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14. May 2014

Palestinian Mother with lost sons © FoG

A Palestinian Mother with the photos of her two lost sons.

Mother’s Day Beyond Flowers and Candy

A commentary by Edit Schlaffer in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard

As it stands, the technologically advanced military and police services are unable to find the 200 kidnapped girls in Nigeria. Instead we see a new security paradigm: mothers are on the line, defending against extremism and terrorism.

The media images that have reached us over the past few days show shocking realities. Thousands of mothers are marching in the streets of Nigeria with signs that read “Bring home our girls” and “Stop terrorism!” They are unmasking the continent’s fragile security system and are questioning the efficiency of counter-terrorism strategies. These mothers are proponents of a new movement that does not yet have a name, but which expresses their unease with conventional military and police approaches.

A shocked global public has witnessed the failure of a highly equipped super technology that can identify terror nests in the furthest, most remote regions, but is unable to locate 200 kidnapped girls. Full body x-rays at international airports and video cameras in all major western cities but this form of prevention just touches the surface.

Desperate mothers and fathers risk their lives crisscrossing the forests of northern Nigeria armed with primitive weapons. It’s quite clear then: terrorists not only target public spaces and religious gatherings, but increasingly attack right at the heart of families and communities—a decentralized, local approach.

The message is clear: the fight must be fought with education and critical thinking, ending directly in the demand for women’s rights.

Jihadis made in Austria are no longer an exception. A disproportionally high number of the young fighters leaving Europe for Syria come from alpine regions. Their mothers are stunned as are many thousands of mothers from England to Sweden. They try to come to terms with their personal trauma, hope that their children survive this ‘adventure’, and they try—as do the security experts—to imagine how much these teenagers will have changed by the time they come back. There are fears that some of them will bring terrorism back to Europe with them and that they will operationalize the toxic ideologies of terror upon their return.

During my research trips through countries marked by violent extremism I have had the opportunity to speak with mothers of terrorists. Bouthaina from Nablus has nothing in common with the cliché image of the mother of a suicide bomber. Her oldest son Ahmed, a well-liked star pupil from a typical middle-class Palestinian family, was a suicide bomber at age 17.

“This does not help anyone”

When the body is brought to the house, the typical scenario is that the mother falls to the grounds and praises Allah. Bouthaina stopped, and her first thought was that “This doesn’t help anyone, least of all our people under occupation.” She is the voice of an ever-growing number of mothers that offer a chance for new dialogue. She is sending a message to young people: they should think about their mothers and fathers, who will never get over their loss.

She was brave enough to admit that she felt immeasurable pain during the funeral and that she wished that she had died with him—a taboo in this society, but simultaneously offering hope for a new dialogue. We must be sensitive to this hope, and then provide these still timid voices with a platform.

Vicky Ibrahim is the mother of the so-called “Bristol Shopping Center Bomber.” Andy, who changed his name to Isah, was raised in a doctor’s household and embarked on a very different path than his brother, who became a lawyer - whereas Andy ended up in a maximum security prison. Vicky never gave up on her lost son, however, and during her prison visits she carries out her own self-made rehabilitation program. Isah, who is now Andy again, will soon complete a long-distance university course.

A smart security strategy must incorporate returnees which, like Andy, can legitimately assure young, emotional youths who are ready to take up arms that such a trip into the world of darkness and destruction is not worth it.

The area of prevention remains still unexplored; we alternate between assigning guilt, sensitive and defensive reactions. We must look for efficient allies to establish a sustainable security architecture, and families—within which the early warning signals of radicalization are sounded—build the basis of this architecture. Mothers are ideally placed as the closest family members to their children, though they require targeted support and must be trained.

Pushed aside

Most mothers say: “I never would have thought my children would do that, I am completely shocked,” but longer discussions always show that they pushed aside their concerns, denied the situation and suppressed their feelings based on the false assumption that they were protecting their children, thereby allowing disastrous dynamics to run their course.

On the contrary: mothers are the first line of defense. The Women without Borders Mothers’ Schools pilot programs that are being implemented from East Africa to India, and from Pakistan to Indonesia build on this recognition. Parenting for Peace is not just a slogan, but rather a targeted training that qualifies mothers as actors in a new security paradigm.

This commentary was published in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard on the occasion of Mother´s Day on May 11th 2014 (


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