SEVRAN, FRANCE — Nadia Remadna, social worker, single mom-of-four and founder of The Mothers’ Brigade, is almost marching me through a walking tour of her Paris suburb notorious for being one of France’s leading exporters of jihadists.
“Look over there at that café, do you see one woman? And this one?” she says, pointing to the exclusively male clientele enjoying leisurely beverages outdoors in the early evening sun. “It’s frowned upon for a woman to be seen drinking a coffee or mint tea on a café terrace, or walking around on her own after a certain hour.”
We file past groups of women and young girls, veiled and covered from head to toe, many hurrying along the streets and onto public buses, with multiple children and shopping bags in tow.
The closure of illegal, clandestine Koranic schools in several radical hubs across France has been in the news. My fast-talking guide gestures towards several nondescript buildings. Local officials here turn a blind eye she says, although “everyone knows” the “cultural associations” offer ultra-rigorist sex-segregated Koran study groups under the guise of Arabic lessons, “homework help” or “leisure activities” — and often get public money to run their indoctrination courses.
“The Middle Ages — it’s now,” Remadna, 53, declares with an indignant smile. More and more little girls, some as young as three are being made to wear veils in the district she calls home, “as if they were immodest.”
“You no longer feel like you are in France. It is like you are in the third world and we are the NGOs arriving and saying we are bringing ‘French culture’ to France in 2016. I have the impression of almost being in Algeria during the worst period of Islamist terrorism [during the 1990’s civil war].
“Now let’s go to the Salafist boutique where they sell niqabs and burqas. Everything is for sale — you will think you are in Saudi Arabia or Qatar!”.
The neighborhood of Sevran is no typical Paris tourist attraction. Thirty minutes from the heart of the capital, it has been called a “French Molenbeek,” after the Brussels district linked to Europe’s deadliest recent terrorist attacks. In a little over two years, 15 young people have left Sevran for the Islamic State’s “caliphate” of Syria and Iraq. Six locals are already confirmed dead. The exodus has left behind traumatized mothers, who are isolated and often shunned by political and religious authorities and members of the community for having allowed their kids to “get away.”
“Each time there is an attack, women are excluded or ignored,” Remadna remarks as we continue on our walk. “We call on men and religious leaders but never women. Yet they are the first who are concerned because it is mothers who lose their sons and daughters, and wives who lose their husbands. It’s all very macho because France is a really macho country. And here in Sevran — and other places too — you have fundamentalists and macho politicians. How can we get out of this mess then?”
Outraged by the ostracism and determined to give women a voice, the activist dubbed “the Amazon woman of the lost territories of the French Republic” has an answer.
She is on a grassroots mission to “save her children” and their peers from recruitment as criminals, extremists and jihadists, by getting women to “Stand up and wake up.” To achieve this, The Mothers’ Brigade (La Brigade des Meres) delivers in-person support and networking, intellectual tools, philosophy, debating classes, and self-esteem training to the people standing closest to the border between kids and terrorism: Mothers.
At the same time Remadna and her “moms’ army,” with more than 1,000 members and a core brigade of 15, are battling rising religious extremism at its source. “The problem for Muslims isn’t Islamophobia or stigmatization — it’s radicalization,” says Remadna, a free-thinking Muslim who carries the Koran in her handbag but also likes to celebrate Christmas.
“Before we mothers were afraid of our kids getting into juvenile delinquency, but now we are petrified they will become terrorists.”
Remadna’s brigade pinpoints a nefarious connection between the spread of hardline religious beliefs, radicalization, and Europe’s contemporary spate of terror attacks. The Moms’ group cites the work of researchers like British criminologist Simon Cottee who has studied how religion can “transform petty criminals into terrorists” by offering them redemption and a theological rationale for violence against all “bad Muslims” or non-Muslim “kuffars.” “The idea that the secularly profane habits of jihadists and their emulators is evidence religion plays little or no role in radicalization just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Cottee, Senior Lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent told Women in the World. Judge Marc Trevidic who investigated French terrorist cases for almost a decade has also highlighted the role of religion, raising the alert on burgeoning “Salafist hotbeds” — because “the cause of terrorism is radicalization.”
