Monday, May 13, 2013

Can Mothers stop Terrorism?

By Nona Walia

Social scientist and activist Dr Edit Schlaffer affirms so. She tells Nona Walia why mothers have the power to stop radicalisation of their children, and make this world a peaceful place.

Recent reports suggest that the Boston Marathon bombers' mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, had a fair knowledge about her children's radical ideas, though she may not have known about the act of terror. The question is had she known, could she deter her sons from their deadly plan? Dr Edit Schlaffer may answer in the affirmative. The Austrian social scientist and gender activist believes that a mother can curb conflicts and extremist ideas within her family. Through her organisation, Women Without Borders (WWB), she tirelessly advocates empowering women as the biggest agents of change in every society. Her more recent project, Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), is the first global women anti-terror platform that encourages women, especially mothers, to deter violent terrorist activities and radicalisation of their children. "Mothers are strategically located at the core of their families and are, therefore, typically the first to deal with their children's fear, resignation, frustration and anger," says Schlaffer. Excerpts from an interview:

How effective can a mother be in stopping extremist thinking within her family? I have learned during many of my encounters with women around the globe that the potential of mothers has thus far been neglected in counter terrorism strategy. The primary focus has rested instead on military operations, intelligence and law enforcement. Since women — and mothers in particular — possess the unique ability to recognise early warning signs of radicalisation in their children, they can play a key role in curtailing violent extremism. First and foremost, mothers have to be equipped with the necessary knowledge and self-confidence to become active players in the security arena. This is where our work starts: we aim at sensitising mothers to make them aware of their potential in influencing and guiding their children's lives, and in preventing them from engaging in terrorist activities.

How can a mother stop her child from taking the wrong path? Children tend to listen only to their mothers when they see them as figures of respect and authority. Yet in many of the communities within which we work, this is not always the case. We therefore focus on concepts of self-confidence, competence and empowerment. Mothers need to first establish a position of authority within their families; a child only respects the mother when her position is not challenged by her husband or friends or society as a whole.

You have worked with mothers of suicide bombers. Are they just helpless bystanders? During my recent visit to the West Bank, I talked to a woman by the name of Salma, a mother of two adolescent boys. The tragedy of her eldest son Ali — who turned himself into a live bomb — still looms over her. Today, Salma admits that something was terribly wrong. Confronted with this situation for the first time, she turned to her husband for advice, who in turn told her that women have no place in politics. Much later, she learned that two of her close neighbours shared her concerns. They too lacked the courage to speak up and the space to voice their concerns. Salma responded to her loss by creating a safe space for mothers in her own home, where she could encourage open communication and help foster deeper mother-son relationships. Mothers like Salma are challenging the notion of Palestinian mothers who welcome their sons' martyrdom. Salma embodies the new heroes combating violent extremism at the frontlines.

So strengthening of the mother-son bond is essential to end conflict? Yes. For instance, Esther Ibanga, a Christian pastor and community leader in Nigeria is currently working with us on bridgebuilding activities. Following the violence between Christians and Muslims on the Jos plateau in recent years, she decided to do something particularly courageous: Esther went against her own constituency by reaching out to both sides and calling for an end to the bloodshed. By engaging with both sides, she began to see similarities between the two antagonistic religious communities. She became close to Khadija Hawaja, an Islamic scholar and community leader. Esther realised that they were both mothers who shared the same pain and dreams. Today, they work tirelessly to show the human face of the 'other side' and to create safe havens in their homes and communities.

You have interacted with the mother of convicted 9/11 terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. What is the personal face of public terrorist tragedies? Zacarias was the first person to be convicted in the US for his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. His mother Aisha reached out to the 9/11 victims' family members after the attacks, a unique gesture in an atmosphere of global hostility and fear. Aisha has spoken passionately about the need to break the cycle of revenge, and engaging mothers worldwide in their search for alternatives. She emphasises that Prophet Mohammed celebrates mothers; he insists that their role is vital in the upbringing of their sons in accordance with the values of true Islamic teaching that does not preach hatred or violence.

What are the driving forces in stabilising an insecure world? We are currently launching 'mother school' programmes around the world, from Tajikistan to Indonesia, from Northern Ireland to India. The programme aims to e q u i p wo m e n with the appropriate tools to raise delicate issues within their families. In India, for example, a woman named Archana Kapoor has founded a community radio station in Mewat, Haryana, that reaches 5,00,000 listeners. Poverty, isolation and marginalisation make the population susceptible and prone to violence. We need to stop conflict at the very root; that will stop the making of a terrorist at the core of the family level. "Women — and mothers in particular — possess the unique ability to recognise early warning signs of radicalisation in their children. They can play a key role in curtailing violent extremism" 

Originally published in Times of India on Sunday, May 12th, 2013

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