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19. December 2014

"It is only the mothers who know the true fears of their sons and daughters lured to Syria"

Edit Schlaffer in conversation with the journalist Nina Weissensteiner (Der Standard) on the vulnerabilities of the young that fundamentalists deliberately exploit.

Weissensteiner: As a sociologist you have conducted interviews with hundreds of mothers whose children have fallen prey to extremism. Whether Palestine, Pakistan, Northern Ireland or Austria: what common family features did you find?

Schlaffer: We didn’t uncover a common family profile. We did, however, find many early warning signs. Children often sequestered themselves in their rooms; parents were kept at a distance. Young men who were being enticed by Islamist leaders began to wear Wahhabi robes and girls began dressing to mask their figures.

Weissensteiner: The Mothers Schools workshops run by your organization Women without Borders, are the first international effort to show how to effectively deal with the confusion of young people and outside attempts to convert them to extremism. But paradoxically, are sons at all prone to listen to their mothers?

Schlaffer: No politician, no secret agent, is closer to the mechanisms of recruitment than mothers. They are the most important, albeit unwitting and frightened, witnesses to their children’s dissent on the path to radicalization.

Weissensteiner: Once young people have been swept up by the notorious IS video clips, isn’t it often way too late for intervention in the family?

Schlaffer: Not necessarily. All of the mothers of Syrian travelers are convinced that at a certain given moment they could have intervened if they had had more self-confidence, more awareness and more support. Families simply are not equipped to combat these dangerous ideologies, and trying to counter them with emotional reactions alone will not work.

Weissensteiner: You mean shouting matches and strict prohibition of IS propaganda materials?

Schlaffer: The better approach would be for the mothers to directly confront their children by asking them: “Tell me, what are you watching?” That would enable the possibility of a dialogue in the family. In our Mothers Schools we encourage mothers to invite their son’s new ‘friends’ into their homes. In Indonesia, for instance, I spoke with recruiters who try to isolate young people from their families and have them spend their nights in mosques. What cannot be disputed is that fundamentalists exploit deficits and failures in each respective society.

Weissensteiner: What are the greatest weaknesses of Western democracies?

Schlaffer: Here in the West, fundamentalist recruiters draw in young people in search of identity, belonging, and meaning with promises of paradise. Indeed IS offers everything: jobs, esteem, and camaraderie— and beyond that they appeal to Robin Hood fantasies.

Weissensteiner: …until these misled young people find themselves in a bloody “holy crusade?”

Schlaffer: Exactly. Yet in spite of their total detachment to their former world there remains a surprisingly persistent attachment to their mothers.

Weissensteiner: In what way?

Schlaffer: One mother I interviewed received the following text message from her 17 year old son: that they had only one weapon between the five of them, that they were to be sent to the front and that the boy was terrified. It is only the mothers who learn about these fears. These mothers must be mobilized to get the message across to siblings, neighbors and friends. The silence of those affected must be broken, their voices need to reach those for whom it is not too late.

Weissensteiner: What text messages do the daughters send?

Schlaffer: From our conversations we have learned that many girls become pregnant within five to six months, and suffer from depression because they feel exploited as work and sex slaves. Many of them send calls for help, saying that there is a chance for them to escape while the men are at the front. So far none of these calls for help have been followed up; it is a dangerous undertaking requiring a whole range of supporting measures.

Weissensteiner: “Foreign fighters” returning are kept under strict surveillance. Does it make any sense to repatriate them?

Schlaffer: Western nations seem to be overwhelmed and take the wrong approach to these situations, mainly because they sidestep those directly involved. According to our recent research study which explored the potential of mothers, the truth is that over 90 percent trust other mothers to play a role in safeguarding their children, followed by the teachers of their children. So far, however, we have left our teachers alone to cope with growing extremism. This is not only a lost opportunity; it is a ticking time bomb. We must finally create support programs — a task force — especially since mothers are the first line of defense and can even be encouraged reach to out to the police to intervene if concerned about their children. In any case, only 39 percent of those interviewed in our study trust the police and 29 percent their governments. This is an alarming security deficit. *

Weissensteiner: Governments are starting to provide support, such as help hotlines and calling on the Islamic religious community to accept their responsibility in the struggle against Islamism. Rightly so?

Schlaffer: We can observe that young people are recruited so fast that they don’t even have time to study the surahs of the Koran. There is a tendency to engage religious leaders but the problem is that extremists reject Muslims who are not ready to support their radical Salafist crusades. Therefore it is not possible to leave prevention entirely to the religious communities. In respect to the hotline approach: it has to be more than an ‘agony aunt’. Concrete social and communal efforts are needed from the very outset.

Weissensteiner: Have your efforts been taken more seriously abroad than here at home?

Schlaffer: In England we have already established a radicalization prevention campaign which has reached thousands — from affected or concerned families to social agencies, to mosques and to schools. For the project we have produced a film in which mothers of young extremists take a stand. It has a huge impact when a mother of those who planned the attack on the World Trade Center says: “I do not defend my son. His plan had nothing to do with Islam.” Or when the mother of a son who wanted to blow up a mall in Bristol says: “I want to put an end to the stigma of being the mother of a terrorist — and to let other mothers know what warning signs I missed.”

Weissensteiner: Have governments solicited your expertise?

Schlaffer: Actually it is the other way around, we at Women without Borders reach out to governments and we appeal to public authorities to involve civil society in prevention and rehabilitation activities. Our Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs has already enabled a globally unique initiative here in Vienna for mothers whose sons and daughters have set off for Syria to meet together and strategize with security stakeholders. By addressing the personal experiences of these mothers we will find a way to unlock the riddle of radicalization.

This interview was originally published in the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard (©Nina Weissensteiner)

*Mothers for Change! Study Vienna 2014, Edit Schlaffer and Ulrich Kropiunigg
supported by the Austrian Science Fund


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