A Letter from Kurdistan


Alex Poppe writes of her experiences in Kurdistan, Iraq where she taught English, on the alienation and social exclusion that leads to radicalisation.

Just know that I am with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.
From Peter Kassig’s last letter to his parents, smuggled out of a prison in Raqqa.

When I started thinking about this article, the November 2014 beheading of Peter Kassig had been on my mind. In 2013, I volunteered with the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Kurdistan, Iraq and developed a short-lived crush on one of the aid workers. Later, after I moved to Germany, I learned he had been kidnapped by ISIS while delivering tents to a refugee camp. Thankfully, he was released, probably because his country’s government had paid a ransom.

Peter’s last letter, as reprinted by the New York Times, romanticized places with hills, lakes and valleys; places he was shown by loving parents; places where he felt he belonged. Why would any Westerner be drawn from a land of plenty to a war zone? Referencing my experience of working with teens in Kurdistan and East Jerusalem from 2011 and 2013, my own period of social isolation and expert opinions gained from research, I want to explore what motivates people to join jihad.

I taught high school literature, composition and advanced exam preparation in Kurdistan, Iraq from 2011 to 2013 and spent my summer break working for a Palestinian education NGO in East Jerusalem. That NGO, partnered by the US government, gave the most promising teens from poor Palestinian communities, including refugee camps, scholarships to prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The strategy behind the program is if teens have hope for the future and have positive interactions with North Americans, they will be less drawn to jihad. Although the program is United States culture propaganda heavy, it can’t compete against decades of oppression which breeds systematic generational hatred. Fast forward to summer 2014 and the destruction of Gaza, especially the Shejaiya massacre. Follow the blood trajectory to the November killings inside the Kehilat Bnei Torah synagogue in West Jerusalem, leap-frog to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and remind yourself that at the same time Boko Haram was carrying out a week-long killing spree, torching at least ten towns before using ten-year-old girls as suicide bombers.

Teens are my favorite age to teach because despite cultural differences and economic disparity, they share similarities worldwide: they are energetic, curious and funny. They are wiser than most adults give them credit for being. When they experience growing pains, they act out. They start from a fundamentally human place until experience pushes them in different directions. One of those directions is radicalism.


ISIS understands that people with brown skin are often treated as second class in the first world. Western Muslims suffer from alienation and hopelessness as they are methodically marginalized by broken political systems that benefit few at the expense of many. (Although not considered the West, this is especially true in the West Bank.) Katherine E. Brown, a lecturer in Defense Studies at Kings College, London believes that Westerners join ISIS because it promises a new utopian politics where recruits participate in the creation of a new Islamic State. Participants are promised a stake, a sense of ownership and increased self-esteem through their participation. (1)

Suraj Lakhani, writing for the Guardian, concurs with Ms. Brown. He, too reports that involvement in jihad induces a feeling of being special or significant. In addition to defining a distinct self-identity, participation in extremism is described as cool, offering an escape from normal and predictable lives. It provides ordinary citizens a feeling of exhilaration by allowing them to handle powerful military hardware, and promises the excitement of an adventure abroad. It also affords male participants an opportunity to feel masculine. (2)

Young Muslim women are as likely to be radicalized as young men. Kalmaleep Bhui, a professor of Cultural Psychiatry and Epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, found that women who sympathized with extremist movements were younger, in full-time education and more middle class. “They were more likely to be depressed and socially isolated.” Recent immigrants who were poor and busier than second or third generation immigrants were less likely to have radical sympathies in part because they remember the problems of their homelands. (3)

The fact that poor immigrants are less sympathetic to extremism than middle class students seems counter-intuitive. However, the answer may lie in feelings of entitlement. Imagine the following: your parents or grandparents move to a Western country, they work hard so you can be educated, you speak the local language because you were born there and are educated there, and yet you are under-employed and experience racism as you read about the top one percent becoming richer at the expense of the shrinking middle class. You might feel enraged. You might wonder ‘Where’s mine?” You might give up on a system that has let you down. You might be tempted to act.

Dounia Bouzar, the founder of the Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam, reports that in most cases young women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families but are good students who want to go to Syria to marry a devout Muslim or to provide humanitarian aid. “There is a mix of indoctrination and seduction,” Ms. Bouzar said. “They [ISIS recruiters] upload pictures of bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook.” (4) ISIS’s messages are positive in contrast to the Islamophobia coming from Western governments who communicate a negative message so young Muslims feel demonized and alienated from society in their adopted/home countries. (5) According to Ruth Manning, a Quilliam Foundation volunteer, ISIS recruiters tweet images of sunsets and Starbucks frappuccinos to present a positive image of life under ISIS, to make extremism appear as a normal lifestyle decision for disaffected Muslims and to generate a sense of sisterhood among female jihadists. As a result, many girls are drawn to the cause by the promise of a feeling of empowerment, freedom from their parents and the search for belonging. (6) Their lack of strong personal relationships offline pushes them towards virtual communities.

