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."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The writer Fatima Bhutto is a member of one of Pakistan's great political families. She sometimes meets visitors in the home office of her late grandfather, who was prime minister. She is an acclaimed journalist and author. Yet, because of her religion and background, she has also felt slighted, which led Bhutto to write a novel called "The Runaways." Three young people run away from home to join an ISIS-style extremist group. Fatima Bhutto started writing back when the so-called Islamic State dominated much of Syria and Iraq.
FATIMA BHUTTO: It had been years by that point, 15 years of the war on terror and of feeling utterly demonized everywhere. Anytime 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. But if you happen to be a Muslim - and, of course, there are, you know, more than a billion of us - you know that there's nothing inherently radical about Islam. But I began to feel wounded. And I wanted to explore, really, what are the causes, as far as we can see them, of radicalism?
INSKEEP: The novel makes it clear that you find the decisions of some of these young people, who decide to join an extremist group, to be completely foolish. And yet you're saying you agree on some level with the critique that drives some of them.
BHUTTO: Well, I think that when we're talking about what has been done in the name of Islamic radicalism, it's really Muslim countries that have suffered the brunt of that, you know? My home, Pakistan, has been, you know, destroyed. I mean, so absolutely I am deadly against the notion that radicalism has some kind of political value. But at the same time, I think it's important to understand the reasons that so many young people - not just young men, but young men and women - are drawn to these groups. 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.
INSKEEP: Well, you focus on three young people - two men, one woman. They are not all in the same country. They are in Britain and in Pakistan. They've got different motivations. But what do they all have in common?
BHUTTO: Well, the thing they all have in common is that (laughter) it's not religion. You have poverty. You know, a raging inequality is the driving factor for one of the characters. You have another character who's absolutely heartsick, who's heartbroken. And that's what leads him to Iraq to join an ISIS-style movement. And I think you have another character who is incredibly lonely and incredibly isolated and doesn't see the possibility of a future for himself in England.
So part of the pitch is, you know, your countries don't want you. They hate you. Come here and build a society. And not only will you build a society, but you will have power. You will have influence. You will have control. And, of course, when you get there, I think, you find there's no control. There's no power. There's no glory. There's death, destruction.
INSKEEP: Did it feel dangerous to you to write about an extremist group in a critical way even though you're doing it in a fictional work?
BHUTTO: Yes, it did, Steve. It felt scary to do the research because I was looking at countries I know, I love, I've lived in. It was frightening to see how successful they were at a lot of their messaging. And then, of course, it was totally terrifying to go through airports with my laptop filled with research material (laughter) and wondering how I would explain it, you know? I'm writing a novel is kind of like my dog ate my homework, I think, at an airport.
INSKEEP: Oh, so you were worried about being suspected of something by security forces in one country or another?
BHUTTO: Well, you know, I was writing this book in 2014-15. And the world was gripped by a hysteria at that time, you know? ISIS was - exploded onto the world in this sort of horrific, spectacular way. And everybody was panicked. And I felt it. I mean, that's part of the woundedness is that when people would hear where I come from or that I'm a 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 over the last 20 years. So it did kind of heighten that a bit.
INSKEEP: Did you fear that some extremist would not like what you wrote?
BHUTTO: Well, there were times when I had to think about what I was doing carefully because I didn't want to mirror something too closely. I didn't want to inflame sentiments, I wanted to understand them. So yes, I think, unfortunately, the experience of being Pakistani means you're always watching yourself because it can be dangerous to think. It can be dangerous to question. But at the same time, I knew I needed a certain degree of freedom in order to get to the heart of the whole thing, to get to the heart of the weaponization of the Internet, to get to the heart of social isolation.
INSKEEP: Have the pandemic and the economic crisis opened more space for extremists?
BHUTTO: I think, weirdly, they've shut them down, you know? ISIS, you know, issued a press release to all its fighters saying, please don't travel to Europe - at the beginning of the pandemic - because it's out of control there. So you know, they were issuing the same calls that anyone else was ordering. But I think they're just lying low like everyone, like all of us. People have had to kind of retreat. But I do worry. I do worry about what will happen when the world returns to normal if, in fact, the world can return to normal.
INSKEEP: When you follow these characters in your imagination from their homes to the battlefield in Iraq - and one of them, at least, does a truly, truly atrocious thing - did you still have sympathy for them?
BHUTTO: Well, I think when you're writing fiction especially, Steve, you can't do it as an executioner. You can't do it as a judge. You have to do it as a very distant observer, as a compassionate observer. And one of the characters - I think you mean Sammy in particular - was the character I felt the most attached to because I felt so much for the life that he destroyed, his own before he destroyed anyone else's. And even as I watched my characters do terrible things, I mourned the fact that they didn't have other choices, that they would never again have other choices. And I think that's the thing fiction gives you that the real world doesn't. It allows you to mourn at the same time as you may be afraid, or you may be terrified.
INSKEEP: The novel by Fatima Bhutto is "The Runaways." Thanks.
BHUTTO: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF DHAFER YOUSSEF'S "BIRDS CANTICUM 'BIRDS REQUIEM' SUITE" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.