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06. May 2010

Terrorists are Raised, Not Born

Interview with Edit Schlaffer, published in Die Furche

“When we see that mothers in Palestine give future martyrs their blessings, then something has gone wrong.”

On May 6, the US news service Women’s eNews will honor Edit Schlaffer as one of the world’s 21 leading women of the 21st century in New York City. In a FURCHE interview, the Viennese social scientist speaks about the power of mothers to prevent terrorism, women as suicide bombers, and the disappointing integration politics "made in Austria."

Die Furche: Mrs. Schlaffer, for years you researched and wrote about relationships between men and women. Now you primarily work in the field of terror prevention. Why this thematic shift?

Edit Schlaffer: I have chronicled the women’s movement for the past 30 years. At the beginning, we all felt that we were very courageous for throwing out concepts that had been taken for granted. At the same time, however, we were very busy with our own lives: with men, with work, with children. Then we looked around and saw that men in pin-striped suits had all the say in foreign and peace politics, and that bearded religious leaders were the only parties in the debate on the clash of cultures. Even today, there are only symbolic women who dance around as Foreign Ministers in these quarters. But this is not enough. Women must play a massive role at all levels. This was the reason for founding “Women without Borders” and then SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism).

Die Furche: Why should women be able to achieve success in the fight against terrorism, where men have failed so miserably?

Schlaffer: Because civil society and the family realm - areas in which women are active - have been completely neglected thus far. In countries such as Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, more than half of the population is composed of children and adolescents, whose hopelessness makes them extremely prone to violence. And mothers are their central points of reference. Terrorists do not fall from the skies, they are raised. When we see that Palestinian mothers celebrate future martyrs, giving them their blessings when they leave home for the last time and wishing them all the best on their way to heaven, then something has gone wrong. It is pointless to arrest terrorists if we are not active in the areas in which ideologies are produced. This is exactly what Hillary Clinton means when she talks about “Smart Power.”

Die Furche: Is it not delusional to hope that mothers can change the minds of adolescents who have strayed into fundamentalist circles?

Schlaffer: I do believe that there are options. I accompanied my own two children through quite an emotional puberty. It is important to remain involved, not to give up, and to offer alternatives. The young people are listening, even if they do not admit it. When I think back to conversations I had with the mothers of young jihadis in England, they all felt that their sons were moving in the wrong direction very early on: suddenly, they only went to the mosque and met with shady figures there. One mother shared with us her tactic: she invited the men with whom her son surrounded himself to her home, to remove him from the toxic milieu.

Die Furche: Was this tactic successful?

Schlaffer: Yes, although it would have been even more successful if the mother had been brave enough to speak with other mothers about it. For this reason, we are trying to bring together mothers in Yemen, England, and Pakistan, so that they become aware of the problem and of their options given their traditionally strong position in the family.

Die Furche: But there is also a phenomenon of women becoming living bombs, most recently in the Moscow metro…

Schlaffer: Of course. This is why we are working with women, such as a Palestinian municipal politician, who had a lot of problems with signing our charter at a recent SAVE conference—our charter requires that one talks with the "enemy." Not all the “sisters” in our network were thrilled by this prospect. But it is through these people that we can reach the hardcore mothers. In Palestine there is also a young woman who went to an Israeli checkpoint with her boyfriend to blow themselves up. But at the last minute she changed her mind and is now in a maximum-security prison. We are trying to reach out to her at the moment, because we need her voice in the world, so that she can explain to the youth why she got scared. Fear is an important indicator for saying stop. This is why women are so important, because they are more likely to stand by their fears.

Die Furche: Fear also plays a role here in Austria—fear of Islam. The headscarf is often the locus of this uncertainty, and there are interesting connections between feminists and the right wing. Alice Schwarzer, for example, describes the headscarf as “the flag of the Islamist crusaders.”

Schlaffer: I find this statement to be problematic, because she is not bringing us together, but rather dividing us. The question of the headscarf is closely tied to the search for identity, and unfortunately, we are not well prepared for the search for identity in the young Muslim population. Europe itself is currently undergoing a huge identity crisis, and now Muslim women who are searching for a space in our society are being added to the mix. And when they do not find this space, they are going to turn back. Of course they must be allowed to express their singularity. But that does not mean that one can walk down the street fully covered, which poses a security risk.

Die Furche: Are you in favor of a burqa-ban like in France and Belgium, and which is currently being discussed in Austria?

Schlaffer: No, a burqa-ban would be completely counter-productive. One can count on one hand the number of burqa-wearers in Austria. Further, it adds nothing at the legislative level. We should rather be searching for more at the dialogue level. But here in Austria, I see a huge vacuum. Cardinal König’s pompous meetings between representatives of different religions were very innovative at the time. But if we cannot think of anything else today, we are in a bad place. We need emotional approaches: for example, those of the European Grouptheater, which puts on pieces with Muslim and non-Muslim children for school classes. Or our project “This is Me, Who are You?” in which youths with and without immigrant backgrounds explore the world of "the other"--through home visits, cooking together, and video clips on YouTube. It is about how anthropologists scientifically explore foreign terrain. This is exactly what we want to achieve with Women without Borders and SAVE. Our politicians could surely add to this, but they are unfortunately shatteringly boring.

 
 

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