That is a lot of expert quotes to tell us something elemental: feelings of alienation and social isolation are bad, we all want to be feel a part of something bigger than ourselves and to be seen/have status; when we don’t, we get depressed and gravitate towards people or groups that make us feel better, and this cycle of behavior is not gender specific. Sound familiar?

Depression, low self-esteem and feeling left-out prompted me to seek work in Kurdistan. In 2010, I returned to Brooklyn after teaching in Kiev and could not find gainful employment. I had a low-paying, dead-end office job without health insurance and was waitressing again at age 43. I was struggling financially and felt priced out of my friendships because I could not afford to socialize at my friends’ economic level. I saw myself as a loser, and I was white and educated. Imagine how much worse it could have been if I were brown, black or yellow and didn’t have a formidable university degree. When I announced my decision to go to Iraq (at that time, most Americans did not know where Kurdistan was), I became somebody brave, somebody heroic. People treated me with more respect when they heard about my plans, and I felt a renewed sense of purpose. Consequently, my self-esteem increased. My experience is not dissimilar to those who turn to jihad. The impulse to act was the same, but the avenue taken was different. Repression, alienation and low self-esteem, not religion, draw people to extreme actions.

Suraj Lakhani suggests that governmental agencies host/support local events such as sports days or athletic clubs where workers build long-lasting relationships with teens so that teens feel comfortable approaching them for advice. The idea is that a teen would seek counsel which could prevent him from becoming a jihadist. That (building relationships with teens) is what I did in the West Bank and Kurdistan; and as a result, I gained the confidence of many of my students, including the male students who came to me with typical teenage concerns: bullying and sex but also jihad. For example, I received an I-want-to-be-a-suicide-bomber essay from a lovely young student who occasionally emails me to check on my safety. He was one of the first people to contact me when ISIS came within forty kilometers of Erbil, the city I where I used to live.

I addressed the suicide bomber essay by evaluating its merit and appropriateness as an academic submission. Then I asked the student’s opinion about the effectiveness of such an action versus an alternate course of behavior, and then I listened. I did not argue with his complaints of repression and violence and injustice at the hands of the Israeli government because his complaints are valid. I felt guilty because I am a US citizen and the US continues to offer unwavering support for Israel. I responded by acknowledging the truth of his grievances, reminding him that the citizens of a country are not the same as the government of a country and telling him that although I wasn’t idealistic enough to think I could change the world, I did think I could have an impact on the little bit of it surrounding me, which was why I was there.

In the West Bank, a very simple action inspired the students’ trust and confidence. I usually had a full bottle of water on my desk in the classroom as I taught. It was summer and not all the classrooms were air-conditioned. When Ramadan started, I did not take my water bottle out of my bag because I knew my students were fasting. The classes lasted for four hours. Some of the students asked me where the bottle was. I told them I respected their decision to fast, and although I was not fasting myself, I did not wish to drink or eat in front of them. That was our beginning.

Actor-comedian Aasif Mandvi and actor-musician Jack Black have made a satirical book trailer to support Mandvi’s book No Man’s Land. In the trailer, when Aasif mentions he is Muslim, Jack is flabbergasted. Everything Jack says is now filtered through the knowledge that Aasif is Muslim: he has offered Aasif beer, is Aasif fasting, does Aasif need to pray? Then Jack opens his trailer door and announces Aasif is a Muslim and needs to pray. Why does one aspect of a person override all other aspects to become his defining characteristic? The book trailer highlights the Islamophobia in today’s society, and there is a double standard with regards to Islam.

Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani political commentator, historian and editor of the New Left Review reports that the Danish magazine that first mocked the prophet Mohammad in 2005 said that despite the cartoon offending Muslim believers worldwide, the magazine would not have published similar attacks against Moses, regardless of what Israel was doing in Palestine. (7) When a Muslim commits an extremist act, he is called a terrorist and Islam is finger pointed. However, when Anders Breivik massacred over seventy-five people in Norway, he was not portrayed as a white Christian or even branded a terrorist. Similarly, when ultra- Zionist extremist Baruch Goldstein killed over twenty-nine people in Palestine in 1994, no one said Judaism was the source of these killings. Part of this double standard stems from a sense of guilt about the Jewish genocide of World War II. However, there is not an equal sense of guilt with regard to France’s colonial past in Africa, which persisted in Algeria until 1962. (8)