As a result of her attempts to stem the extremist contagion and expose the murky web that merges Islamist networks with criminal gangs and vulnerable young people, Remadna has received death threats on Facebook and over the phone. At work she was told by a colleague she would get “her teeth punched out” for bringing “shame on Islam.” The author and activist enraged some co-workers when she said on national TV that what France needed was “not more mosques but [more and better] schools.” So her boss obliged her to stop coming to the office. She moved onto half-pay, into financial difficulty and suffered bouts of anxiety and depression. Her children were insulted and beaten up in the street.
The activist’s offense is to be a whistleblower mom whom critics say is sullying Sevran’s reputation by speaking out against what she calls the “religious takeover” of her local area, like other “troubled” French districts producing escalating numbers of aspiring — and actual — terrorists. “We offer a counter-discourse to fundamentalism and victimization,” the Mothers’ Brigade leader says.
Remadna created her association in June 2014, when young people from Sevran started leaving for Syria and Iraq. The goal was to save teenagers who had been expelled from school and found themselves on the streets with nothing to do, leaving them “easy prey” for delinquency and Islamist recruiters.
“These kids were taken in by religious associations using the cover of helping them with their homework, tutoring or learning Arabic, but in fact they were Koranic schools,” she says. And who should be blamed? The “Salafists” or Sunni Wahhabists with their Saudi-derived ultra-strict neo-purist 7th century interpretation of Islam, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, and umpteen “gurus” influencing vulnerable youth, Remadna says.
Sevran’s dissident moms have witnessed first-hand how Islamist networks with their hatred of secular, liberal democracy enlist young men and women between the ages of about 15 and 25.
Mothers’ Brigade member Veronique Roy accused ecologist party Mayor Stephane Gatignon in an open letter of having closed his eyes to the presence of radical Islamic centers in the suburb. Her son Quentin, a convert to Islam, left in September 2014 aged 23 to wage jihad in Syria, and Roy learned of his death earlier this year. Quentin attended the so-called Sevran “Daesh prayer hall” that was eventually closed down by the government, as well as the Muslim Cultural Association (ACCMS) which remains open. It was only after his departure that Roy discovered the cultural association was run using public municipal funds. The head of the association even confessed to her that he had noticed her son was radicalizing. “When they see someone who is going over the edge, they leave them, and this is non-assistance to a person in danger,” says Roy who believes her son’s flight could have been prevented because police failed to quickly arrest his recruiter who drove him to the airport, apprehending him only after last November’s Paris attacks. “It’s not Islam that took my son, it’s radical Islam,” the Catholic mother told Slate’s French edition. “Under the pretext of funding associations that give academic assistance, the municipality is indulging in ‘client politics’ and financing religious associations. Why didn’t they close these “associations” that produce and export indoctrinated youth to Syria or “sell” them on the local market?”
“Today we don’t respect secularism anymore. But if a community association is subsidized by the state it has to follow the law. You aren’t free to do what you want, like not hiring a woman as an Arabic teacher because she isn’t veiled,” said Remadna.
“These associations preach fundamentalist religion often behind closed doors. I don’t understand how we can give money to associations that only welcome little girls — minors aged 4, 5 or 6 — who are veiled. We cannot be giving state aid to just anyone.”
After the male-populated cafes, Halal butchers and supermarkets — and the congratulations of an elderly man who darts out of a bar to say “Bravo Nadia! Thanks for making a commotion for us” — we head to a “fashion” boutique and library on the outskirts of Sevran.
“You’re not going to start another scandal, are you, mom?!” Remadna’s teenage son asks with a grin, while driving us for part of our tour of the Paris suburb.
The Salafist emporium is hard to miss. Its large shop windows boast full body- and face-covering dark niqabs, hand-hiding black gloves, and Saudi-style flowing dress for men and little boys. Inside and online the store vends face-concealing burqas for women and fillettes: little girls as young as 2 and 3.
