The Difficult Truth: “Terrorists” are also Human by Hanadi Riyad

Hanadi Riyad cropped

This past month Jordan has witnessed a lot of grief, as well as a certain shift in politics and popular opinion regarding Da’esh and the government’s position towards it. On 3 Feb, Da’esh released a video of the immolation of the Jordanian air force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh.

The ensuing shock, grief, and outrage have only just started to ebb. Immediately after the video release, government officials started issuing statements promising “revenge,” appealing to a largely tribal society where values of revenge and “honor” are defining traits. In a matter of a few hours, a mostly male mass hysteria took hold and demands for “revenge” dominated the streets and the local media.

Chants and slogans about the Jordanian people being “all men” could be heard and seen everywhere including on social media. The only “emotion” present was rage, the only masculine emotion. Hardly any women were present in any of the rallies on that day or after. On social media, Da’esh combatants were called “women” for trying to intimidate the Jordanian forces so as not to have to confront them as “men” would and, conversely, “monsters” and “animals.” Some statements called for the killing of Da’esh “women and children” as well.

The government delivered its revenge in two forms: first, the execution of two Iraqi Da’esh prisoners, a woman and a man, and, second, in military escalation. The morning after Muath’s death was announced, Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouli were hanged to death. Sajida al-Rishawi’s death, specifically, invoked the most public satisfaction, and – in a much more subdued manner – controversy. She had been sentenced to death for her role in the 2005 Amman suicide bombings that killed 60 people. Unlike her husband, who was also involved in the bombings, she failed to detonate herself and fled only to be captured later. The next day she appeared on TV in what the government and official media called a televised “confession.” I remember how unnatural and rehearsed her speech sounded, how emotionally and intellectually detached she seemed from the words she was speaking, as if reciting a script. Going back to the video now, I still think so.

In court, however, she maintained her innocence and claimed she had no desire to blow herself up and did not even try to operate her explosives before she fled. Her lawyer asked that she be evaluated by a psychologist given a history of mental illness in her family, but the request was rejected. In her supposed confession, she was the scapegoat who was offered to the people to appease them immediately after the attacks.

Whether she meant to detonate herself or not matters, and whether she made confessions under coercion or not matters, but what also matters is the human story that led her to be in a hotel full of people while wearing an explosives belt in the first place. On TV, she said that her husband was the one who organized everything. Was she allowed to voice her opinion on the plan? Would she have been able to reject it, or at least her part in it? Was her “failure” to detonate her explosives her way of saying no? We don’t know for a fact, but she answered these questions and many more in her trial, and the press related to us some of her answers.

But one cannot help but wonder that in a Jordanian military court, where judges and lawyers were all men, and in a time and place where the suicide bombings were seen as an attack against the very national identity of Jordan – which is highly masculanized especially in a war situation–would a supposed suicide-bomber woman’s story have mattered much? Would politics of femininities and masculinities within Da’esh have been taken into consideration? Would her “fear” of her husband – with whom she never consummated her marriage — and al-Zarqawi, who was then Da’esh leader and very close to her family, have made a difference? Her public “confession” seems to offer an answer, but these questions are still important even after she is dead. Many women are still joining Da’esh and many have been joined to Da’esh, and their “truths” and experiences should matter not only so we can give them and ourselves justice, but also so we can understand what we are facing and face it effectively.

On the day of her execution, Sajida became once again the scapegoat needed to appease the people and their thirst for revenge. To most, she was the Da’esh terrorist we had in our hands, one of many others in a monolithic body of terrorist savages. It was not important that she did not kill Muath or that she did not kill anyone for that matter. She was part of that monster we want to vanquish and where all are guilty until proven otherwise.

The problem is, however, this is not the way to vanquish it, as the War Against Terror story tells us. To know the way to defeat that monster we need to look at the human, the men and women, behind these horrendous acts and engage with them.


**Da’esh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham). In conversation with FAR Project Co-Weavers, it was agreed that an alternative to ISIS is needed for FAR contributors to use when posting. Many of the more common terms for this group are problematic. Isis is the name of a Great Goddess, sacred to some members of this community, while ISIL has colonial connotations to the region, and IS/Islamic State highlights and recognize the group as “Islamic,” which is both controversial and dangerous given the recent rise in Islamophobia. I chose to use Da’esh as a substitute because as a word it does not mean anything in Arabic and it has been rejected by the group itself. It has come to have a pejorative usage in the region. Return to top


Hanadi Riyad is a development practitioner and a graduate student of Human Rights and Human Development in the University of Jordan. She is especially interested in the relationship between Islam and women’s rights. When she is not working and researching, she is traveling and enjoying the world and the kindness of humanity.

Categories: In the News, Islam, Violence, War and Peace

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14 replies

  1. I will be pondering your questions.

    Just before reading your post, I was watching MSNBC and asking yet again what draws people in the US to the combination of (their version of) Christianity, religious certainty, patriarchy, and war (against Communism, Islam, or whatever other garb America’s alleged enemies are draped in).

    Yesterday I was rewriting a chapter in which Judith Plaskow and I assert that when we recognize the failings of all religions and traditions, we understand that we must become our own authorities as individuals and communities, deciding which aspects of traditions we will bring forward, and which we wish to leave behind.

    Neither the extremist American right nor the extremist Islamist would accept this of course.

    I know that certainty that God is in charge and has dictated how we should act is appealing in a time when if we don’t cling to it, we would have to face the fact that the environmental crisis threatens the very existence of humanity, the voices of women threaten the assumption of male superiority and dominance, war threatens people and destroys their land and homes, and so on… So yes the idea that we don’t have to think about any of these things because God has already done the thinking for us and told us what to do about it is appealing.

