There is a slight tremor in Saliha Ben Ali’s voice when she speaks about her son, Sabri. In the spotlight of the Women in the World stage at Cadogan Hall in London on Friday, that waver gave power to her story of loss and her message to other Muslim mothers who fear that their children might be radicalized by Islamic extremists and convinced to join the war in Syria.
Her son, 19 year-old Sabri, disappeared from their Belgian home in August 2013. A once happy boy had become sullen and isolated, skipping school and withdrawing from social groups. She hadn’t noticed until it was too late.
Two years later, Saliha still doesn’t think she could have changed anything, as she explained in halting English: “I saw some signs but in this time, in 2013, it was the first wave of youth … leaving for Syria and we just knew something about radicalizations but not a lot. But what I saw with my son was that he felt more and more unwell, and more discriminated against. The way he found an answer to this feeling was to try to come back to his origins.”
He became “more religious — he tried to learn more about Islam and went to the mosque to ask for help of the imam. He was told you are welcome to pray but I have no time to teach you more about Islam. Then he met some preachers and [they] told him that they had time for him.”
It was these men, radical preachers, who filled a vacuum left by mosque elders and convinced her son that their version of Islam would provide the sense of identity he was seeking. Saliha found Sabri’s bedroom empty just a few months later: “One morning I went to his room. I found his bed empty and in this time it is like it was clear for me. All my instincts told me about his changing, about his behavior, was that my son has gone to Syria.”
There would be one more conversation with him; a brief text exchange on Facebook in which he told her he was being fulfilled by Allah — to which she responded by saying that his decision had destroyed her. The social media exchange is a stark reminder of two extremes of the issue – the barbaric ideology of ISIS and the modern day tool the group uses to manipulate and draw in young people like Sabri.
Saliha felt as if her son was unable to communicate freely, surrounded by those who had twisted his ideal of going to Syria to help others, and made Sabri a dispensable tool of Jihad.
She was right. Sabri was dead within three months of arriving in Syria. His parents got the news in a strange telephone call one Sunday morning. A distant voice asked Saliha’s husband: “Are you the father of Abu Turab?”
“No,” he replied. “I am the father of Sabri Ben Ali.”
“Congratulations, your son has just fallen like a martyr.”
It was here that Saliha paused, on the edge of tears, the memories still fresh. Dr Edit Schlaffer, founder and executive director of Women Without Borders, SAVE-Sisters Against Violent Extremism, who also appeared on stage in London, insists that it is the stories of women like Saliha that can help turn the tide of lost children. Her organization created a mothers’ group of more than 1,000 women across countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Zanzibar, seeking a more personal and tangible way to approach the problem.
“We asked mothers ‘Who do you trust to break the silence’,” she said. “It is not easy for a mother of an ISIS fighter to speak out and present yourself in public. It is courageous for these women. There are so many other Salihas out there. The challenge is to provide a platform to give them one voice, and that they can trust each other in this intimate circle.”
Said Schlaffer, the model had now been brought to Europe with the same message:
“The mechanism of radicalization is global, so the response is the same. We want to change the dynamics of conversation, to change the status, and respect women [because] mothers aren’t listening enough.”