The multi-function “wellbeing center” is strictly gender-segregated, marketing its “dedicated women’s space.” A few steps away from essential oils and prayer clocks, the store stocks imported religious texts by Saudi Arabian Wahhabist imams condemning Jews and Christians as “miscreants” who deserve “the wrath of Allah” for straying from the “right path.” Bellicose theological tracts justify the “licit” or permissible murder of Muslims if they have committed adultery or are “apostates.” Good behavior guides caution “impertinent” wives who “disobey” their husbands.
The Mothers’ Brigade wants to educate moms to think again when they are served up the diet purveyed via Islamist boutiques, religious associations and in their homes and families. “We want to expose mothers to something other than the culture of their country of origin,” Remadna says. “They need to learn to debate about politics and dare say ‘I don’t agree’ and not to absorb everything they are told. Just because we are mothers doesn’t mean we can’t disagree!”
It is thought that cultivating critical thinking will also aid mothers in better detecting radicalization, and preventing it from taking root. “Mothers can be a lot more vigilant, by speaking a lot more to their kids and keeping controls on them,” Remadna advises. “You have to stop handing your children over to someone else.”
Apart from reclaiming the right to educate their children, mothers are urged to be careful about the values they hand down to their sons, who should never be considered “boy kings.”
“If you don’t say anything when your boy comes home at midnight or if you let him order you around, you’re definitely going to turn him into a macho,” the Mothers’ Brigade chief theorized.
Mothers cannot do battle alone, however. Remadna’s lament is that French society has been cynically “imprisoning” young children of immigrant, Muslim origin in a dangerous victim mentality. “We’ve failed an entire generation and the next generation is a ticking time bomb. The real urgency lies with children as young as 10.
“We’ve seen what happened [with terrorism] in Algeria and Tunisia and sadly it is going global. In France you can see that religion and the religious people have replaced other secular institutions. And school is no longer seen as important.”
Public intellectuals like Le Monde’s book review editor Jean Birnbaum have also taken aim at the French elite’s struggle to confront the spiritual dimension to jihadism, a blindness Birnbaum labeled in the title of his book A Religious Silence. And while the “big mouth mother’s” analysis may diverge sharply from some academics, it is based on painstaking field work. The evidence assembled by Remadna’s brigade has much in common with Belgian-Moroccan journalist Hind Fraihi’s undercover expose of “Islamo-gangsterism” and growing hatred of the West fomented by radical “preacher-criminals” in Molenbeek’s so-called Little Morocco. Fraihi undertook her investigation a decade before a group of Molenbeek’s local boys helped lead Europe’s bloodiest domestic terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels over the past year. She, too, spent a long time crying into the wilderness.
Born in France to Algerian parents, Remadna was taken back against her will to the “old country” by her authoritarian father at age 14. She managed to “escape” at 25, returning to the country of her birth, where she married and had four children, before divorcing her violent husband.
Her rise to prominence began after the January 2015 terrorist attacks, when Remadna was honored along with fellow mothers at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace, and boldly asked President Francois Hollande: “Why Mr President when something terrible happens in the suburbs, do we always call upon the imams, lawmakers, presidents of the football clubs, everyone — but never the mothers? Why always the men, but never the mothers?”
Hollande replied that he would personally come to visit Remadna in Sevran, however he has still not made good on his promise. The mothers’ spokesperson has the backing of French feminists: philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, Women’s Minister Laurence Rossignol, Socialist politician Celine Pina, and anti-discrimination campaigner Jeannette Bougrab. In May she joined a ‘Mother’s appeal’ writing a joint letter to Francois Hollande pleading for help to combat radicalization of children in French suburbs, with, among others, Latifah Ibn Ziaten, the mother of one of the French soldiers killed by Toulouse terrorist Mohammed Merah in 2012.
How I Saved My Children is the title of Remadna’s maternal manifesto-confessional, published earlier this year. It is a raw portrait of the fabled French suburbs which the author believes must be wrested back from ultra-orthodox religious forces trying to “take the power.”
She asked herself the questions: “Why is it always our kids of “immigrant origin” who end up badly? Why are they failing at school? Is it because we moms are raising our children badly? Even though they attend the same French schools and have access to the same institutions?”