The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo was carried out by French citizens of Algerian descent. Gilbert Achcar, professor at the school of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London explains, “The communities with migrant backgrounds from Muslim majority countries are subject to forms of racism, discrimination and oppression which are the breeding ground for the kind of hatred in response to that societal hatred. And Western intervention in the Middle East has been creating the ground for all this, especially the US’s conduct in the Middle East.” Achcar explains that in a society that is relatively wealthy like France is but where Muslims are the weakest segment of that society because they are the target of institutionalized racism and Islamophobia, hatred can grow into extremism. He calls this phenomenon the Clash of Barbarism: the barbarism of the strong leads to a counter barbarism on the side of those who see themselves as the oppressed. The barbarism represented by the US occupation of Iraq, the torture in Abu Ghraib, and the massacre in Fallujah bread a counter barbarism represented by al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration invaded Iraq to eradicate al-Qaeda but ultimately gave al-Qaeda a larger territorial base because ISIS is the continuation of al-Qaeda. (9) Cherif Kouach, perpetrator of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, testified in a French court that images of atrocities committed by US troops in Abu Ghraib motivated him to go to Iraq. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed responsibility for directing his attack on Charlie Hebdo. “The target was in France because of its obvious role in the war on Islam and oppressed nations.” France fights its own wars in Mali and elsewhere in Africa using drone strikes and attacks, and supports the US battling al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (10)

Tariq Ramadan, named by Time magazine as one of the most important innovators of the twenty-first century says we won’t defeat violent extremism unless we deal with justice and freedom for all people. “We have the West supporting the worst dictatorships and coming to us, as Western Muslims, and saying ‘Ok, now apologize for the consequences of what is happening’.” (11)

Take the West’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Amer Deghayes was a young Briton studying business administration who became a jihadist. He says, “The Muslim nation is like one body. If one part complains, the other parts react so it’s not a Syrian conflict but an Islamic conflict…I came to Syrian to answer a call of duty: to give victory to the religion of Allah and the way to do that is to help the oppressed Syrians and make sure they receive justice.” ISIS uses this us-versus-them mentality with its YODO recruitment campaign, “You Only Die Once. Why not make it martyrdom”? (12)

Dirty_Wars_book_cover_US_FinalJeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield argues the US and the West need to understand their own roles in legitimizing terrorism and take away the justification for it in order to fight it. “Who catches you when you fall? A lot of times in a society that has been decimated, a religion that’s been humiliated, people are looking for some kind of greater meaning, and there are a lot of people willing to take advantage of them.” (13) Groups like ISIS and AQAP become attractive to people who believe what they are doing is justified and are not afraid to die. The US policy of the following: unquestioning support for Israel, drone bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation of countries and torture project the image that the US is at war with a religion. President Bush used the word “crusade” in the early stages of the post September 11 aftermath.(14) Groups such as ISIS, AQAP, Boko Haram and al-Shabab are united by their perception that there is a world war against Islam, so they will fight all the non-believers.

During the days of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the following manhunt, Boko Haram burned villages and killed approximately two thousand people. Nigeria has the most powerful military in Africa, which it deploys around Africa in so-called humanitarian missions. Why can’t the Nigerian military confront Boko Haram in an effective way?  Adotei Akwei of Amnesty International, USA states there are credible reports verifying collusion and support for Boko Haram by the Nigerian military. According to Horace Campbell, professor of African American studies and political science at Syracuse University, elements with Nigeria’s Central Bank finance Boko Haram. He speculates that the US government knows who these elements are but instead of taking that information to African Union or the United Nations to expose all the forces in France, Chad, the Nigerian government and Cameroon that finance Boko Haram, the US uses that information to pressure Nigeria politically. Much like the situation in Iraq, the chaos in Nigeria is about oil. Ten thousand barrels of oil per day, worth billions of dollars, are siphoned out of Nigeria. Currently, the political class of Nigeria controls forty percent of the oil wealth.(15) John Kerry called Goodluck Johnathan and persuaded him to vote against Palestine’s bid for statehood. Professor Campbell accuses the US government of having information on bunkering, exportive capital and financing Boko Haram, which it uses selectively to get what it wants from the Nigerian government. (16)

