Saliha Ben Ali is a mother of a son who had fallen prey to recruiters of a terrorist outfit. Saliha is a mother who was promised access to Paradise by her radicalised son. “I will be there to guide you through the gates of paradise,” Sabri, the son inboxed from Syria to assure her mother in Belgium, after he had decided to join the Islamic force fighting Bashar Al Assad. His stint in Syria, however, lasted only for three months. A 'strange phone call in a distant voice on a Sunday morning' congratulated the family on the martyrdom of their son. Sabri was nineteen.
Instead of reeling from the shame of being a mother of an extremist, Saliha garnered enough courage to join an international alliance called Sisters Against Violent Activism (SAVE). Founded by Dr Edit Schlaffer, SAVE offers a platform where women like Saliha share their stories hoping that a counter narrative can be produced to stop many other young men and women from the lures of the dogmatic pied-pipers. The mothers' group has more than 1,000 women across countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Zanzibar, engaged in finding a personal and tangible way of tackling militancy.
It was a rare honour to listen to Tunisian-born Saliha when she came to give a talk at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) on February 15 before an audience composed of parents, teachers and students of various private universities. Sabri's story is all too familiar: a young boy, who failed to integrate in the mainstream Belgian society, because of his North African origin. He was bullied at school. He applied for a job in the Belgian Army, but was denied, apparently because of his medical condition. “They could have at least made me a courier boy or a chef,” Sabri shared with his mother. He wanted to become a firefighter, and was once again denied. He was a second generation Belgian who wanted to join public service to prove that he was truly a patriot with sincere interest in serving his country. The rejections made him vulnerable as he was convinced that the country that his parents had adopted held no future for his generation. He started to identify himself with a group that would offer him solace, at least an identity. But the Imam of Saudi origin at the mosque he went to did not speak French or Flemish to communicate with him. Sabri was later befriended by a radical scout, and his mind was soon to be moulded with extremist ideology.
The mother was worried, but there was little she could do. She did not have the deeper knowledge or understanding to counter the extreme views that had already begun to germinate in her son. Sabri would not allow the family to watch TV or invite female relatives fearing that he would have to shake hands with them. Even before the mother could gauge the intensity of the problem, Sabri disappeared in 2013. He called from Syria to confirm that he had found a purpose, albeit false, in life. They had one exchange of communication over FB. The mother pleaded: “open your ears and heart …you are in danger!” To which the son replied: “never say come back. It will not work.”
In the last three years, the world has learnt about many Sabris. We had our own rude awakening to extremism when the attack on Holey Artisan cafe took place on July 1. There was a lot of discussion about our home grown terrorism that has foreign recipes. Many members of our civil society have talked about forwarding a counter narrative. There are some TVCs alerting the target group. The response should be multi-modal given the wide spectrum of the problem. We probably do not have issues of racial profiling or frustration over cultural identity that the immigrant populations in Europe are facing. Still, there are many reasons to be disenchanted by the things both at home and abroad. We have already seen how some of our youths, and surprisingly, not necessarily from the madrassas but also from affluent private institutions, have espoused extremist ideology. We can no longer afford to suffer from the proverbial ostrich syndrome. The story of Saliha coming out of her cocoon is a stark reminder of how important it is to come out of the shell of denial.
There is one particular lesson that I personally picked up from Saliha's question answer session. She said the Turkish Islamic centres in Belgium have outreach programmes that allow the young men to talk to their mentors or even play football in the mosque complex. Consequently, the number of Turkish youth joining IS is considerably negligible. In contrast, the mosques run by the other communities, who preach in Arabic only, are alienating many of the young Muslims.
A massive overhauling of our education system to address the resurgence of fundamentalism is long overdue. Emphasising simply on secularism may not have the desired effect. We cannot altogether deny our Islamic heritage or the contributions Muslim scholars have made in various sectors of knowledge. At the same time we need to integrate the madrassa students in the mainstream. We need to understand both ends of the rope that brought the rich boy Nibras and the poor boy Khairul together in their mission to kill innocent people in the name of religion.
Just take an afternoon walk at any park in Uttara. You will surely be touched by the lively madrassa students playing football or cricket. They are our children whom we have relegated to a convenient system in which they are almost destined to be only preachers. Do we have any inter-madrassa sports or cultural competitions? Not that I know of.
We need Muslim mothers like Saliha to unite to tell us there is a problem in a patriarchy that showcases male chauvinism. We need our sports role models to go and play with the madrassa kids in the park and tell them that they too can one day roar like a Tiger. We need educated mentors who can understand the pulse of our youth and act.
The writer Heads the Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).