Teenage girls are the West’s center of gravity: Virtually all of Western pop culture, the key to our soft power, is tailored to the tastes of teenage girls. Through the wonders of information technology, the mobile phone mass-produced the mores and habits of phone-mad teenage girls locked in their bedrooms. Indeed, Western civilization is a success largely insofar as it has made the world a safe place for teenage girls—to go to school, get a job, and decide who and when to marry, or if they want to marry. When teenage girls turn away from One Direction and embrace ISIS, it means the West is losing.
A Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll last week showed that the Islamic State has more support in Europe than it does in the Middle East. The poll reported that only 3 percent of Egyptians, 5 percent of Saudis, and under 1 percent of Lebanese “expressed a positive opinion of the IS.” On the other hand, 7 percent of U.K. respondents had a favorable view of the group, as did 16 percent of French polled—with 27 percent of French citizens between 18-24 responding favorably.
The numbers should hardly come as a surprise. Thousands of young European Muslims have already left the continent for the Middle East to help the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, build an authentic Islamic caliphate. Doubtless thousands more are on their way, to kill and die for an idea they believe in.
It is a striking fact that ISIS appeals not only to young men, but also young European women, many hundreds of whom have gone to Syria and Iraq to marry Islamic State fighters. Sure, some of them, like at least one teenaged French Jewish girl who left for Syria, may have come to regret their decision. But that hardly alters the essential point: The girls sought out IS fighters because the West seems weak and unmanly and they pine for real men who are willing to kill and die for what they believe in.
Why? Europe’s got great health care, welfare, and lots of attractive young men and attractive women who, unlike the vast majority of women in the Middle East outside of Israel, are sexually available. So, why given a choice between a comfortable, if somewhat boring, life as a pharmacist in Hamburg, or fighting and dying in the desert, are thousands of Western Muslims opting for the latter?
Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for. They are leaving for the same reason that Europe’s Jews are moving to Israel: Strength and a sense of purpose can be found elsewhere, whether it’s ISIS, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameni, or the IDF.
European security services are worried that the large number of jihadist fighters with Western passports are destined to cause trouble should they come back to the continent. They’re worried, they say, about the special skills militants might obtain abroad and then employ at home—like Mehdi Nemmouche, the Frenchman who killed four people at the Brussels Museum in May.
European authorities are missing the much more salient point. Nemmouche may have gone to Syria to fight alongside extremist groups, but it’s not like firing an automatic rifle is a specialized skill you can only learn on a jihadi battlefield. It’s not like you have to travel to the Middle East to learn to hate Jews. The problem isn’t what European Muslims may come back with from the Middle East, but the fact that they’ve left Europe in the first place. Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate sounds like an inside joke to IS’s two most significant military cadres—the Arab tribes, and former Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s regime. But to the Islamic State’s foreign fighters, especially its Western European contingent, the idea of a caliphate, ripped from the pages of Muslim history, resonates with a kind of existential authenticity missing from the vast and drab European suburbs warehousing Muslim youth.
And it’s precisely the violence of IS that appeals to the Europeans. For the Middle East, after all, despite Ayman al-Zawahiri’s alleged claims that IS is “too extreme” even for al-Qaida, there’s nothing exceptional about the bloodshed. The level of violence—beheadings, crucifixions, etc.—is par for the course in its regional politics. U.S. ally Saudi Arabia beheads criminals in the middle of Riyadh, and President Barack Obama’s new BFF in the region—an Iranian regime he calls rational—hangs criminals from construction cranes. But for the European fighters, the violence is more evidence of authenticity.
Yes, what IS stands for is exceedingly stupid and vicious—like one of the evil Transformer figures that destroys everything in its way. But this is what happens when there’s a vacuum: Ugly ideas fill space. Looking around, it’s hard not to think that the ugly, the vicious, and the stupid have the upper hand these days, with little resistance from the so-called defenders of the good.
Vladimir Putin is a hip-hop icon because he’s got Europe eating out of his hand—he rolls large and can turn off Europe’s lights any time he wants. He can go as far into Ukraine as he likes because he knows the United States won’t stop him. Obama said that Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon, but after already acknowledging the clerical regime’s right to enrich uranium, the White House may now allow Iran to keep even more centrifuges. Israel may have crushed Hamas over the course of a 40-day Operation Protective Edge, but here come the Western nations, led by the United States, hosting a donor conference that will relieve Hamas of all responsibility for having brought death and destruction to Gaza. Why? Because they can no longer summon the vitality necessary to take down a gang of bearded terrorists with RPGs, and so they are hoping instead to buy them off.
What Europe’s disaffected youth see is that the Western powers roll over and take it, again and again. The issue isn’t that we enjoy being humiliated. It’s just that we don’t really believe there’s anything worth fighting for. And that’s why thousands of Europe’s young Muslim men have taken sides against us—and why 15-year-old girls hold us in contempt.
Correction, October 23: French teenager Nora el-Bahty, a Muslim, was misidentified as Nora el-Bathy, Jew. The piece has been amended.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).