The woman who became Europe’s first female suicide bomber during a raid in Paris wasn’t what you’d expect. Hasna Ait Boulahcen, 26, was a party girl with the nickname “The Cowgirl.” She took selfies in a bathtub surrounded by bubbles and draped in jewelry. She spent most of her life clubbing, smoking, and drinking. And she had a lot of boyfriends.
That’s definitely not the portrait of a typical radical Islamist woman. Yet Ait Boulahcen blew herself up, her head blasting through the window onto the street and her spine falling onto a police car below. All in the name of Allah.
This incongruity has reporters who are investigating her life story scratching their heads. How does a party girl become a suicide bomber? Let me give you one very plausible explanation.
We learn a lot about this young woman through her brother Youssouf, who said he had never seen her open a Koran until she was recently radicalized by their cousin, a jihadist who had been in Syria and was well-known by European authorities. Before that, the family tried to help her clean up her life and be a better person, but she seemed to have swung from one extreme to another.
According to the Daily Mail, “Youssouf described his relationship with his sister as complicated. ‘She spent her time criticising everything,’ he said. ‘She refused to accept any advice, she didn’t want to sort herself out.’”
A Complicated Life and Death
Complicated is the choice word when describing this young woman’s life. Her parents migrated from Morocco to Paris in 1973, where she was born in 1989. Her parents, however, divorced when she was young. After that she was placed in foster care, though it’s not clear why. Her mother still lives in France, just outside of Paris. Her father lives in Creutzwald, Moselle (northeastern France), where she visited him often. He’s described as a man who goes to mosque frequently but isn’t strict.
Ait Boulahcen’s brother says she had been a victim of violence since she was very young: “mistreated and rejected—she never received the love she needed.”
‘From the age of five she was taken into care, so she grew up with a foster family.
‘She was happy and she flourished at that point in her adolescence. Then as she grew up she went off the rails. She became reckless, running away and choosing bad company.
‘I was never very close to her because we lived apart but during the opportunities I had to talk to her she was full of enthusiasm, although her instability always dragged her down, she was not grounded in her. She went from one life project to another, without question.’
Ait Boulahcen’s final “life project” was jihad. Why? Was she simply a disturbed young woman looking to end it all in a blaze of glory—like mass murderers who kill themselves after they’ve rained terror on their victims? Was nihilism her motivation? Or was it something else? Why jihad in particular? How had she become radicalized just a month prior to the Paris attacks, trading in her cowboy hat for a headscarf, her party dress for a suicide vest?
The Middle Eastern Honor Culture Is a Factor
To begin with, let me give you some context by pulling back from the particular case of Ait Boulahcen, on which we can only theorize, and look at female suicide bombers in general, something that is a growing problem as more women are radicalized.
While there are several motivations for a woman to become a jihadist—revenge for killing husbands and fathers in war is one—the most prominent is the desire for honor and redemption. This honor, according to the Middle Eastern mindset, is very much tied to a woman’s purity. One could even say this is fundamental to her honor, and Muslims take it very seriously, especially those who are conservative. If a woman’s honor is compromised because her purity has been lost, then she is shamed. Her guilt is internalized.
This purity can be lost any number of ways: through sex outside of wedlock, being a victim of rape, even being unable to bear children. Whatever the reason, a Muslim woman who has lost her purity has lost her honor. Her life is one of shame. She is without hope in this life and the next.
Such a way of thinking is, of course, alien to the secular mind. Those who don’t share this value of purity and its relation to honor and redemption won’t understand the deep guilt this brings to a woman who has strayed from her cultural beliefs.
Those beliefs don’t even need to be apparent in her life, as in Ait Boulahcen’s case. They can simply be a part of her culture and Muslim heritage, even though she is not overtly religious. This demand for purity—and its loss—can be like a whisper of shame and despair in the mind of a sensitive soul who comes from a religious community.
