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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Fri 07-Aug-15 14:56:42

Inside the mind of a female extremist

Meike Ziervogel describes her fascination with a woman who made headlines 10 years ago by detonating a suicide bomb in Baghdad. Just what would make a woman, a convert to Islam, go that far, she wonders?

Meike Ziervogel

Inside the mind of a female extremist

Posted on: Fri 07-Aug-15 14:56:42


Lead photo

"She had converted to Islam and blown herself up in Baghdad."

In 2005 a 38-year-old Belgian woman, Muriel Degauque, made headlines. She became the first Western female suicide bomber. She had converted to Islam and blown herself up in Baghdad. The newspapers - and her parents - made a lot about the fact that she had married a man of North African origin, but what caught my attention most was the fact that she was born in 1967 - the same year as myself. That headline stayed with me.

Why would a white Western woman convert to Islam? And what then would lead her to become a terrorist? I could guess the answer to the first question. But not the second.

My undergraduate degree was in Arabic and I know women who have converted to Islam. Moreover, when I studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the late 1980s I, too, contemplated converting to Islam. I was looking for a belief system that would give my life meaning, rules and a community. I was drawn to the Islamic rituals. The unusual language, the idea of five prayers a day, the instructions about what to eat, the rules on how to dress - all this appealed to me at a time when the freedoms of a cosmopolitan city like London felt too much. I also love the beauty of the Quranic Arabic. Its rhythm is mesmerising. All Arabic words are made up of a root of three consonants. The vowels are written as little twirls on top or below the actual word. Meaning changes and evolves almost playfully.

I wanted to know what deeper psychological factors could drive a woman towards extremism. What emotionally would compel her to misuse her religious faith?

But converting to Islam does not turn you into a suicide bomber.

I began to read books about female terrorists, such as Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin from the German Red Army Faction, and the Chechen Black Widows. I looked for commonalities in their histories. And it became quickly apparent that none of the women were 'innocently' misled by a man. They knew what they were doing. Women join terrorist groups for the same, varied reasons as men: anger, isolation, adventure, ideology.

Still, these answers didn't satisfy me. I wanted to know what deeper psychological factors could drive a woman towards extremism. What emotionally would compel her to misuse her religious faith? I realised that I had to put myself in the shoes of a suicide bomber - like an actor who has to find an emotional connection to their character in order to render them believable.

How could I become - in emotional terms - a suicide bomber? I wrote a novel. I knew that I couldn't give myself a let-out. So I began with the end and imagined that I had detonated a belt of explosives in a Baghdad street. I was dying but still alive and had a brief moment to understand why I did what I did. Would I feel regret?

What I discovered is a person desperate for love. But even more so, she is unable to understand that love requires compromises of us. She longs for her parents' approval, she wants admiration from others, she craves the love of God. She doesn't realise that if we insist on the perfect love, we run the danger of falling into isolating delusions at a time when we most need to connect.

Kauthar's journey raises an interesting question: If I could follow my protagonist emotionally (on paper and in my imagination) towards extremism then I – and by extension the reader – have potentially the capacity to commit a similar act. The book challenges the idea that Islamic terrorism is a problem of the 'other.'

Meike's new book Kauthar is published by Salt and available now from Amazon priced £8.99.

By Meike Ziervogel

Twitter: @MeikeZiervogel