A crash course in extremism
Of all the dangerous situations a single woman of marriageable age could enter into, interviewing Islamist extremists could easily top the list.
But for reasons even she cannot explain, journalist Souad Mekhennet has been spared the grim fate of so many others, including many women and journalists who have not survived their encounters with Islamic jihad.
In the early pages of her best-selling memoir, “I Was Told to Come Alone,” Mekhennet admits that her background makes her an “outlier” among those covering global jihad and claims it has given her “unique access to underground militant leaders.”
Though she was born and raised in Germany, she is a Muslim of Turkish-Moroccan descent who is well versed in the principles of Islam and speaks both Middle Eastern and North African Arabic. She also considers herself Western, liberal and feminist. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress.
It was the film “All the President’s Men” that led her to a career in journalism. Today, as national security correspondent for The Washington Post, Mekhennet’s manifold identity has played a role not only in her entrée to the dangerous, unpredictable and clandestine world of jihad but in her motivations for covering it.
“Sometimes it’s really tiring,” she said when I met her during a recent book tour to Los Angeles. “Sometimes it hurts. Because I try to challenge; I try to somehow build bridges.”
Her work is reportage, but it’s also personal. Mekhennet tries to explain jihad to the West and the West to jihadists, often finding herself in the peculiar position of mediator. Not everyone wants to hear what she has to say: that violent extremists are people too; that they have stories to tell, beliefs that can and should be interrogated but which can be accessed only if we, Westerners, would listen.
For almost two decades, Mekhennet has searched for the answers to why and how individuals become radicalized. She began her work just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the widow of a 9/11 firefighter told a group of journalists she blamed them, in part, for why her husband was killed.
“She said, ‘Nobody told us there are people out there who are hating us so much,’” Mekhennet recalled. “And she looked at me, because I was the only person of Arab-Muslim descent there. And she was waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t give her one.”
Mekhennet’s investigation has taken her all over the world, from the insular terrorist cells of Europe to the front lines of wars in Iraq and Syria. Along the way, she has struggled to understand those who use Islam to justify violence and to explain their motivations to a stupefied West. She tries to reconcile a perversion of Islam with the one she inhabits, claiming religion doesn’t radicalize people, people radicalize religion.
Throughout her encounters, Mekhennet finds herself in talmudic-like disputes with extremists, challenging them over their interpretation of the Quran. She told one ISIS commander, “This is not the jihad, what you’re fighting. Jihad would have been if you’d stayed in Europe and made your career. It would have been a lot harder. You have taken the easy way out.”
Her methods may seem audacious, even dangerous for someone who often finds herself in isolated areas beyond the rule of law of any government. And how many Western journalists could argue like that with a terrorist and live to tell the tale? Only someone educated in Islamic teaching could even mount such an argument, and one of the lessons of Mekhennet’s book is that knowledge of one’s subject is essential to ferreting out truth.
The question is: To what end?
No explanation can justify brutality. Plenty of people have suffered injustice and not taken up weapons and killed innocents. If Mekhennet’s version of Islam is compatible with modernity, then why is it also compatible with a murderous caliphate?
“When it comes to violent acts or terrorism, it is unfortunately the reality that [some] people are using Islam or call themselves Muslims and commit acts of violence,” she said. “There is a problem that we have within our Muslim communities where we need to have an honest conversation about who is speaking on behalf of Islam, and what kinds of interpretations and ideologies are out there, and how can we deal with that [as a community]?”
Mekhennet’s book is a cri de cœur to the West to try to understand “the hearts and minds” of extremists to better defeat them. She believes current policies are misguided, and that simplistic generalizations portraying a clash of civilizations are playing into the hands of recruiters who exploit Western antipathy to Islam to indoctrinate young jihadists.
For many radicals, she says, “it’s too late; there is a point of no return.” But others, she believes, can be saved.
“This is not a clash of civilizations or religions,” she said. “This is a clash between people who want to build bridges and look at what we have in common and those who want to preach divides.”
She recounted the time she went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Next to the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, is another place of honor where it is believed Abraham set foot. Having spent years studying religious divides, “this was a moment, where I said to myself, ‘Why are people not getting it? We’re connected.’”