The Islamist Cure for Despair: Suicide
On the outside, a Muslim girl who sleeps around and parties all night might seem unaffected by these religious impulses. But she probably is. Purity is the message of her culture. It can affect her at a deep level, even in ways she’s not always cognizant of. It tells her she’s damned. There is no hope for redemption.
If you’re a Muslim woman, struggling emotionally, having multiple boyfriends, lost, disconnected, and alone—as Ait Boulahcen was—you will reflect on the source of your shame according to what you’ve been taught (no matter how remotely).
This might have been the case with Ait Boulahcen, as it is with other female suicide bombers. In her brokenness (her brother spoke of her having given up on life), her cousin comes with a message: You can have your honor back in an instant. You can enter paradise. You can be redeemed. Let me show you how.
See how empowering that might have been for her, especially given that she was prone to extreme behavior? Is it any surprise that she would believe him, that she would reach out for that hope and cling to it? All the brokenness in her life, the violence, the sin, the struggle, would vanish in a heartbeat.
It’s no surprise to me. I understand it. As a Christian, I value purity and long to be made new. That’s a core component of our faith—being righteous because we’re made in God’s image. I long to enter the gates of paradise and have my Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I also know what the shame of sexual impurity feels like, the burden and despair attached to it. I can imagine what this woman might have been feeling in her desire to reclaim honor that had been lost, to find purpose and meaning for once in her life. Of course, as I said, we can only theorize in her particular case, but this is certainly something that has been documented among other women who have taken a similar route.
A Terrifying, Yet Hopeful Reality
Women who choose to become suicide bombers believe, like their male counterparts, that “The person who participates in [Holy Battles] in Allah’s cause and nothing compels him do so except belief in Allah and His Apostle, will be recompensed by Allah either with a reward, or booty [if he survives] or will be admitted to Paradise [if he is killed]” (Al Bukhari vol 1:35).
The Koran says, “Fight against them! God will chastise them by your hands, and will bring disgrace upon them, and will succour you against them; and He will soothe the bosoms of those who believe” (Surah 9:14). By interpreting this in the context of jihad, Ait Boulahcen might have found solace from her shame in the death and disgrace of her enemies. By giving up her own life for Allah’s glory, she believed she would be redeemed.
This is one explanation of how a party girl can so quickly become a suicide bomber. It’s a reality that is both terrifying and hopeful. It’s terrifying because it proves that Muslim women who bear the guilt of living a secular life are vulnerable to radicalization. That means it could happen to anyone, anywhere—and quickly.
The radicalization of the vulnerable is a sobering reality. Guilt, shame, and the longing for lost innocence can make people do the most terrible things—as long as salvation awaits on the other side. Whether it’s drinking Kool-Aid or strapping on a suicide vest, when bliss, honor, and glory are promised, people are willing to lay down their own lives—and the lives of others.
That’s the scary part of it. The hopeful part is that there is a way to fight this radicalization. It’s not something governments can do. It has nothing do with weapons, intelligence gathering, or any counterterrorism strategy (although these are important and necessary in the broader war). It has to do with changing the heart—offering a message of hope that will keep these women (and men) from thinking the only path to redemption is jihad.
The Cure for Bad Religion Is Good Religion
The best message for people who are looking for redemption, purpose, and honor is not a secular appeal steeped in psychology, but a religious message that will bring them peace. It’s the Christian message of redemption through God’s grace in Christ: By his wounds, we are healed. By his Spirit, we are made new in righteousness, our honor restored. By his grace, we are redeemed. By his death on the cross, we have life everlasting in paradise.
Before you scoff about this being effective—especially if you’re a secularist or an atheist—remember that jihadists are religious people. Muslims who are radicalized share the same values of righteousness, purity, and redemption as Christians. They simply believe there’s a different path to attaining it. Should we respect that belief or deny it and offer another, more peaceful path? I think we should offer another choice, a better way—a way of grace.
Secularism offers no answer to those tempted by the glory of jihad. In fact, secularism will make it worse. These people are not typically going to reject their beliefs entirely, and women are particularly vulnerable because their honor is so tied to their sexual purity. The only answer for them, therefore, is the Christian message of grace and righteousness, honor, and purity through faith in Christ.
