01. Mai 2012
Aicha el-Wafi © Xenia Hausner
The crime scene following the Toulouse attacks © Reuters
Aicha el-Wafi is the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever to be tried in a US court on charges of involvement in the September 11 attacks.
Since her son’s arrest in 2001, Aicha speaks out against all forms of violent extremism, and encourages mothers to combat radicalization in their families and communities. In a recent interview with Women without Borders/SAVE, she expressed her deep sympathies for the victims of the Toulouse attacks of March 19th and their families.
Edit Schlaffer: Aicha, the Toulouse incident shook all of Europe and the global community, but it must have particularly hit home with you, since there was also a moment in your life when you received similar news about your son. What were your immediate thoughts and emotions?
Aicha el-Wafi: I immediately thought of the parents of the victims and their suffering, these innocent people who were struck by pain and sadness. They are not guilty of anything. They are the first victims of course, but the second victim in my opinion is this young man's mother. He committed a terrorist act and killed so many people, and in my view no one is allowed to kill in the name of religion, may it be, Islam, Judaism or Christianity.
When I think about this woman who is forced to accept the fact that her son killed many innocent people, I really feel for her and I hope that she can gather the courage to face this.
E: Mohammed Merah, as well as Zacarias, prided themselves to be part of the Al Qaeda network, even though the leadership never acknowledged their membership. It’s so interesting that these young men obviously look for belonging which they can neither find in France nor in their countries of origin. What do you think drives them down this dangerous path?
A: I think the lack of integration of these young people in French society plays a big role. After Zacarias was imprisoned, I started looking for answers on why he became radicalized, and I later realized that the interactions he had with people outside of the home had caused him serious damage. Parents always tend to think that their kids are happy, and that everything is alright, but when we look deeper, we learn about this daily racial discrimination they face.
In the case of Zacarias, what really hurt him was the rejection he faced from the parents of the French girl whom he was dating for a period of 10 years and was very much in love with.
And on top of that, the educational system in France is also very discriminatory; it expects children of Maghrebi parents to settle for a high school diploma and discourages them from aiming for higher education. The state and all French citizens must understand that when a child who is born and raised in France, and considers it to be his home country, feels rejected by his own society, he will be more tempted to go down this murderous path. And this I believe was the case for Mohammed Merah and many others.
E: So what would be a possible solution for France and other European countries? How could they work towards better social integration in your opinion?
A: The government has to stop turning us against one another. When a politician makes a speech saying that the increase in immigration is the cause of rising unemployment in France for example, this is very harmful.
Also when a crime occurs, and the accused has Maghrebi origins, they will automatically say in the news that he is Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian etc... But if a crime occurs and the person has Italian or Portuguese origins for example, they won’t characterize him in the news as French-Italian or French-Portuguese! It is important to pay more attention to this kind of social discrimination because it implies that we are not accepted as French citizens.
I consider myself a French citizen because I love France, because I pay my taxes in this country and because I always made the effort to live in peace with the people around me.
E: You are a very strong voice that represents Muslim mothers and the compassion of mothers across the globe. You reach out to the ‘other side’ and always express compassion with the victims of terrorist attacks. What do you think is the value of such an unlikely dialogue? What is your message?
A: We have to learn to live with each other in peace. The parents of the victims that I reached out to after 9/11 hold a very special place in my heart, and I truly respect them. I hope God will give us all the strength to learn from these experiences, us mothers, because we are the ones who give life, our children are a part of us... we have to raise our children since a very early age to be tolerant despite color or religion .
It is up to us women and mothers to make this effort so that our children can grow up to become tolerant and peaceful people... But of course sadly some of them will fall victim to radical groups, such as my son and Mohammed Merah, and I believe it was also the case for Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist. I think these people fall victim to groups who have mastered recruitment methods. And when a child is continuously dismissed and reduced to nothing by the society he lives in, he will become a much easier target for these groups.
Personally, I am aware of the weaknesses my children had, and the most important one is the fact that they grew up without a father.
E: Nowadays an increasing number of young people are growing up without any immediate male presence and guidance in their personal environment. This was the case for Mohammed who was raised by a single mother as were your children. To what extent do you think this affects children, young men in particular?
A: One parent cannot make up for the absence of the other. I was working two jobs when my children were young because I wanted to give them everything they needed, so that they could participate in sports such as skiing and tennis... But I was wrong to think that money would make up for the absence of their father.
Today I always ask the divorced women I meet to allow their children to maintain a relationship with their fathers even if he has wronged them in the past. But in my case my ex-husband never wanted to keep contact with us, he left us and started a new life, and that was it.
E: What tools and awareness would mothers need to connect with their children in situations of crisis and disorientation, particularly in their adolescent years when they search for identity?
A: In France we have two types of mothers, especially among immigrant populations, there is the mother whose husband is present and dominates the situation at home and then there is the single mother.
Since most of these women relocate to France from their home villages in Morocco, Algeria or Tunisia, most of them have never gone to school and have never even lived in a city before. These women need help more than others. We have to help them realize that there is a difference between living in a country where women have duties but also have rights, as opposed to living in a country where we only have duties and no rights.
On the other hand we have women who are more or less educated, and who are familiar with city life, but who will also face difficulties especially if they are raising their children on their own. It is important that these women get proper support, for example, they should be regularly visited by social workers who can give them comfort and help them with their problems. I never had anyone asking me if I was ok, if I was sad, if I was sleeping or eating well, and it was very hard for me to feel that I had to do everything on my own.
E: If mothers notice that their children are moving towards violent extremism, in which ways can they prevent it from happening? Where can they look for advice or help?
