Alienation and radicalisation

What’s behind the phenomenon of female domestic workers being recruited by Islamic State?

Sara Mahmood

PHOTO: AP

National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

31 August 2017

Integration failures and social alienation can lead to female domestic workers being susceptible to extremist radicalisation, Sara Mahmood writes.

Islamist terror organisations are traditionally associated with bearded men, waging violent jihad. Since the rise of Islamic State (IS) however, there has been increased attention towards women being radicalised and travelling to Iraq and Syria from Germany, France and Australia among many other countries.

As an intriguing extension to this, countries in Asia have witnessed multiple cases of female domestic helpers becoming radicalised and interacting with IS.

Since 2015, Singapore has repatriated nine domestic workers who had joined IS, and the Institute of Policy Analysis & Conflict (IPAC) in Indonesia has documented at least 43 female domestic workers, mostly Indonesians, who were recruited by the extremist group. Taiwan has also experienced three similar cases of radicalisation. An overwhelming majority of domestic workers being influenced by IS rhetoric and propaganda in all three countries were women, and from Indonesia.

The recruitment of female domestic workers is not a unique phenomenon and it needs to be observed as a subset of female and an extension of male radicalisation. Broadly, IS has been visibly concentrating on recruiting women in roles that are evolving from ‘passive’ to ‘active’, using two key mediums.

More on this: Building social cohesion to counter violent extremism

First, the group’s propaganda magazines — Dabiq (now ceased publication) and Rumiyah — dedicate a section to women’s issues, roles and participation. Here women are glorified not only for their roles as mothers and wives but also as propagandists and combatants. IS has specifically praised female combatants, such as the suicide bombers of Boko Haram and the San Bernardino shooter, Tashfeen Malik, for their dedication towards the caliphate and participation in armed jihad.

Second, IS’ elaborate social media campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and now more commonly on encrypted Telegram channels, attempt to influence women to take on diversified roles as ‘strategic partners’ of the group. As a result, IS has a network of females that aim to recruit other women in order to increase the physical membership.

In terms of their roles, domestic helpers provide tactical utility to IS by pledging their financial resources to fund operations and travel to Iraq and Syria. They also provide access to broader networks within the local diaspora communities to spread the ideology and recruit more members.

Some of these women have also been elicited as suicide bombers to give the group an operational advantage and more visibility through increased media coverage. In December 2016, Indonesian police foiled an IS-inspired suicide bombing aimed at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The suspected bomber was Dian Yulia Novi, an Indonesian maid who had previously worked in Singapore. Around the same time, police arrested Ika Puspitasari — formerly a maid in Hong Kong — in Central Java, alleging that she was planning to carry out a suicide bombing on Bali on New Year’s Eve.

Often, social media and romantic relationships are labelled as the cause of IS’ recruitment of women and domestic helpers. However, social media only acts as an ‘enabling’ platform, while romantic relationships are limited to ‘facilitating’ radicalisation.

Instead, the source of radicalisation is embedded in the alienation experienced by the wider diaspora communities in host countries. Muslim domestic helpers in non-Muslim majority host countries tend to face dual-alienation, stemming from a lack of integration into the mainstream society and a disassociation with their home country. This is inextricably linked to their socioeconomic status, propelling them towards a search for identity and the tendency to build emotional relationships within their own religious and national communities.

More on this: Why countering violent extremism programs are failing

Other than identity issues, radicalised domestic helpers have specifically cited IS’ end of times narrative and conviction to build an Islamic state. Dian mentioned in an interview that even though men and women have different status within the religion, it is important for women to take up equal roles in fighting for ‘Islam’.

The political overtones in the radicalisation process of domestic helpers are also linked to the steady development of an affinity with IS’ conceptualisation of the ‘Ummah’ — the global community of Muslims. For women who are facing dual-alienation and a loss of identity, the sense of belonging with the wider community of Muslims being persecuted in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen is an imperative variable. For instance, the IPAC report cited above notes that ‘Devi’ (not her real name) was moved by photos of Syrian Muslim victims on Facebook, which led her to perceive IS as a ‘champion for persecuted Sunnis’.

In July this year, Singapore announced that the Settling-In Programme for domestic workers will now include a session on the threat of radicalisation and possible manipulation by terrorist groups. Even though these efforts will be beneficial in sensitising the women to manipulation by terrorist groups, more socially inclusive policies are needed to address the issues of alienation and failed integration.

Overall, the tendency to divorce men and women’s vulnerabilities to IS-style radicalisation overlooks common factors such as identity politics and alienation in diaspora communities that propel both genders towards such terrorist organisations. In this sense, adopting an holistic — rather than androcentric — approach within security agencies is key to long-term efforts to curb radicalisation.

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