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US award for French mother courage battling hate

WASHINGTON: French recipient of the 2016 International Women of Courage Award, Latifa Ibn Ziaten (left), shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department in Washington. —AFP
WASHINGTON: French recipient of the 2016 International Women of Courage Award, Latifa Ibn Ziaten (left), shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department in Washington. —AFP

WASHINGTON: After her beloved son, a French soldier, was murdered by an Islamist gunman, Latifa Ibn Ziaten formed a group to prevent radicalization and promote dialogue. “No more Merahs,” she declared, after the troubled petty criminal turned jihadist Mohamed Merah cut down her boy.

But since that day in 2012, extremist attacks in Europe have only grown in scale, and Ibn Ziaten admits she has much more work to do, refusing to “surrender to fear.” On Tuesday, the US government named her one of 14 “International Women of Courage” and invited her to explain her anti-radicalization message in American cities. “If we’re afraid, we’ll make no progress, and that’s what the terrorists want. If we cede to fear, it is they who gain ground,” she told AFP after the ceremony.

The ghettos
France was hit by two bloody jihadist attacks last year, and neighboring Belgium last week, but Ibn Ziaten has not abandoned her message of dialogue and compassion. “We need to open up the housing projects, the ghettos. We need to promote diversity in schools, equality of opportunity,” she explained.

“We need to listen to those young people who, when they speak at all, say ‘the republic has forgotten us’,” she said. “That’s where the malaise lies.” On March 11, Ibn Ziaten’s son Imad had an appointment to view a motor scooter that Merah had advertised.

The young extremist pulled out a gun, but Imad, a sergeant in France’s 1st Parachute Regiment, refused to lie on the ground. He was shot dead at point blank range. Imad was Merah’s first victim, but not the last. Before he was killed by police 11 days later, the gunman would kill two more off-duty soldiers, then a rabbi and three young children in an attack on a Jewish school. Latifa Ibn Ziaten did not leave the matter there. She formed an association in memory of her son and began to tour prisons and schools to preach inter-faith respect.

“I dissuaded three young men from leaving for Syria,” she said. “I work with young women who have converted. I work with a lot of parents who are having difficulty coping.”

In one of her biggest operations, Ibn Ziaten took more than a dozen young people from a Paris suburb to Israel and the Palestinian territories as “peace ambassadors.” In another, she opened a center in Paris’ underprivileged immigrant suburbs from where many radicals emerged to listen to the concerns of young people and their families.

‘I forgave’
The goal is to identify early signs of violent extremism. “Today, some parents say: ‘We didn’t pay attention. We didn’t notice’,” she warned. “A child left alone, living in his own head, this is what happens. That’s why I forgave Mohamed Merah,” she said.
“When I looked at his journey and I saw that he grew up in a vacuum, without love, affection, that he knew pain, prison, drugs-that’s what made him, made him a monster.

“I forgave him for what he was but not for what he had done.” Ibn Ziaten found the inspiration for her quest at the scene of Merah’s last stand, cut down in a hail of police bullets after the siege of his apartment. Heading into his neighborhood she asked herself: “Who was he? Why so much hate?” She fell upon a group of young people who were speaking about the slain jihadist as a martyr, as a hero.

“It was as if they had killed my son a second time,” she said. “They were the cause of my suffering. But I felt I had to reach out my hand, to help them.”

Already a recipient of France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, the wronged mother said the US award would only encourage her in her mission. But, as she begins a tour of US cities with the 13 other activists, lawyers and reformers to win the award she will encounter some angry American attitudes.

The US presidential campaign has only heightened the angry debate about Islam’s role in western society. “You can’t mix religion and citizenship,” she insisted. “When you’re a citizen, religion should remain personal.” – AFP

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