The Children of ISIS
Mariyam envisioned herself as less a warrior than a protector. In her private musings, she could take on a fierce edge, frustrated by the refusal of American Muslims to even mention jihad for fear of being misunderstood. “When talk of jihad comes up, [the men] turn their faces away, or look down and avoid your eyes, or attack you,” she wrote in an undated note, referring to the men of her community as “cowards” and the women as “selfish.” The righteous path was clear to her; why would none of them see it? “They don’t want to believe,” she said. “They lash out at you, mock you, and ridicule what the best people on the face of this Earth loved and carried out with passion flaming in their hearts. Will they say the same when it is their children whose skulls are being crushed, their husbands who are being tortured, their fathers who are slaughtered, and their mothers who are raped?”
For, if that level of violence seemed far-fetched in America, it wasn’t the case in Syria, or Iraq. And maybe it wasn’t even that far off in Chicago. In 2012, there had been a hate crime at CPSA, when a 7-Up bottle filled with acid was hurled at the building during Ramadan prayers. That same year, the area’s U.S. congressman, Republican Joe Walsh, noted while campaigning for re-election that Muslims were “trying to kill Americans every week” in the United States. A few days later, a man terrorized an area mosque with a pellet gun.
For some Muslim kids, the prejudice, discrimination and violence only reinforced what they may have felt all along. “If you’re a Muslim-American teenager, America has been at war with the Muslims for as long as you’ve been conscious,” says Omer Mozaffar, an Islamic scholar and Muslim chaplain at Loyola University in Chicago. “That’s just the frame around how they see the world. It’s on the news, it’s online, it’s on your Xbox — I mean, just look at Call of Duty, where they are fighting the Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just in the air.”
And yet, what could Mariyam, or Hamzah, or any other disaffected Muslim teenager do about it? There were thousands just like them on Twitter and Facebook, a whole universe of kids who debated the hadiths, and talked about anime, and agonized over the latest atrocity in Syria, and also shared pictures of lions, or dinosaurs, or baby tigers, or their baby sisters. They came from the same drab sort of wastelands as Bolingbrook: from Perth, and Cardiff, and Manchester, and Portsmouth, and the immigrant ghettos of London, as well as those in cities like Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Minneapolis, Denver — and many of them were born in these cities, too. And yet they never felt fully American, or British, or Australian, or French (even though they were), but they also didn’t feel totally “Muslim” either, or at least not like the lions and lionesses of Islam they thought they should be.