolescent, so it’s ripe for shaping.

Your parents don’t escort you to and from the school gate anymore so you have new choices to make: do you stop off for a fag with the cool kids or go to the library with the geeks? Do you have sex and get branded a slut or stay a virgin and get taunted with “frigid”? What will you do if you don’t get into uni? What will you do if you do get in and can’t handle it? Your body is changing in ways you haven’t asked for, aren’t prepared for and are too embarrassed to ask about. Your hormones are firing on cylinders you didn’t know it had. Expectations are rising daily, from your parents and UCAS.

The biggest attraction of sects is the very thing that we find so repulsive about them: moral absolutism. The message from those who proselytise for them is clear:

Follow these rules and we can guarantee you will be a hundred percent right a hundred percent of the time. Frightened by every decision you have to make every hour of every day? Obey us and you’re obeying Jesus/Jehovah/Allah. Make one big, terrifying choice and then all the others will be taken for you.

Now add into the mix a charismatic, completely certain man willing to be a martyr to his cause who sweeps you up through the eye of his Skype camera with his requests for your much needed support and his unequivocal offers of marriage.

Compare that with the diffident shoegazers in your maths class or the cat-calling boys on the bus who want to use and discard you. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could fall in love with someone who belongs to a savage gang that throws gay men to their death and beheads captives. No doubt these evangelists are leading with their own videos of their ravaged land and bereft families and justifying the most extreme acts of terror with a combination of scripture quoting and victim blaming. Some girls are recruited by women but even so the promise of marrying and serving a soldier in his righteous cause still seems to be the headline attraction.

The real power of an effective cult lies in its members’ ability to cast a recruit as a vital hero at the centre of the story: without you the cause will fail, the soldier will falter. God needs you to be his instrument of righteousness. Not only does such a doctrine offer you a certain moral universe, it also offers you a definitive and divine purpose. No wonder it attracts terrified teenagers with their uncertain lives ahead of them. If being right seems impossible and wearing a headscarf means a walk to the bus stop that includes glares and shouts of: “Go back to your own country!” then anyone offering you a lifeline to certainty of purpose, community, love and action might seem compelling.

Even in the light of all this it seems impossible to understand why you’d leave all you know for a terrifying warzone. It can be easy to feel that these girls must be ‘other than us’ – thinking so differently that we have no mental bridge to this desire for certainty at all costs. I would counter that Fifty Shades of Grey sold 100 million copies and has broken box office records. It is also about certainty and following instructions to the letter. Effectively, Anastasia is being offered solo membership in the Christian Grey cult: do as you’re told. Be owned wholly by me. You will be punished if you’re bad and rewarded if you’re good. That’s all you have to do.

Like cults, sado-masochism offers us the excitement of danger and the safety of regression at the same time; it’s a potent cocktail.

The protagonist is offered a compelling role at the centre of Christian Grey’s drama. There is only one decision she’s required to make: whether to sign the contract. After that all other choices will be made for her and she will enter a paradigm of conviction. The success of this book and film does not just lie in the titillation of spanking and rope play – there’s plenty of that on the internet; you don’t have to queue up at the cinema to see some diluted, Hollywood BDSM.

No, the appeal of the film is a character who promises that you can relax and relinquish all decision-making. Sure, he’s rich and good looking (and a surprising amount of the money shots are literally that), but ownership and a full code of conduct is at the heart of the narrative. If the queues are to be believed, kinky is a much more popular flavour than vanilla and most of us enjoy this idea of submission in fantasy and role play. We wouldn’t want to live that way full time but is it truthful to say we don’t understand the attraction of being swept up by something or someone who has all the answers, even if some of them are frightening and violent? Or perhaps exactly because they are?

As Esther Perel points out in her brilliant TED talk on the psychology of desire: “Most of us will get turned on at night by the very same things that we demonstrate against during the day.” I’m not for one minute suggesting that your Ann Summers handcuffs stray into fundamentalist territory; I am arguing that there is a small part of all of us that can empathise and that fissure of understanding is important. Like cults, sado-masochism offers us the excitement of danger and the safety of regression at the same time; it’s a potent cocktail.

There will certainly be other factors at play in these teenagers’ radicalisation that also need addressing. Even so, the more we can help the children in our community to be happy (even if they don’t know all the answers), to be at peace with uncertainty and to realise that there is no infallible way to make decisions, the less likely they will be drawn to those offering them a certain but disturbing universe.

They need to know that mistakes you make on your own can usually be rectified but those you make as part of someone else’s master plan may be irreversible.





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Written by Deborah Frances-White

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and screenwriter. Her BBC Radio 4 show Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice is currently on Mondays at 11.30am and ListenAgain. Episodes one and four are about how she found her biological family, including Kate and William.