    But I still wonder, why is the American right so mean and violent, uncaring about so many others, and quick to wage war?

    What is the link?

    Is it that patriarchy is a system of male domination that is based rape and war, as I have argued?

    Or is that just one of the pieces?


    • Carol, regards your link to control of women and private property post — I saw something in the news this morning that was so powerful, a picture of a young girl in India who painted the words NO RAPE on her hands as part of a protest and bravely held them up in front of a camera.


    • I don’t have an answer. But I would say it’s one of the pieces, and not only when it concerns the American right either. I also don’t believe that all Da’esh members are fighting because they think God has told them to do so. They really have to be selective of the Quraan, hadith, and muslim scholars’ opinions to be able to amalgamate evidence to support what they’re doing.Religion might be the accepted narrative and the ready justification but I find it extremely hard to believe that women who have been “indoctrinated” religiously would think that God has told them to kill but not to wear more “conservative” clothes for instance. People are joining for all kinds of reasons. Some have found in this extremist ideology an excuse to express their violence and being accepted for it. It’s interesting that suicide bombings, for example, are not something the group is known for. It has happened but not frequently. The incidents that I have read about mostly involved people forced to do it or teens. Self-sacrifice for God and the “religious cause” is not part of this script. Self-interest is.


  2. PS Thank you very much for introducing us to the term Da’esh.


  3. As regards the “highly masculinized” society, of Jordan, this morning I was stunned to see photos of school girls in India protesting against rape and carrying a sign with the message — WE WANT JUSTICE. And in another photo, one girl had painted NO RAPE on the palms of her hands —


    • Thanks for the article. I think we all live in masculanized societies and these masculinities express themselves in different ways and are affected by different dynamics. These dynamics and expressions differ greatly from one context and country to another, but yes of course there is a running thread. I read the article and I was struck by the insistence on bringing up India’s Daughter, again, by the BBC. I had a conversation with a colleague from India last week about the issue and she was very disgruntled at the very much Western hegemonic discourse that permeated the media coverage of this particular film and the issue of rape in India more broadly. This is unrelated to the main post in this page but I thought maybe I should share this letter written by Indian feminists in objection to the broadcasting of said film (perhaps you have read it):

      I have to say I agree with a lot of the points and I am worried that the “savior” complex is present, just like it is present in the way many mainstream media outlets cover certain issues like “honor crimes” or “marriages to rapists” in Jordan for instance. They are stripped from their complexities that are very important to understand to stop such atrocities from happening.

      Sorry to veer off topic!


  4. Thanks for explaining what Da’esh means. I’ve heard it on TV, but I’ve never heard precisely what it means before. As for the “male emotion” of rage and using a woman as a scapegoat………well, don’t even get me started.


  5. I am all for dialog, all for building bridges, but there are some people who are not going to let you cross the bridge. There are some people who will beat you up and kill you before they let you cross that bridge. If a group identity is based on hatred, intolerance, envy, privilege and exclusion then dialog is not going to work. How much intolerance should a tolerant society put up with?


    • I acknowledge that this is the way it seems most of the time, but as I had hoped to illustrate, people are not born with the Da’esh mentality, or with any other extremist ideology really. I hoped to problematize the question of who “belongs” and who doesn’t to said “group.” Individuals are recruited, they are forced sometimes, they are co-opted and coerced, and they are “converted.” We need to listen to their stories and uncover them. It’s interesting that you say the group’s identity is based on “hatred, intolerance, envy, privilege and exclusion,” because these are the very same things some members of the “group” have gone through on their way to becoming what they are now, and some of the things that many are still experiencing now in the group. all of these things you mention will continue to reproduce themselves until we acknowledge them and address them with responses other than “hatred, intolerance, envy, privilege and exclusion.”

      I think Da’esh leaders want us to lose all hope of any human engagement with “the group” and those under its control. Civilians under its control are banned from leaving those areas. They are being converted. Tomorrow, they will be “the monster.” On the other hand, some people who have fought with Da’esh are experiencing disillusionment and are trying to escape but are either killed by Da’esh or shunned by their communities and countries forever.

      I think that the definition of “a tolerant society” is really elastic too.


  6. Thank you so much, Hanadi. It takes great strength to write a post like this, since you have to name all the misery in the process. But looking at it squarely, engaging it, as you say, is very important and the only way we can possibly begin to heal our world.


  7. Thank you for saying that terrorists are people too. They are people who do terrible things, but they did not come into the world as terrorists. Having gone through torture and abuse, I know some of the systems that are used to produce terrorists. I have compassion at times for the souls of those who commit these acts, and I wonder what it does to them (I believe we continue to exist after death). This doesn’t mean I in any way condone their acts.

    I am glad you also pointed out the many layers of involvement, chosen or coerced, and how women are affected.

    I am prayng for healing in this region of the world and for those who engage in hatred, and those who are hurt by it.


  8. I recently saw (and recommend) the movie “Timbuktu.” One of its most notable features is that the “Jihadists” are humanized–seen with complexities present in all human beings. I’ve copied and pasted a “blurb” about the film below:

    “Not far from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, now ruled by the religious fundamentalists, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. In town, the people suffer, powerless, from the regime of terror imposed by the Jihadists determined to control their faith. Music, laughter, cigarettes, even soccer have been banned. The women have become shadows but resist with dignity. Every day, the new improvised courts issue tragic and absurd sentences. Kidane and his family are being spared the chaos that prevails in Timbuktu. But their destiny changes abruptly in this stunningly rendered film from a master of world cinema.” (C) CohenMedia

    Having been raised in a rigid, fundamental “soup,” I easily “get” how extremists (to many people’s way of thinking, but not to “extremists” themselves) believe and behave in ways that go against most people’s understanding of civility and decency.


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