Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters

The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad has carved out a niche for herself depicting war zones and political extremism. The author Luke Harding has described Seierstad as “the supreme non-fiction writer of her generation”.  I mentioned her in a previous post, where I looked at her 2013 book One of Us, the tale of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Oslo on Friday July 22nd, 2011. One of Breivik’s principal motivations was his outrage at the presence of Muslims in Norway. Now, in her latest book, Two Sisters, Seierstad looks at the other side of the coin, Islamist extremism. The two sisters, in the book given the pseudonyms Ayan and Leila, left Norway to join ISIS. How could these girls just up and leave Norway and go to war-torn Syria and marry ISIS fighters?

At the heart of the story is the Juma family. Their father, Sadiq, had been a child soldier in Somalia. He was on the winning side, but things didn’t work out for him. So he ended up in Norway, where one year later he would bring his wife, Sara and their five children.

In general they were well integrated, but the mother never learnt the language and was unable to fully adjust to Norwegian life. As her children were growing up, she became increasingly worried that her children were becoming too Norwegian. She went to her local mosque, where they recommended they receive religious instruction from a Koran teacher. And so, a number of parents clubbed together to pay for the services of Mustafa, a respected and sought-after teacher, who was not yet 20. The reality is that Mustafa imparted a doctrine of hatred, with an unhealthy obsession with death and martyrdom. This is when, at least according to Sadiq, their nightmare began.

At first, the mother was pleased the two girls began to become more observant. But then they began the slide into extremism. Ayan became deeply involved with the extremist Muslim youth organisation Islam Net. The sisters even started wearing the full niqab, which incidentally is not a Somali tradition. What seems to have happened is that Ayan was the first one who radicalised and she in turn influenced her younger sister, Leila. The book is full of telling vignettes. This one is about Leila.;

On another occasion a boy who had forgotten his pencil case asked to borrow a pen. She said, “All right, but then I can’t ever use it again.”

He did not quite understand. Before she tossed it to him, she said, “Just keep it. I can’t touch anything you’ve handled.”

This is just one example of the retrograde ideas that the sisters would adopt. It did not happen overnight. Both their parents, the more liberal father and the more traditional mother failed to see the dangers. This failure was shared by the school, who automatically assumed that it was the parents who were radicalising their children.

It was on October 17, 2013 that the girls would leave for Syria. They explained it all in an e-mail. After wishing “Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon their parents in Somali. The text continued in Norwegian:

We love you both sooo much and you have given us everything in life. We are eternally grateful for everything ♥.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s [Subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “May He be glorified and exalted”] sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws, and commands.

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear what ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement.

Just three days after the girls’ escape, Sadiq got himself the to the Turkish-Syrian border. With the help of a middleman, he managed to get into Syria. Somehow he tracked down the girls. He was allowed to spend five minutes with Ayan. It did not turn out as he had expected. He was not able to persuade her to come back with him; she had married to an ISIS fighter and had no intention of accompanying him.  It got worse – he was put in prison, where his jailers interrogated and tortured him. He saw cellmate after cellmate being taken away and killed, but he was finally released. However, he has not seen either of his daughters since.

To bring the story up to date, we do not know where they are. It is nearly five years since they left Norway. They became mothers.  Her parents do not even know if they are alive. The situation of ISIS in Syria is much worse now. They control only a few slivers of territory. They have been from Raqqa, where the cities were. If they are still alive, their prospects look rather grim.

What lessons can we learn from this? Seierstad provides a riveting account of what happened, but there are no definitive answers.  The sisters played no part in the book. They refused to give their side of the story, which undoubtedly does raise important ethical questions. Is it ethical to focus on the lives of two girls who have not given their consent?

I do agree with Seierstad that we are not talking about brainwashing. That is a lazy way of thinking. They do not start out as evil. Their radicalisation is a gradual process. One factor is how important is identity. Islamism gave them an identity they valued. And religion itself played a key role. For example, I would question the role of the mosque and the Koran teacher. There are certain governments in the Middle East who promote Wahabbism, an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It is a hate-filled creed that should have no place in the modern world. I do not know what became of Mustafa, but the tragedy is that it was the parents themselves who brought him in. However, the girls’ brother, Ismael attended the same classes and was not radicalised. Indeed, after seeing the transformation his sisters underwent, he has become an atheist.

Although Seierstad offers no definitive answers, her book is so hard to put down. I do like her novelistic non-fiction. What’s more it seems to be meticulously researched. Ultimately her goal is to report. Two Sisters is a fascinating, but harrowing read, essential for these times .

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