Shazia Mirza: From playground to warzone

I went to visit a friend in New York last year. We went to school together in the Islamic Republic of Birmingham. We’re both Muslim, but not Fox News Muslim. We don’t secretly preach hatred about white people in our flats on a Saturday afternoon, we do not harbour a secret desire to blow up every Wetherspoons, and we do not have wet dreams about the caliphate.

As we sat watching CNN, the screen was flooded with images of those three teenage girls from Bethnal Green who had gone to join Isis.

My friend shouted, “Are they mad? Why have they done that? We’d never have done that!”

I immediately felt shocked and sad and outraged, and I knew exactly how I felt about the news and what I wanted to say, which is strange because these days I find it hard to have a genuine feeling or an opinion about much, as there are so many people out there quick to tell me what I should be thinking. I don’t agree with what these girls have done but I totally understand why they’ve done it. So, I decided to write a show about it.

My friends and I were brought up in the same way as these girls were, though our parents were probably even more severe and despotic. My father was a typical 1970s Pakistani father, authoritarian, dictatorial, totalitarian, not to mention lacking in humour and not much fun, and my mother was a good wife. They were more cultural than religious, and my strict upbringing was akin to going on a trip with Idi Amin as a tour guide.

I was never allowed out of the house unaccompanied, I wasn’t allowed to go on school trips, holidays, have white friends, wear the clothes I wanted, or go to parties. I was never part of a club, a group or a gang in my life. I never felt like I fitted in, I felt odd with a lack of belonging. But we rebelled in the normal way: we went out to nightclubs in Birmingham with gay men and took ecstasy. We went out totally covered in trousers and long jumpers and, in public toilets, got changed into miniskirts and fluffy bras. I dyed my hair bright pink with Crazy Color and kept it hidden from mum by wearing a headscarf.

It was a repressive upbringing but I didn’t join the IRA or jump on a plane to marry Gaddafi.

I started talking to my Muslim girlfriends about this, one of them is an Islamic scholar. I asked her, “Would you join Isis?” She said, “No. I’d miss Nando’s.” And when I’d go home to Birmingham, my parents would watch the TV and say, “Why are these young people going? Don’t they miss their own bed?”

Just over a month ago, I performed a show in Leicester before an audience of 200 Muslim boys aged 18 to 35. When I asked if any of them would go and join Isis, they thought it was a joke and they laughed in my face. Over Christmas I went to the Birmingham Central Mosque, where the imam gave a sermon about sticking together as a whole human race and being non-judgemental towards those who do not believe in the same things as you might do. I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to hearing about whether I needed to pack my thermal bra for my new life in the Islamic State. But there was no announcement of, “Anyone wanting to join Isis, get on the waiting bus outside.”

So who are these people that are going? I haven’t knowingly met one, and don’t know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who has gone.


At last year’s Edinburgh Festival I billed my show — which focused on Isis, as well as other topics — as a “work in progress”, and it went well. I didn’t know how it would go: would people laugh or would they be offended? Would white middle-class intellectuals — you know, those Melvyn Bragg types that like me so much — think this was a suitable topic for comedy? I didn’t care. When you’re doing jokes about Isis, Melvyn Bragg types are the least of your problems.

In the show I refer to the Koran, and to the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, and the main question I got from people was, “Why don’t we know this?” To which my answer is, “Why would you know this?” Unless your best friends are the extremist preacher Anjem Choudary and you watch the Islam Channel.

I then did a two-week run at the Tricycle Theatre in London, where people asked me the same question again. The show was now called The Kardashians Made Me Do It, because, when the girls had left for Syria, their relatives were called into a home affairs select committee and one sister said, “I can’t understand why she’s gone, she used to watch The Kardashians.”

I blame the Kardashians for everything but not Isis.

When I was asked to do my show in Paris this month, I was apprehensive about going. Is this the right time? Will I be safe? But I’m going, nothing would be more humiliating to Isis. Bullets can kill people and it’ll all be over, but it would be more painful to them to be laughed at and ridiculed.

In my show, I explain why I think young girls are going.

Isis fighters on the border between Syria and Iraq in July 2014 © Alamy

These Isis men, as barbaric as they are, they are hot. They are macho, hairy, they’ve got guns, they’re exciting. They are the One Direction of Islam, they are pop stars, pin-ups and sex symbols, and these repressed, rebellious, horny teenage girls fancy them, so they buy themselves a one-way ticket to Syria for some halal sex and no guilt because Allah approves.

When I was a teenager, Tom Selleck, Don Johnson and Boy George were all the rage. I had pictures of them on my bedroom wall, I wanted to run away with them and marry them all at once. I really fancied them. I knew in reality it could never be, as at least one of them was gay and none of them was Muslim.