The following experience makes Professor Campbell’s speculations heartbreakingly plausible. Many of my students in Kurdistan were the children and grandchildren of the political elite. According to a newspaper article that has since disappeared from Google’s search engine so we’ll have to call the following hearsay (I used to show this article online to colleagues in Kurdistan only to have it vanish one day from the internet), a member of the political elite took tens of millions of dollars in suitcases out of Kurdistan to deposit in several Western countries including the US. It was the third such transfer of dollars in that year. Customs officials were rumored to have been complicit in the transport of the dollars, which many speculate came from the illegal sale of Kurdish oil to Turkey and Iran via tanker trucks because the former prime minister of Iraq restricted the amount of oil he allowed the Kurds to sell via pipelines. Allegedly, that member of the political elite was accompanied by his son, one of my students, who saw the rule of law did not apply to his father, and therefore reasoned the rules of school did not apply to him. This student was a challenge to motivate and discipline. I appealed to his natural charisma which destines him to be a future leader of his country, queried the type of leader he wanted to become and set an example by how I led the class. I did not belittle or humiliate my students. I followed the same rules I set for them. I did for them what I expected them to do for me and for each other.

What happened to leading by example and having honor in leadership? A government’s legitimacy is derived from the people it governs, and justice is the basis for that governance. When political systems become unjust, when a government attacks its people, terrorism becomes attractive. If the entity that is supposed to protect you turns on you, where can you go? What do you do with your outrage at being betrayed? All people have a common enemy: violent extremism. We need to support the dignity of any life because it is the same dignity. We need to confront our Islamophobia to build inclusive societies where every life matters. The West, especially the US, needs to stop the actions that galvanize individuals towards extremist activities. In the end, we all want to feel we belong to place beneath our feet.



(1) Erlanger, Steven. “In West, ISIS Finds Women Eager to Enlist.” The New York Times 23 October 2014. Web. 23 October 2014, 02 December 2014, 12 January 2015.
(2) Lakhni, Suraj. “What Makes Young British Muslims Want to Go to Syria.” The Guardian 24 June 2014. Web. 12 January 2015.
(3) Erlanger, Steven. “In West, ISIS finds Women Eager to Enlist.” The New York Times 23 October 2014. Web. 02 December 2014, 12 January 2015.
(4) Erlanger, Steven. “In West, ISIS finds Women Eager to Enlist.” The New York Times 23 October 2014. Web. 08 December 2014, 12 January 2015.
(5) Erlanger, Steven. “In West, ISIS finds Women Eager to Enlist.” The New York Times 23 October 2014. Web. 10 December 2014, 12 January 2015.
(6) Dearden, Lizzie. “ISIS Supporters’ Offering Cash to British Girls as Young as 14 to Become Jihadi Brides in Syria.” The Independent 19/12/2014. Web. 20 December 2014, 14 January 2015.
(7) “Leading Muslim Scholar Tariq Ramadan: Attack on Paris Magazine “a Pure Betrayal of Our Religion”. “Tariq Ali. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 7 January, 2015. Web. 7 January 2015.
(8) “French Muslims Fear Backlash, Increased Islamophobia After Charlie Hebdo Attack.” Gilbert Achcar. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 9 January 2015. Web. 9 January 2015.
(9) “Gilbert Achcar on the Clash of Barbarisms from the Massacre in Paris to the U.S. Occupation of Iraq.” Gilbert Achcar. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 9 January 2015. Web. 9 January 2015.
(10) “Jeremy Scahill on Paris Attacks, the al-Qaeda Link & the Secret U.S. War in Yemen.” Jeremy Scahill. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 12 January 2015. Web. 12 January 2015.
(11) “Scholar Tariq Ramadan, Harper’s Rick MacArthur on Charlie Hebdo Attack & How the West Treats Muslims.” Tariq Ramadan. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 8 January 2015. Web. 8 January 2015.
(12) Vice Video “The Rise of British Jihadists in Syria.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 June 2014. Web. 13 January 2015.
(13) “Jeremy Scahill on Paris Attacks, the al-Qaeda Link & the Secret U.S. War in Yemen.” Jeremy Scahill. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 12 January 2015. Web. 12 January 2015.
(14) “Jeremy Scahill on Paris Attacks, the al-Qaeda Link & the Secret U.S. War in Yemen.” Jeremy Scahill. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 12 January 2015. Web. 12 January 2015.
(15) As Nigerian Massacre Evidence Grows, Questions Swirl over Collusion Between Boko Haram & Military.” Horace Campbell. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 16 January 2015. Web. 16 January 2015.
(16) As Nigerian Massacre Evidence Grows, Questions Swirl over Collusion Between Boko Haram & Military.” Horace Campbell. Democracy Now!. www.democracynow.org. 16 January 2015. Web. 16 January 2015.