A: Women can prevent it with the help of the government. Let me give you an example. A Moroccan friend of mine lives in Nantes, she is divorced with four children, all of them are married and leading their own lives except for the youngest one who is a boy in his twenties. Her ex-husband recently came back from Morocco with a new wife who wears the hijab. Now my friend is a very liberal woman, she is very hard working and strives to be independent. But since her husband came back with his new wife, her youngest son kept telling her “Why don't you wear the hijab like my stepmother? Why can't you be more pious like her? Why do you and my sisters dress this way?” He even yelled at them for watching television!
But despite all this harassment from her son, she did the right thing and acted quickly. She was in luck because she worked as a cleaning lady at the city hall of Nantes and she talked to a social worker about her problem. They quickly mobilized the personnel there and found a job for her son in the army. And now he is completely fine and at peace with his mother, he stopped harassing her about religion and the way she dresses. He has made a life for himself and he is very happy now.
So you see, when these young people have nothing to do, they become frustrated and look for a reason to live. This is why extremists usually look for unemployed people, those who are vulnerable are much easier to recruit, not just because they have nothing, but most importantly because they have nothing to lose.
"Extremists usually look for unemployed people, those who are vulnerable are much easier to recruit, not just because they have nothing, but most importantly because they have nothing to lose." - Aicha el-Wafi
E: Merah told the police that he became more radicalized while in prison. Do you think this is a common phenomenon in French prisons?
A: Yes of course, I hear these stories all the time. I met a woman who is also a divorced mother raising six children on her own. Her daughters are supporting her because she is illiterate.
One of her sons is in his twenties and he was imprisoned for stealing. I think he was sentenced to three years, and it has been one year and a half so far. He is making life very difficult for his mother, because when she goes to visit him in prison he criticizes the way she dresses and tells her that it is shameful. He even told her not to visit him anymore unless she is wearing a hijab.
This shows that he has been radicalized while in prison and governments needs to pay more attention to this. The Imams who go into these jails to preach Islam have to be supervised very carefully; their sermons have to be monitored in order to prevent this radicalization.
If a young man goes to jail for 6 months for stealing a pair of shoes, and comes out completely radicalized, then we are all in very big trouble!
E: Do you think it would be possible to go to prisons in France and speak to these young people?
A: Yes I think it’s possible and a great idea actually. If mothers and women unite and gather the courage to talk to these young prisoners, maybe we could prevent their mothers from suffering in the same way we have suffered.
E: What would you tell these young men in prison?
A: I would tell them that I am suffering so much, that I am destroyed on the inside and that my life is a living hell… and that I am ready to fight my whole life to get my son out of jail. I would tell them not to put their mothers through the hell that I am experiencing ever since Zacarias’ arrest.
E: I think your message would resonate very well with them, especially because young people in jail are so vulnerable.
A: Yes, they are so vulnerable and miserable... and I understand their suffering but it does not allow them to inflict further suffering on innocent people.
E: How do you think events such as the Toulouse attacks affect young Muslims in France and the world?
A: I am going to be frank, when I hear people talking in my community, I notice very different opinions. Many of them are affected by racism on a daily basis and understand why this young man reached this point. They say that he became violent because he was already dead inside, from all the racial discrimination he must have gone through in his life...
Others, like me, say they understand the plight of immigrants in France but it certainly does not justify the killing of innocent people.
E: How can the Muslim communities be mobilized to stand up against violent extremism and refuse to allow the justification of these atrocities in the name of Islam? ‘Not in our name’ needs to echo around the globe.
A: Well you see, in countries such as Morocco my country of origin, people openly condemn these violent actions. But European Muslims often don’t dare to stand up against violent extremism, they fear being judged by Islamists and characterized as bad Muslims.
E: Mohammed Merah said he committed these crimes in the name of Palestinian children. But Salim Fayyad, the nominal prime minister in the Palestinian territories condemned the murders saying: "It is time for those criminals to stop exploiting the name of Palestine through their terrorist actions."
What do you think of his statement?
A: I totally agree with him.
E: Then why do you think Muslim communities in France are not condemning this violence as well?
A: I think the moment you tell them to stop committing violent crimes in the name of Palestine, people will judge you. People here notice that the French media avoids showing the crimes that occur in Palestine and Israel, but still people are able to get the news through Arabic channels or from the internet. So people here automatically think that France is ok with the injustices happening in Palestine because it is being selective with the news coming out of there. I'm not saying they are right, I'm just saying this is what they believe.
E: How can this wave of violent extremism that is taking vulnerable young people hostage be stopped?
A: You know, when there are problems between couples, if these two individuals do not discuss their issues then of course they will divorce. But if a couple communicates and discusses their problems, they can move forward and stay together. This is also applicable to the relationship between the Muslim and European world, and in France there is a kind of divorce between Maghrebi citizens and the French government.
So it has to start with the proper response of the government. Especially when it comes to young boys who are 17-18, they are in a very delicate phase in their lives and are very vulnerable.
E: Apart from more government response, in which ways could mothers and communities play a bigger role in prevention?
A: When a mother sees that her son is isolating himself in his room, without engaging in conversation with the rest of the family, then she has to try to communicate with him more, or even contact a social worker who can help him find a job or something to do during his free time.
I always thought that my son distanced himself from me because he was no longer a boy, because he was a young man who didn’t want to spend as much time with his mother anymore, but I was wrong. The truth is, he was unhappy and wasn’t telling me about it.
These young people shouldn't be left doing nothing. They should be kept busy and we should help them find a purpose in life.
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To read more on Aicha el-Wafi please click here.
The Paley Center for Media in New York recently hosted Dr Edit Schlaffer, Aicha el Wafi and Dr. Abdul Haqq Baker in conversation with Pat Mitchell, in an event entitled 'Can Mothers Stop Terrorism?'. To watch the video of the event please click here.