As police raided an apartment in the Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Denis on Thursday, a young woman by the name of Hasna Aitboulahcen blew herself up. You might expect that Aitboulahcen's decision to become western Europe's first female suicide bomber was driven by her extreme vision of her Islamic religious faith. However, a report published in the Daily Mail paints a picture of a far from pious private life.
The 26-year-old had a "bad reputation" for her string of boyfriends and love of alcohol and cigarettes, the British newspaper reported, with her own brother revealing she had never read the Koran and had shown no interest in Islam. A photograph of Aitboulahcen lying topless in a bubble bath was used to accompany the article, apparently a signal of her irreligiosity.
Aitboulahcen wasn't the only Paris attacker who confounds our expectations of religious extremists, though the fact she was a woman seemed to bring her more attention than the others. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian believed to have played a key role in the attacks, is reported to have been spotted drinking whiskey on Saturday, less than 24 hours after scores were left dead in Paris. Brahim Abdeslam, an attacker who blew himself up on Friday outside a cafe, was apparently better known for his love of weed than his knowledge of Islamic scripture. "The number of joints that he smoked was alarming," his ex-wife was quoted as saying.
Is it really so shocking that people willing to commit mass murder might be religiously hypocritical, engaging in drink, drugs, sex and who knows what else? There are certainly high-profile precedents. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, multiple stories suggested the attackers had frequented strip clubs and drank alcohol to excess before carrying out their plots. The al-Qaeda mastermind behind that plot, Osama bin Laden, was said to have had a stash of pornography at the Pakistan hideout where he was eventually killed, though those reports remain very unconfirmed (and apparently classified, true or not).
Besides, religious hypocrisy is far from limited to fringe Islamic elements, as many Christians could tell you.
The rise of the Islamic State — a group that, in its own opinion, practices the most dogmatic, inflexible version of the Islamic faith possible — has already produced a remarkable number of these tales of jihadis being taken in by various vices. The group has been accused of giving cocaine to its fighters and it is widely accepted that members have taken female prisoners as sexual slaves.
The French journalist Nicolas Henin was held hostage by the Islamic State for 10 months. He was struck by the fact that many of his captors were total dopes. "I found them more stupid than evil," he wrote this week. Such an assessment seems to be shared by the vast majority of the Islamic world. Last year a group of British imams called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop calling the group the Islamic State, making a request for a new moniker, "Un-Islamic State," instead. Comedians from all over the Muslim world have mocked the group, generally portraying them as naive and puerile losers.
When you look closely at those involved in Islamist-inspired terrorism over the years, it's quite clear that not everyone involved actually has the soundest knowledge of the Islamic faith. As Mehdi Hasan pointed out in the New Statesman last year, wannabe jihadists were more likely to be found buying "Islam for Dummies" than any real work of Islamist text. (Yes, a pair of plotters in Britain really did buy that book before being arrested.) Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who founded what would eventually become the Islamic State, could hardly be considered a scholar. The Jordanian was a high school dropout better known for his drinking and fighting than love of the Koran.
Even so, there are still those within the Islamic State who spur alcohol and have good knowledge of the scripture, poring over obscure hadiths to find religious justification for the group's more unforgivable acts. The less-than-pious lives of some recruits probably doesn't mean necessarily mean anything to the ongoing argument about whether the Islamic State's rise says anything about the broader Islamic world or not either, only confirming that among the Islamic State's recruits, there is probably a diversity of backgrounds, intellects and aims.
But the way that these stories are lapped up by audiences perhaps is revealing and a little distressing. It's almost as if Hasna Aitboulahcen's love life and boozy antics were needed to confirm she was a bad person — as if the plans for mass murder weren't quite enough.
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