This Is a Spiritual Conflict
When we speak of how to fight back terror and as we worry about radicalization of women all over the world, we often feel helpless as if there’s nothing we can do. But there is. Every Christian who is sitting at home watching the news already holds a very powerful weapon to defeat the enemy. They are often just too afraid to use it. It’s the word of God. The gospel. It’s grace.
Christians must be willing to fight, and those who are not Christians need to support them even if they don’t believe. They need to understand that the conflict is deeply spiritual. It’s religious at the core. It must be seen in that light and engaged, in part, in that context. My appeal to secularists is let Christians wage that part of it, support them, don’t deride them. Let the City of Man fight with weapons of steel, but let the City of God unleash its soldiers into the battle.
This is not a crusade of blood, but a crusade of spirit. Its weapons are prayer, service, and evangelism. Christians must be willing to speak to their Muslim neighbors of the grace of Christ, that his blood has been shed for their sins. This doesn’t have to be forceful. You might not even change their hearts about becoming a Christian. Just plant the seeds. Let them know there is another choice in case, at some point, they begin to despair.
Do this especially for young Muslim women who seem isolated. Do it for the men who seem out of place in this Western world. Just tell them that their redemption doesn’t have to come through their own death or the death of other people. Death has already happened. It happened on the cross.
Again, you might be scoffing right now. This seems so simplistic, foolish even, as we consider the horror of jihad, the deaths of thousands in America, the brutality, the bloodbath in a concert hall in France, and so many others. But the heart, the mind, is what dictates actions. Change the heart, change the mind, and you can change the action. You can change the world. But you must have the courage to do it.
Christians have been silenced for too long as they have been called bigots for sharing their faith. Some have taken the wrong path by speaking out of anger, condemning and judging instead of offering words of grace and hope. That needs to change—and it is changing. In Germany, Muslims are converting to Christianity in droves. Of course, this might because they want asylum, although some Muslims say their conversion is sincere.
Muslims Are Leaving Their Faith
To get a better picture of it, we can look at the numbers of Muslims in Africa who are converting to Christianity because they have become disillusioned with Islam. There are Muslims from all over the world embracing Christ’s peaceful message of salvation and giving their testimonies of God’s grace.
According to David Garrison, who has written about the rising tide of Muslim converts to Christianity in his book “A Wind in the House of Islam,” said in 2014 in an interview with World Magazine that God is moving in the Muslim world in unusual ways.
“God is at work in the Muslim world because, clearly, something is different today, something we haven’t seen before,” Garrison said. “If the body of Christ can learn the effective ways the body of Christ is at work, then we can all do the work of Christ much more effectively.”
These conversions are real. They’re happening not only in countries where people want asylum, but in the heart of Islamic communities. “I travelled more than a quarter of a million miles over the next two years into the Muslim world,” Garrison said, “and [in] every corner … interviewed people I would have never imagined—I mean, sheikhs and imams and mullahs, leaders in the Islamic community—who gave testimony to having been baptized after having met Jesus, and knowing that in doing so, they were saying, ‘I’m willing to die’ because they knew very well that Islamic law did not allow for conversion from Islam to anything.”
This is a spiritual war, and too many Christians in the West aren’t waging it. They’ve allowed moral relativism and pluralism to silence their message of hope. They’ve let political correctness discourage them from speaking up and talking about the spiritual realities that are happening, the religious impulses that can both drive a person toward jihad and just as powerfully away from it.
To the secularists in the West who do not believe any of this, I beg you to simply step out of the church’s way. At least see that this is a religious battle in part and that you, as a secularist, don’t have the tools to engage in it. Your message of “imagine no religion” is no answer to the woman with a broken heart who is looking for paradise. It simply isn’t. No faith, in her mind, is no hope. The answer is to show her a faith that is full of hope, that is truly peaceful, that is true, and that is full of abundant mercy and grace—not only for her, but for the whole world.