Earlier this month Edit Schaffler, Executive Director of Women Without Borders, came to New York City to tell the world that mothers can stop terrorism in its tracks: “We see potential change coming from the mothers in the world.”

Schaffler moderated a challenging discussion between Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever tried in a U.S. court on charges of having been involved in the September 11 attacks, and Abdul Haqq Baker, the former Imam of the Brixton Mosque in London, which Zacarias attended while becoming radicalized.

Both Baker and el-Wafi believe that mothers can and should be the first line of defense against the ideologies of violent extremism.

While el-Wafi admits that she never saw her son becoming radicalized, she saw him struggle through life. His parents divorced early after his mother endured years of regular beatings. He loved a girl whose father wouldn’t allow them to be together. And he was rejected by French society and called a “dirty Arab.” Nonetheless, el-Wafi made the decision once she left her marriage that “my children will lack for nothing.”

“I did everything so they would be okay,” el-Wafi explained. “But the extremists in London destroyed both boys.”

Baker says he saw Moussaoui fall in with the extremist crowd outside of the mosque, but he couldn’t convince him there was another path. Moussaoui accused Baker of being passive, apolitical, and not understanding the true meaning of “jihad.”

Then 9/11 happened, a shock to the world, but also to el-Wafi and Baker.

Women without bordersInstead of isolating herself, el-Wafi approached the relatives of 9/11 victims to show them she was different from the terrorists. She quickly became friends with New Yorker Phyllis Rodriguez, who lost her 31-year-old son Greg in the World Trade Center. The two women began working with the Forgiveness Project, among others, to promote reconciliation. In a talk at the TED conference, Rodriguez explained how she and other mothers realized how much they had in common with el-Wafi.

Schaffler said that by bringing women together as friends and allies in the fight against terrorism, they can prevent extremism before it starts. In November 2008, Women Without Borders, launched a new global campaign called SAVE--Sisters Against Violent Extremism, to bring women together from across the globe to contribute to a safer and more secure world.

Schaffler suggests that by opening up a secular space within religion mothers can become the frontline against terrorism. If mothers see their children spending time with a potentially dangerous crowd, they can invite them over to the house and try to start a dialogue. By integrating the children, rather than isolating them, mothers can stop the extremist ideology from soaking in.

Baker agrees. Islam believes family is the foundation where everything starts. “Extremists try to divorce you from your family,” he said. “Their objective is to become your family.”

Mothers can prevent this from happening.


(Photo © Women Without Borders)