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09. April 2010

Control Over Life and Death?

Guest Commentary by Edit Schlaffer, Die Presse, 9 April 2010

A Plea for a Policy of Emotional Breakthroughs

The attacks on the Moscow metro were troubling in a double sense: the images did not show attacks on a gathering of believers in front of a mosque in Iraq or at a market along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan—scenes that are far away and which we turn off at the end of the evening news. No, this time we could have been the targets. The traffic arteries of urban centers are a part of our daily lives. And suddenly, our latent and carefully suppressed fear flares up again: following London, Madrid, and Moscow, terrorism can affect any city, and we could suddenly become the target of irrational terrorists clothed in the garb of holy warriors.

60 Suicide Attacks by Women

We were also shocked by the news that two young women carried out this deadly mission. Women create life and preserve it by all possible means. Last week, however, two women set out to destroy life by all possible means—and furthermore, their bodies were their weapons. These women are no exception; women in Iraq have pioneered this deadly terrain. Between 2007 and 2008, women planned and carried out 60 suicide attacks. The recruitment of women is shocking, but moral considerations seem almost beside the point in this age of global terror.

The increasing tendency to use women is an alarming sign of the fraying of the delicate fabric of civil society. Women whose family members were killed are candidates for carrying out these murderous acts. The loss of a relationship, a husband, or a child is frequently the source of motivation for a woman’s actions—it is oil poured upon already inflamed emotions. But it is not just about emotions and revenge; the loss of a husband in the familial context also means the loss of protection in a patriarchal society.

Without education, without freedom of movement, without a voice or societal appreciation, women are invisible and incapable of action in the public sphere. They can then potentially become risk factors for their societies, as feelings of frustration and humiliation can be mobilized for deadly revenge—and more so when personal motives are enhanced by ideology and religion. The story of Baida, a young Iraqi woman suspected of taking part in the preparation of attacks, is revealing. Her father married her off at age 17 to an abusive husband. Her brother fought against the Americans; she witnessed the fatal shooting of her cousin while their home was being searched. One of her male relatives introduced her to a group that carries out suicide attacks. For the first time in her life, Baida gained a sense of control that she had never experienced before. Suddenly, she had control over her own death.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1976, Betty Williams, a woman from Northern Ireland, witnessed a deadly incident at an intersection in Belfast. A young man, a member of the IRA, lost control of his vehicle after being shot by a British soldier. The car sped into a family walking nearby, killing their three children on impact. Betty was already enraged and frustrated by the permanent violence in her society, but this incident was a decisive turning point for her. She immediately knew what she had to do. Betty, however, found a different answer to the violent extremism that rocked her life than Baida did in Baghdad nearly three decades later. Together with Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Betty organized peace marches in which 30,000 Catholic and Protestant women regularly took part. The emotional breakthrough had been achieved, and the complete breakdown of political discourse could be halted: this was a victory for civil rationality.

Both women received the Nobel Peace Prize. We can look to their actions as guidelines for how to use Smart Power strategies in societies undergoing crisis or transition. Contrary to stereotypical perceptions, the masterminds of and recruits for terrorist attacks are neither uneducated nor psychopathic. Marc Sageman studied the lives of 172 al Qaida members: the majority belonged to the upper-middle class, two thirds have some form of higher education, and several even completed PhDs.

Astute Actors

What does this finding tell us? When the driving forces of terrorism are intelligent and well-educated, then the majority of the population should be on equal footing in order to escape their net. Iraqi-American engineer Karim Altail has launched an appeal: “Send us your professors!” He went to school in Baghdad and, like most children, was under extreme pressure to do well. The belief in education was deeply rooted in Iraqi society. Today, universities throughout Iraq are destroyed; 400 academics have been killed in attacks throughout the war.

Statistics like these and a growing discourse of negativity regarding the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to increased feelings of hopelessness and a detachment towards the future. But these attitudes can only lead to more problems and an even greater likelihood of witnessing attacks that are the result of an emotional breakdown. We must strive, rather, for the emotional breakthrough—armed with energy, optimism, and a focus on the long-term stability of these and other regions. Education, participatory politics, and smart diplomacy must all figure in our approaches to lessening the presence of violent extremism. In these efforts, women and the young generation will be our leaders—responding immediately to the nuances of these charged situations, rejecting slogans of revenge, and resisting the allure of extremist ideologies.


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