Getting closer to politicians in search of answers, Remadna saw the “discourse of hate” seizing on issues like the war in Palestine, disadvantage and racism to “justify terrorist actions” and explain away truancy, a diminishing work ethic and criminal activity. “I realized we have been locked up in our culture and tradition and it is a confinement that is physical and mental. We live in an open-air prison. There is this sense of victimization,” she says of her fellow Muslims.
“And when you are imprisoned in victimization you draw upon all your grievances and you can fall into hate.”
In her generation, Remadna said, the “wounds” were all about the Algerian war. Now the focus has turned to Islamophobia, immigration and racism — “whatever touches you.”
“They tell you in all their political debates that you are a victim and everything you do is justified. That is just not acceptable.”
The price of standing up for mothers and their kids has been high for Remadna, who has been vilified online and on the street. Fully veiled women turned outside her apartment one morning to loudly protest with posters reading “We want mosques not schools.” One threatening caller who alluded to raping her daughter, said “you help the miscreants” and “we know where your kids go to school … we are going to send over some real Muslim mothers.”
Female anti-Islamophobia activists behind a “no whites allowed” post-colonial conference came to Sevran to ridicule the Mothers’ Brigade President’s “racist and stigmatizing” media interventions. Local community activist Jaouad Dahmani said Remadna was “really clumsy and professionally unstable,” that no one wanted to work with her, and that she was being “used” to advance the agenda of ex-Muslims.
Remadna is convinced the attacks on her credibility have been egged on by local Mayor Gatignon and far-left lawmakers like feminist Clementine Autain, who was elected to the Sevran council in 2014, but is non-resident. When dead jihadist Quentin Roy’s mother castigate dthe Mayor and elected representatives of letting the neighborhood fall into the hands of religious extremists, Autain retorted: “Sevran can’t just be reduced to jihadism.” She dismissed the Islamic State zealots as a fringe “sect” and refused to associate the escalation of ISIS recruiting with powerful district Islamists and their hold over some youth.
The Mothers’ Brigade abhors what it sees as collusion between politicians like Autain, local fundamentalists and the French Committee Against Islamophobia (CCIF), a militant group linked with hate preachers and radical Imams. Autain was castigated by Prime Minister Manuel Valls for forming part of an “Islamo-leftist” axis that diffused “ambiguous” ideas about terrorism, alongside the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Tariq Ramadan, who infamously refused to condemn the stoning of women for adultery under Sharia Law. Autain rejected the Prime Minister’s claims as “defamation.”
“They say I’m racist against my own race,” Remadna wrote of her detractors in her book. Except the Mothers’ Brigade takes an aggressive stance on discrimination and disadvantage. It says the priority should be “desegregating” schools so that kids from the suburbs of immigrant and Muslim background can study together with pupils from central Paris and other urban cores, breaking up the ghetto mentality across French society.
Visibly shaken by what she experienced as Autain’s “betrayal,” Remadna lashed out: “Clementine Autain did everything to show she wasn’t an Islamophobe but she flirts with the devil. Except she isn’t the one who is going to suffer — it is others. She is dangerous for us women in the suburbs. But it isn’t her daughter who is veiled. She doesn’t live in Sevran, yet she takes up a problem which is not hers. We are concerned personally, and instead of supporting us mothers [and] as a feminist, she is in the process of burying us. She stands up for these men who impose on women to be beautiful, shut up and don’t think.”
Cottee, author of The Apostates: When Muslims leave Islam says figures like Remadna are “demonized for speaking out and bringing “shame” on the community.”
“The liberal-left, to its shame, colludes in this, because, to use George Orwell’s terminology, it doesn’t want to “give ammunition to the enemy” — the far right — by exposing the crimes and injustices within Muslim communities.
“The fear is that demagogues may seek to use Nadia to further inflame hatred against Muslims. But while this fear is understandable, it isn’t a neutral position since it plays into the hands of terrorists and extremists by ritually refusing to confront them or even speak about them. It’s a very damaging form of denial. It’s also a powerful tool of social control within communities: no one wants to be called a sell-out or traitor – or worse, become a target of violence.”