Now those pin-ups have been replaced by Jihadi Jack, John and Ginger, who are all “Muslim”, and running away to them and marrying them is a possibility and a reality.

It’s not radicalisation, it’s sexualisation.

It’s got nothing to do with religion, these girls are unlikely to know much about religion: when I was 15, even though I learnt the Koran five nights a week after school, I knew nothing about Islam. We can all rote-learn the words but it takes years to understand the essence of the Koran, and they would not have known that at 15 or 16 years old. They would not have known much about politics either. Some runaways claim they are joining Isis because they are angry at the way Muslims have constantly been attacked and killed by the west, yet many were not even born when the American bombing of Afghanistan, Libya and the Gulf happened.

These girls are driven by romance, adventure and sexual fantasy. The first thing they do when they get over there is get married. My idea of marrying well would be Bill Gates, Paul McCartney or even Prince Harry. Their idea of marrying well is a Jihadi Tom, Dick or Mohammed. It gives them a sense of purpose. When I was a repressed, disillusioned teenage Muslim girl looking for purpose, I got a Saturday job at Baskin-Robbins. They’re thinking, “I’ll be a better Muslim, I’ll go to Syria, get married, and help people.” They could have just got a job at their local Oxfam.


People can’t understand why young girls are going, knowing that this is the most dangerous terrorist organisation in history. But the violence is part of the attraction. Isis are brutal, head-cutting fanatics, committing mass genocide with the aim of eradicating all non-believers and people who like a bit of fun. And these girls are still going? I was too scared to sit on the top deck of a bus at 15, never mind go and join a group of mass murderers.

But this is nothing new, women have always been attracted to barbaric men. The Yorkshire Ripper regularly gets letters from women asking him to marry them. Women are always attracted to crazy men and vice versa. Rihanna and Chris Brown, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Punch and Judy.

Nothing fools people as much as extreme passion. It’s the Donald Trump syndrome. What you’re saying doesn’t even have to be true just as long as you are extreme and passionate. It’s enough to brainwash and delude people into thinking they’re right. It’s the fashionable formula, used by Isis, Trump and Tony Blair.

And, if it all goes wrong, it doesn’t matter as you get free entry to paradise, where, as it states in the Koran: “There will be all that the souls could desire, all that the eyes could delight in.”(Koran 43:71)

“They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade. They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good is the recompense! How beautiful a couch is there to recline on!” (Koran 18:31)

This is not kids being radicalised. The west wants to think it is some religious or political reason but it is purely sexual, and it’s a fantasy.

If some hot hairy Muslim Brad Pitt had written to me at 15 and sent me pictures asking me to join him, it might have seemed like an exciting way out. But it would have been nothing to do with religion.

Loads of Muslim women I have spoken to think the same as me but you won’t hear this view in the news because it doesn’t fit the narrative that young people are being radicalised by religion in mosques, and that they want to commit jihad as revenge for attacks on Islam.

There is a battle between the right and the left in this country. The rightwing press has loved my Kardashians show because I’m saying things they want to say but can’t because of political correctness, and the left think I should be keeping these things to myself. The right like me for all the wrong reasons, and the left want to silence me. I’m a comedian, and I just want to say how it is, with a joke and a laugh.

When one of us pops up, for example Nadiya Hussain from The Great British Bake Off, the right and the left will have opposing views on what they want this person to do for them. The right want them to become the acceptable face of something they actually hate, so they can say they are not racist and bigoted: “I’ve got nothing against Muslims, you know — I actually made that Nadiya from Bake Off’s fizzy pop cheesecake for my son’s birthday — but we just need to close the borders and let the rest of them drown.”

And the left want their Nadiya figures to be a role model for everything, to be more than just a cake baker. “I just think it’s remarkable what Nadiya has achieved. Brought up in poverty in some northern slum, she fought back against the patriarchy, using just a spatula, a bag of flour, and some icing sugar. Imagine what she could do with our failing schools.”

And, when people don’t understand what I’m saying, the easiest thing for them to do is just say, “It’s not funny, I’m offended.” Some people don’t want to believe what I say about these girls; some think that’s just not possible! And some believe there must be a more complicated reason.

It may sound frivolous that instead of chasing boys around the playground, these girls are chasing boys around a warzone. But throughout history people have gone to extremes for sex — Christine Keeler, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer.

I am fed up with having to represent, apologise for and disassociate myself from the actions of deranged individuals who claim to share the same faith as me. Our government, public and news channels are confused. Yet the explanation for the girls’ actions may not be in religious scriptures, or places of worship, it may just be behind the bike sheds.

Shazia Mirza (shazia-mirza.com) is touring the UK in ‘The Kardashians Made Me Do It’, including a stint at the Soho Theatre, London, March 1-5

Photographs: Metropolitan Police/AFP/Getty Images; Alamy


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