Young Europeans Seduced by ISIS – Two Films

What leads young European boys and girls to radicalization and jihad fascination? Which are the inputs that convince them to become part of Daesh fighters? A very delicate and topical theme tackled also by the cinema. Below we present the analysis of two films – one French, one Dutch – dedicated to this topic, with three girls as protagonists: “Layla M.” of Mijke De Jong (2016, Netherlands)

Inclusion, radicalism, integration, political Islam and multiculturalism are all addressed in the film “Layla M.” (2016, by Dutch director Mijke De Jong, produced by Topkapi), not yet distributed in Italy but very well received at the Toronto and Philadelphia film festivals, among others.

Starring a young Nora el-Koussour, freshly graduated from Rotterdam’s Drama School, the story is primarily, but not only, a ‘roman d’apprentissage’.

Layla is a soul-searching 18-year-old who does not see eye-to-eye with her cultural and affective points of reference whose lifestyle she does not want to adopt. Born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents, she should have nothing to complain about in the eyes of viewers who do not yet know her. Hers is a well-off family, one integrated into the Dutch social fabric. Layla and her brother Youn study, engage in sporting activities, have peers and are privileged enough to be able to look to the future with the ease of those free to choose.

Nevertheless, Layla is angry. Confined to a land with which she can not identify, she is left simmering with resentment. She is not sufficiently Dutch for the Dutch from whom, due to her hijab, she is subject to racist sentiments to which Youn is not exposed (albeit he resorts to shaving his beard, originally grown to appease his sister, in order to not be identified with radical Islam), yet she does not feel Moroccan enough due to the distance between her and the Arab countries to which she dreams of moving.

Hungry for information, with the excitement of your average teenager, Layla devours all that the web has to offer her; radical preachings, discussions on Palestine and Syria, images of unarmed civilians obliterated by Western bombs and lessons on classic Koranic Arabic. This proves to be a lethally fascinating and uncensored combination.

Meanwhile, her adoptive country is confronting the potential risk of terrorism, thus keeping an eye on young Muslims expressing radical tendencies. It is in this battle of wits with the state that Layla, having become a potential ‘threat’, finally feels a sense of belonging to a group. Her way of speaking begins to change in family discussions, delineating a new distinction between ‘we’ (we Arabs and true Muslims who are ill-treated, discriminated against and do not belong to this country) and ‘you’ (you who have recanted your roots and faith, you who are being deceived and are losing your ways).

Layla’s father senses the threat. He too is a practicing Muslim but his daughter has been led astray on her path of faith by decontextualized, unreasonable interpretations. “Stop reciting the verses. You must take the Koran as a whole,” he yells one day from the dinner table.

Her mother chooses a softer approach, attempting to maintain an open channel of communication.

The problem is that no one, not even her beloved brother Youn, is able to make themselves heard to her. She finds more appeal in those who embrace her soul-searching whilst offering her absolute truths to which she can grab hold of without debate nor concise answers to life’s questions.

The sphere of education is curiously portrayed, depicted as a massive factory of examinations through which students are sorted with total disinterest towards their individualities.

Thus, in search of an entirely personal ‘outfit’ to adopt, the girl with long black hair resorts to incrementally covering herself, strand after strand, and to move from imitating jihads in the Netherlands (where she is however free to turn up to Salafite meetings by bike) to fighting the jihad in the Middle East.

The Charon in this scenario is Abdul, her first prayer companion, whom she met in an apartment belonging to Zine (an older ‘initiate’ who will soon disappear because he is hunted by the police, due to his work as a recruiter of fighters, Editor’s Note) and who will later become her husband in the name of Allah.

This elopement soon becomes alienation. Layla and Abdul follow an itinerary that he alone has established, passing through the military training camps in the Ardennes to the suburbs of a Belgian city. Their departure for Jordan is followed by a brief interval in which Layla, it seems, finds her calling. Being able to volunteer in a refugee camp answers the girl’s necessity to do good, to devote her life to others and put into practice the Prophet’s teachings.

Abdul, however, has embarked on another route. Political and social activism are not enough for him, making him an easy prey for Zine who is actually there to recruit fighters and shuhada’ (martyrs). According to Layla, who at last has understood, “he is the demon who ruined everything”.

When her husband says his goodbyes before sacrificing himself in a jihad, the first thought that crosses the girl’s mind is ‘to go back home’. And that is exactly what she will do.

At this point, however, it is up to us European spectators-citizens to draw our conclusions and process our reflections.

Once arrested at the airport in Holland, Layla cries but says nothing to the police when asked about her activities in the Middle East. One does not know to what extent she still follows to the ideology that seduced and overwhelmed her in the previous months. Her silence says a great deal about the complexity of an eventual de-radicalisation process.

Assuming however that she has repented, what does she expect from that Western society that she at first rejected only to finally desire once again?

“It’s a bit late for tears,” says the police officer questioning her. His are the last words spoken in the film.

It is indeed too late for the hundreds of ‘Abduls’ who have left for the Middle East never to return again. However, for the many others who find themselves in the balancing act of multiculturalism, such as those of second and third generations immigrant families who are heading towards European citizenships, all roads remain wide open.

