Logo SAVE - Sisters against violent extremism

01. May 2012


Aicha el-Wafi Responds to the Toulouse Attacks

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 

Click here to read the full interview with Aicha el-Wafi.


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