Comments (11)

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  1. I am blown away by this analysis: print, reprint, tweet, retweet. A very powerful understanding of this whole, mad global polity. Time to change…..

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks – it’s part of our new focus on more international coverage – hope you enjoy and can share

  2. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This is a beautiful essay, a piece of deep compassion and life-giving understanding, a work of peace painted on the easel of experience, for which there is no substitute.

  3. gonzalo1 says:

    What exactly is Islamophobia? A phobia is an irrational fear of something so how could that relate to a dislike of aspects of a various religion?

  4. Darien says:

    It has proven very difficult if not impossible to fully ‘integrate’ Muslims into European societies. Is that entirely the fault of Europeans, most of whom nowadays are non Christian/secular? While Europeans welcome Muslims, European Christians are seldom welcomed into Muslim societies. Indeed, in many Muslim nations, Christians would not be permitted to live a Christian life, i.e. to create churches, and teach the Holy Bible. The secular Liberal west may feel pangs of guilt. But over what exactly?.

  5. Lawrence says:

    A powerful and thought provoking piece.
    “What happened to leading by example and having honor in leadership? A government’s legitimacy is derived from the people it governs, and justice is the basis for that governance. When political systems become unjust, when a government attacks its people, terrorism becomes attractive. If the entity that is supposed to protect you turns on you, where can you go? What do you do with your outrage at being betrayed?” just wonder how far down this road we`ve travelled.
    “Islamophobia”, anti-immigrant and now the demonising of the poor, the unemployed and anybody else that stands against them (the continued venom towards the independence movement if proof was needed), the huge turn out at the referendum proved it`s not just the Muslims youth that are feeling disenfranchised in this country.
    The Austerity programme of this government and its promised continuance after GE15 by both Labour and Conservative, is leading people to question their continued right to govern, as they serve only to line their own pockets and those of their rich buddies, driving a wedge of resentment between the haves and the have nots, many are turning to political parties like the SNP here in Scotland and UKIP down south, what happens when this option fails them?

  6. A further plea, as this article is, for support and enhancement of the ‘justice’ agenda, which, as poignantly demonstrated here, begins (or does not!) with a readiness for self-awareness, that is, for the people within governments, political and judicial systems at all levels to seek ways to acknowledge their responsibility in the overall injustice that continues to prevail. When we speak of ‘the powerful’ we include those of us who are part of that ‘system’. That awareness of our individual responsibility and the power that we have to act on it, is something that is beginning to resonate, here in Scotland, in Greece, and in many other places in the world at present.

    I’ve been reading so much about the difficulty that America has of recognising its guilt, both in respect of its foreign policy interventions, and its ‘institutional racism’ at home (Bryan Stevenson and the EJI, Observer, 1 February, 2015). The only way to overcome the resistance to change is to face our own historical and on-going complicity; we need some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ processes to facilitate a real ‘self-awareness’ of how we actually repress and disavow our clinging to our sense of superiority over ‘the other’, whether that be from the perspective of ‘(post-)Christianity’ or of whiteness.

  7. emilytom67 says:

    Why don,t they join jihad to build their communities,schools/hospitals/houses etc etc,there are none triumphant in death and destruction,why don,t we enter into dialogue with those we have forced ourselves on and offer them access to our educational facilities with the aim of training teachers/doctors and other skills,why do we take the American line in everything we do we should be talking to the Russians to come to a peaceful solution in Eastern Europe.It is obviously the military industrial complex calling the shots,there is little money to be made in peaceful co-existence.

  8. arthur thomson says:

    A fascinating post and much of what is written I can empathise with. In particular it is inevitable that the atrocious policy, of the UK and other governments, of exploiting and abusing people in other countries is bound to bring about a violent response eventually. What saddens me most, however, is how that inevitable response is then hijacked by the unscrupulous within those groups who have been victimised. The term ‘suicide bomber’ implies informed consent on the part of someone to choose to die. Ten year old girls are not suicide bombers they are the victims of murderers. The recruitment of impressionable young people to behead, burn and otherwise kill innocent people in the name of religion is no more tolerable than the killing sanctioned by rogue governments. In my opinion we have to rid ourselves of any notion that it is somehow justifiable. We need to start the process of change, as the writer of this post has said, by having an impact on the little bit of the world around us. We begin by addressing the absence of democracy in our own patch; by creating a democracy which is not characterised as ‘punching above its weight’ and which will not accept the use or threat of violence and aggression as being an appropriate foreign policy.

  9. Excellent piece, thank you for publishing it.
    Highlighting these Western inconsistencies and linking them to personal action and experience is something not enough commentators on the region do (and I should probably include myself here).

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