By Dyan Mazurana, Dallin Van Leuven and Rachel Gordon

This blog is part of a series on gender and ISIL. For a full discussion see Van Leuven, Dallin, Dyan Mazurana and Rachel Gordon (forthcoming), “Analysing Foreign Females and Males in the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) through a Gender Perspective,” Foreign Fighters under International Law and Beyond, edited by Andrea de Guttry, Francesca Capone and Christopher Paulussen, ASSER/Springer Verlag.

The core message ISIL delivers to potential male recruits is that manhood is synonymous with their interpretation of Islam and the fight to achieve the caliphate. ISIL crafts a gendered narrative to exploit cleavages between sympathetic Muslims and their home countries. The group suggests not only that Muslims cannot be “real” men and women outside the Islamic State, but that they cannot be “true” Muslims either. As Michael Kimmel suggests, masculinity is a dynamic trait that can be denied, seized, recognized, and conferred by others—particularly other men and at times through violence. ISIL’s message: Where the world “denies” potential recruits their masculinity, the Islamic State is ready to confer. The group promises these young men that by immigrating to the combat zones of Iraq and Syria, they will “reclaim” their masculinity by assuming their idealized gender roles of fighter and protector.

ISIL’s media presence is calculated to draw young men and women as recruits. To appeal to young men, it employs hyper-militarized, hyper-masculinized and particularly violent motifs to portray its fighters as the epitome of “real men.” Such violent masculine imagery of power over other males reaffirms Kimmel’s theory that masculinity is not an inherent state of being, but is rather a status that is conferred by others—particularly other males.[i]

This message is disseminated by tens of thousands of ISIL’s supporters, many of whom have made the journey to Syria or Iraq. These muhajirat – pilgrims – explicitly equate their travel to the so-called Islamic State to a religious duty. They also regale their friends, families, and followers back home with stories of victories, salaries, and their new wives and/or sex slaves. When young Tunisian men who wished to join told the New York Times that ISIL recruits “live better than us!” they were effectively saying, “They are more manly than us!”

Not only is ISIL perceived by some as more successful and disciplined than other fighting forces in the area, but it is reportedly the highest-paying opposition militia in Syria.[ii] ISIL is attracting foreign families by providing food, salaries, and accommodations worth over US$1000 a month to those who immigrate with their families to the so-called Islamic State.[iii] “The more they are successful at creating a whole new society, the more they are able to attract entire families,” Dr. Bloom stated, “It’s almost like the American dream, but the Islamic State’s version of it.”[iv]

These factors—combining male power through violence, the potential of being rewarded, and having one’s masculinity reinforced by access to forced wives, sexual slaves or wives recruited by ISIL—make the organization attractive to a number of young men. Indeed, ISIL internet messages compare the dull, isolated and discouraging lives their potential male recruits are leading to the glories and excitement of being involved in nothing less than apocalyptic battles between good and evil. These fantasies can be particularly appealing to young men who feel ostracized, disempowered and unmanly.

As Kimmel writes, “Masculinity is not, however, the experience of power; it is the experience of entitlement to power”[v] that comes from previous centuries of some males domination and supremacy over other males and females. Yet the current reality is that many men are in fact dis-empowered and therefore resort to violence in an attempt to reassert their “rightful” power over girls, women and other men.[vi] ISIL recruiters identify and feed this desire for violent and “righteous” male domination and empowerment. For the Islamic State, masculinity means subjugation—over non-Muslims, girls, women, and other men. This can be seen in ISIL’s propaganda: stage managed images and videos where their fighters stand firm and menacing over captured (often soon-to-be-executed) men or choreographed slow-motion combat scenes. It can also be seen in their enslavement of women and girls for domestic service and sexual enslavement, as well as in forcing Christians within the group’s territory to pay an extortive tax known as jizya.

Furthermore, by bringing their families, and by building and securing families with wives provided by ISIL, the group hopes that its foreign recruits will be more dedicated to building and defending the so-called Islamic State and its new society. Some male foreign fighters are bringing their wives and children with them, rather than leaving them behind as foreign fighters in other conflicts often do.[vii] German convert Denis Cuspert (who goes by the name of Abu Talha al-Almani), appeared in an hour-long ISIL video and called upon Muslims to join him in Syria and to bring their families: “What shall a family do alone in the land of [unbelievers] and you are alone in the land of honor? I advise you: If you emigrate take your family with you.”[viii]

Migration to the so-called Islamic State also appears to be motivated by a lack of attachment to one’s home country due to a constellation of gendered, social, ethnic, religious, economic, and/or political schisms.[ix] Mayor Hans Bonte of the Belgian town of Vilvoorde, which saw 28 residents (both male and female) leave for Syria, said that, “What they all have in common is a feeling of rootlessness, of not belonging.”[x] In this way, it is a search for identity and belonging that draws women and men into ISIL, which works to emphasize or exacerbate feelings of alienation while claiming to provide an alternative.

For many male recruits, ISIL narratives peddling a life of masculine adventure and glory, romance/sex, meaning and belonging, and offering a means to become a “real Islamic man” are salient factors in their joining.


[i]Kimmel, M (2005) ‘Masculinities and Gun Violence: The Personal Meets the Political’, Paper prepared for a session at the UN on “Men, Women and Gun Violence,” 14 July 2005, New York: United Nations

[ii] Sprusansky D (2014). Understanding ISIS: Frequently asked questions. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 33(7):19-20, p 20

[iii] Sullivan K, Adam K (2014) “Hoping to Create a New Society, the Islamic State Recruits Entire Families.” The Washington Post. Accessed 16 March 2015

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kimmel, np

[vi] Ibid., np (emphasis in original)

[vii] For example, see Zuijdewijn J de R van (2014) “‘Jihadfamilies’ in Huizen: Part II.” Leiden Safety and Security Blog. Accessed 11 May 2015

[viii] Heinke D, Raudszus J (2015) “German Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq.” CTC Sentinel 8(1):18-21, p 19

[ix]International Crisis Group (2015) Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia. Accessed 16 March 2015, p 1-2

[x] Bode L de (2015) “From Belgium to Syria and Back: How an Altar Boy Became an ISIL Admirer”, Al Jazeera America. Accessed 16 March 2015


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