What forces propel young people to give up everything to join a violent extremist movement like the so-called Islamic State? That’s the question that drove Fatima Bhutto to write the novel The Runaways.
The book was born out of Bhutto’s own frustration and sadness. “It had been years by that point — 15 years of the War on Terror — and of feeling utterly demonized everywhere,” she says. “Any time something happened in the world, the media, politicians, people in coffee shops at airports would just say, ‘Oh, well, yes, that’s Islamic radicalism,’ and that would be the end of the conversation.”
As she worked on the manuscript in 2014 and 2015, the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was on the rise in those countries. “Everybody was panicked,” she recalls, “and I felt that. That’s part of the woundedness. When people would hear where I come from, or that I’m Muslim, or that I was born in Afghanistan, I could see a certain fear in people. And I think a lot of young Muslims, a lot of young Asians have felt that.”
At the beginning, The Runaways reads like three novels in one. It’s the intertwined story of three young people from very different places and circumstances who are all pulled into a violent Islamic extremist movement in Iraq. So what brought them there?
“If you happen to be a Muslim — and, of course, there are more than a billion of us — you know that there’s nothing inherently radical about Islam,” she says.
“It’s not religion” that drives her characters to an extremist movement, Bhutto explains. Instead, it’s humiliation, poverty, rejection, heartbreak, loneliness and alienation.
That alienation leaves young people open to the “seductive” appeal of extremist movements. As Bhutto puts it: “It’s an appeal for power. It says to a generation of people who have absolutely no power that they can be kings of a society. And it says to people who are alienated from their countries that there are other places where a vision is waiting for them. And I think it’s dangerous to just dismiss all this without looking at exactly what is seductive about the messaging.”
In The Runaways, Bhutto calls the violent Islamic extremist movement that entices her protagonists to Iraq “the Ummah Movement.” Like the so-called Islamic State in real life, the Ummah Movement capitalizes on the humiliation that so many young people have suffered due to poverty, or colonialism, or Islamophobia.
“Part of the pitch is, you know, your countries don’t want you, they hate you,” Bhutto says. “Come here and build a society. And not only will you build a society, but you will have power, you will have influence, you’ll have control. And of course, when you get there, I think you find there is no control. There’s no power, there’s no glory. There’s death and destruction.”
Bhutto says it’s frightening how successful extremist messaging has been in countries that she has loved and lived in.
What happens to her characters once they join the Ummah Movement is the focus of the second half of the novel, but Bhutto says those details matter less to her than the forces that brought them to Iraq in the first place.
“I wasn’t really looking at the structure of a radical movement, of a terror group, of a death cult,” she says. “I was really trying to look at why a 19-year-old boy would give up everything, why he would give up his family, his future, his friends, his city, his country, his freedom, in order, quite literally, to take up arms against the world.”
As a novelist, Bhutto says her job is to serve as a distant, but compassionate observer. “Even as I watched my characters do terrible things,” she says, “I mourned the fact that they didn’t have other choices, that they would never again have other choices.”