Misconception #4: They are brainwashed.
“Brainwashing” is typically understood as a coercive process that renders an individual powerless to choose an alternative course of action. Although five decades of research on New Religious Movements have yielded no empirical evidence for the so-called “brainwashing thesis,” it is nonetheless often regarded as the primary reason why people become Islamic extremists.
I found no evidence of so-called brainwashing. On the contrary, I found that the Salafi conversion process was largely intellectual, rather than based on social or other pressures.
Each woman’s story was unique, but all spoke of coming to see Salafism as an approach that made rational sense to them. Typically, I was told that Salafism was an evidence-based methodology, with every single prescription tied to “authentic” scriptural proofs, rather than to culture or human opinion. This gave the women, most of whom had been exposed to a plethora of Islamic interpretations, the reassuring certainty that they were following the “pure” Islam.
Far from being caused by social pressures, conversion often occurred despite protests from family and friends, and frequently led to long-term rifts in families and friendship groups. It also had little to do with warm feelings toward other Salafis. On the contrary, under the condition of anonymity, many interviewees spoke of the Salafi sisterhood as cold, unwelcoming and judgmental. Others said that their conversion was smoothed by the experience of a strong and supportive community, but this was often only during the holy month of Ramadan.
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