By Sonia Elks
LONDON, May 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Young Muslims face rising racism and Islamophobia that leaves them more vulnerable to radicalisation, according to the writer of a new play about a teenage girl recruited by Islamic State.
Nyla Levy - a British Asian playwright and actor - portrays a teenager groomed online and follows her to IS territory in Syria in her play "Does my bomb look big in this?", which opened at London's Soho Theatre on Tuesday.
It is the latest production to delve into the motivations of Western Islamic extremists, from the film "Four Lions" about inept jihadists to a televised drama - "The State" - about men who fight for IS.
Levy said anti-immigrant rhetoric around the Brexit vote, and far-right movements globally, had spurred a rise in racism and discrimination that can leave young people isolated and tempted by promises of freedom and adventure from terror groups.
"When you feel like you are not a part of a society, in whatever way that takes shape, then it does leave people vulnerable," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The play follows 15-year-old Yasmin, played by Levy, as she falls under the influence of an online extremist and decides to run away from her London home to join IS in Syria.
The character is loosely based on three schoolgirls, including Shamima Begum, who ran away from east London to join IS in 2015, and also includes details of Levy's own experiences.
The writer, who grew up in London, said her play shows how recruiters target young people and worm a way into their psyche.
"This character that I wrote - this is one particular online groomer that managed to work their way into that crack in her and was able to seek her out and draw her into their world."
Hundreds of Western women have left their homelands to join IS as "jihadi brides", according to a 2015 report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College, London.
The issue won new scrutiny in February when Britain stripped runaway schoolgirl Begum of her citizenship on security grounds, after she was discovered in a detention camp in Syria.
Levy said she was drawn to the subject after repeated requests to play an extremist Muslim, and she had also wanted to explore the discrimination she had suffered as a child.
"I grew up not religious at all, and not even knowing what Islamophobia was, or realising that I was receiving Islamophobic comments throughout my childhood," she said.
"I just felt like I was just ashamed for some reason."
Levy said the abuse had noticeably "spiked" after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in which nearly 3,000 people died when airplanes hijacked by the al Qaeda militant group crashed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania field.
She made the "bold and sassy" teenager at the centre of the story largely non-religious before being groomed, showing how routine pressures - from family issues to bullying - can play a role in young people becoming radicalised.
Levy said she hoped the play, which runs for three weeks, would open debate about race, discrimination and extremism and show another side of "vulnerable young people...groomed online". (Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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