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People leave tributes at the Place de la Bourse following attacks on March 22, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Terror in Belgium

Witness to the Brussels attacks, Edit Schlaffer pleads for mothers to end extremism

By Edit Schlaffer on March 22, 2016

I’m here with our team in Brussels for the graduation ceremony of the Mothers School Against Extremism in Fôrest, Belgium. When we were checking out of the hotel this morning all of a sudden explosions went off and the smell of dynamite filled the lobby. Officials said more than a dozen were killed and scores were injured in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on the airport and a train station. The city is on high security alert.

Only yesterday evening we had a meeting with a group of young people from Vilvoorde, from where 68 youths have traveled to Syria. Their strong statements broke through the stereotypes of Muslims, immigrants, “true” Belgians and showed instead their passion and longing to be seen as citizens first. One of the young boys of Moroccan background said he wishes to send a message to the youngsters out there who take up Kalashnikovs in defense of the Caliphate: “The real Jihad is to be there for your mother.”

I am determined more than ever that this is the moment to stand together and move into this arena where this violent insecurity is being born. Where the mothers at the front lines cannot alone protect their children and in a broader sense all of us. This morning I saw up-close the consequences of not taking up the security challenge: the bodies lying in the street, the panic, the cries, the tears. It is our responsibility as women to take this beyond Brussels or Paris. The global threat is about questioning the way we deal with our grievances on both sides. We all know military and police presence will increase now, the climate of fear and otherizing will continually drive unproductive politics, all the while pushing these kids to the edge.

The sharpest missiles are the mothers who speak, the youth who defy the labels placed on them. They can be a new army without weapons, but words.

We are scaling-up the Mothers School Against Extremism Model globally across India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Nigeria, Belgium, Austria, England, Macedonia and Jordan and hopefully beyond. We are equipping mothers with the confidence and competence to recognize and respond to the early warning signs of radicalization and violent extremism in their children. These mothers are on the front lines, witnessing the small turning points on the path to committing atrocities. They have the access, but often not the tools and support to respond early enough and effectively. But they have the determination and they also need the support to confidently step out and ring the alarm bells before bombings in Brussels and Paris take place and lives are lost.

We can’t keep trying the same failed approaches, as the problem worsens. We must be innovative and smart now. Addressing the problem of terrorism right where it starts, at the individual level at a stage where family members can still intervene. We need to encourage mothers, fathers, siblings, community members to safeguard adolescents and shield them from recruiters and their toxic ideologies. This also means that mothers have to be clear: the myth of masculinity needs to be deconstructed. This myth is fueling the boys who run to Syria to be fighters, heroes, Men. And the girls who follow them in search of their fantasy knights in shining armor. These are the images put into the minds of the young by the ISIS PR machine.

The message of the Mothers School Against Extremism must travel in this new age of terrorism and showcase the impact this movement has in the communities, which urgently need support to protect their young and by extension, us. We must realize that security is not in the hands of the guys in the think tanks. The whole CVE machinery is failing us. And actually making the problem worse — eating up the resources, which are badly needed there where we can efficiently fight, in the hands of this emerging grassroots army.

Dr. Edit Schlaffer founded Women without Borders in 2002, an international research-based NGO, encouraging women to take the lead in their personal and public lives. In 2008 she launched SAVE – Sisters Against Violent Extremism, the world’s first female counter-terrorism platform. She appeared at the Women in the World Summit, in New York and London, in 2014 and 2015.


The devastating story of a son’s conversion to extremism

One mother’s fight to bring her daughter back from jihad