“Le ciel attendra” of Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar (2016, France)

by Anna Tito

Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s film Le ciel attendra [the sky can wait], the story of two typically French adolescent girls recruited by agents of the Islamic Caliphate, is extremely brave in addressing a delicate and very topical subject. Written the day after the 2015 November 13th massacres in Paris, the director describes it as “an urgent film, arising from an instinct, an impulse.” Even before its release in theatres on October 5th, the Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem recommended this feature film (105’) to teachers as an “educational tool” for opposing and preventing this epidemic.

This tragic and extremely topical story narrates the events experienced by two middle-class girls recruited by Islamic fundamentalists through Facebook or, more generally, through social media and the inevitable tragedy which will unfold amongst their families. Sonia and Mélanie lead comfortable and seemingly calm lives; they attend school, have friends, enjoy themselves, read books and have attentive and loving parents. However, something within them changes resulting in rebellion against their environment, their institutions, France and the Western world. Not having been able to detect this, the families are left profoundly bewildered by a radicalization which they never even suspected. The girls seek the paradise that Islamic radicalism offers them on a path strewn with madness, revolutions and utopia.

Following Les héritiers [screened in Italy as Una volta nella vita, in 2014], the director returns to address the theme of adolescent rebellion from the perspective of the radicalisation of French youth. Both the lead actresses, Noémie Merlant (Sonia) and Naomi Amarger (Mélanie) – who already starred in Les héritiers – confirm their talent by naturally portraying these young tormented girls who allow themselves to be lured by the Islamic State without ever having been to a mosque nor having heard any preachers.

The story begins at the dawn of an average day in a Parisian suburb when the police raid the building inhabited by Catherine (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Samir (Zinedine Soualem), an atheist of Maghrebi origins, to arrest Sonia who was about to join jihadists in Syria. Her incredulous parents are shocked to learn that their daughter was on the verge of carrying out an attack. Thus begins the battle to reverse the ‘spell’ which has possessed the girl, convincing her that a jihad would be beneficial to her family by protecting them from a world bent on self-destruction and guaranteeing them a place in paradise. A furious and violent Sonia, deprived of all means of communication, resorts to stealing a mobile phone in order to watch an Islamic State propaganda video.

In an equally suburban area on the other side of the city Mélanie, a perfectly ordinary sixteen-year-old raised by her divorced mother Sylvie (Clotilde Courau), spends her days between school, friends, viola lessons and voluntary work. Then one day she starts to chat with a ‘prince’, an agent of the Caliphate, a man she does not know but who finds the words the girl obviously needs to hear, so much so that he manages to brainwash her. Submitting to her love for the ‘prince’ and rendered incapable of autonomous thought, she now feels disposed to do anything. Similarly to Sonia’s case, the parents are devastated by the guilt of having been oblivious to their daughter’s transformation. Mélanie, who just a few weeks ago was practicing Bach on the viola, keeps a niqab and a prayer mat hidden under her bed and watches films of lions killing other animals to feed their pride; a metaphor used to justify the killing of others.

Similar to the withdrawal of an addict, Sonia gradually distances herself from radicalism whereas, on the other hand, Mélanie sinks in a downward spiral of deterioration with no detox in sight. She will leave for the the Caliphate and no more will be heard of her, whereas Sonia regains her senses: for her, that promised paradise and martyrdom that follows from massacre and horror can wait. Hence the film’s title.

The script – co-written by Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar and Emilie Frèche – is based on the stories told by repentant jihadist girls who fled from Raqqa and narrated by those working for organisations opposing Islamic State’s recruitment of the young as well as by families affected by this phenomenon.  Dounia Bouzar, an expert on the so-called ‘de-radicalisation’ process, has contributed a great deal to the film. With great talent she plays herself, an anthropologist directing a Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Deviations linked to Islam (CPDSI), an organisation aimed at ‘de-enlistment’ that she directed until just a few months ago. She authorised the inclusion of actual documentary footage in which dismayed parents talk to converted adolescents.

The director wanted the two leading characters to be female as she considered the phenomenon of enlisting women more mysterious. Since her film is for the most part aimed at a public of adolescents, she also chose to refrain from portraying the most horrific element of radicalization: the consent to commit atrocities. She intends to dispel the very widespread belief that almost exclusively weak and alienated youngsters living in disadvantaged districts fall prey to ISIS recruiters.

Le ciel attendra
allows us to discover all the tactics used, particularly online, to enlist young people who are in search of an ideal who, however, know very little about Islam. This is made evident in a scene where a converted Mélanie is convinced she practices her faith better than her Muslim friend who, although also wearing the veil, preaches Islam based on spirituality and tolerance, saying “According to Allah, the manner in which you pray matters less than what you feel in your heart.”

The film alternates between examples of excessive harshness, such as those in which Sonia’s father intrudes on her bathroom privacy in order to prevent her from praying, to scenes filled with tenderness in which we are shown numerous affectionate maternal embraces. Thus, Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar presents us a film about love; that of parents often incapable of understanding the signs of a crisis and unable to protect their children from the influential messages with which the internet forcefully intrudes their minds, distorting it with a desire for justice and the need to rebel.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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