Self-criticism among Muslims and French people more broadly is key, according to Remadna: “We women and mothers need to occupy the terrain, and dare to enter cafes during Ramadan, drink a mint tea on a terrace, and dare to sit on street and park benches after 6pm when our neighborhoods look like cities without women”.
‘We need citizens!’
In the days and weeks following France’s latest terrorist attack, on a church in Normandy where an elderly Catholic priest was beheaded by a pair of teen jihadis, Remadna was all over the media decrying the Interior Minister’s push for an “Islam of France.” “We don’t need an Islam of France, or to be training imams with taxpayers’ money. We need French citizens, basta!” she said in characteristically blunt fashion on BFMTV.
The horrific crime has prompted flashbacks and nightmares for Remadna, who remembers when seven Catholic Trappist monks at the Tibhirine, Algeria Monastery had their throats cut by suspected Islamic terrorists in 1996, during the civil war.
“The government hasn’t understood anything,” she told Women in the World. “I would have the army here and then I would investigate all the local associations. Demand their accounts and taxes and bring in the financial inspectors. You have to go to the roots and closing mosques isn’t going to do it. These are palaces and they will build another one in the next neighborhood.”
“We are talking about people who kill other people. We cannot confront radicalization and terrorism with a person who knows how to read the Koran in French,” she said, alluding to government plans to train imams.
It is tough for Remadna to contain her fury as she describes the “couscous and prayer mat” deals generations of French politicians have done with fundamentalist religious leaders in immigrant neighborhoods, preferring to accommodate their demands rather than risk electoral backlash. The political strategy called ‘clientalism’ is all about indirect vote buying, she says. The cri de coeur echoes the findings of researchers like Terror in the Hexagon author Gilles Kepel. The Islam specialist has documented the growth of “Salafist enclaves” and “rupture” with French society, apparent in some Muslim-populated neighborhoods, exposing the ballot box-motivated left as complicit.
“Over many years, extremism has spread and been nourished and used by politicians and city mayors who do nothing anymore without the [accord] of religious figures,” Remadna railed. “But it is particularly serious in our neighborhood of Sevran because 80 percent of our population is Muslim. Given that for some families religion is sacred, we are their prey.”
It was the same playbook in her adolescence and early adulthood in Algeria, Remadna recalled, of the system she “knows by heart”, in which lawmakers give Islamists power for everyone’s mutual benefit. “It doesn’t just happen by chance. Some politicians are outside the law.”
Amid the increasing incidence and escalating human toll of terrorist strikes, Remadna said she has a constant sense of deja-vu.
“Each time we have three minutes of silence and we cry and that is it. Everyone hugs each other — the Catholics and the Muslims — and everyone says they love each other. I thought we would take much more serious measures. If we don’t fix the problem at the local level on the ground we can’t fix the problem nationally.”
Applying the law doesn’t mean banning religious gatherings, Remadna explains.
“Whatever our nationality or religion we are citizens above all. But I have the impression we no longer address ourselves to citizens — we address ourselves to people according to their religion.”
A strategy and a political plan is what The Mothers’ Brigade wants, starting with local lawmakers applying the law prohibiting public funding of associations that flout French rules on equality between the sexes.
“There are more and more men in these organizations and elsewhere who won’t shake the hands of women or who veil very small girls,” Remadna affirms, relating how she intervenes “as a mother of the suburbs” when she sees 4- and 5 year olds in full head and body coverings.
“I call on the parents. I make inquiries. I ask why they are veiled. We have to work on prevention. I say no, stop immediately giving these groups aid, and take away their free spaces.”
Despite its urgent task, The Mothers’ Brigade receives no local or national financing and is even accused of working against local interests. The constant fights with critics and trolls is wearying.
“People like us who put the spokes in the wheels don’t have the support of the authorities,” Remadna says. “We are told we are ruining the reputation of the suburb and bringing shame on it. We’re considered the wrong-doers.”
Dealing with the death threats and stress that have led to her recent hospitalization is at times overwhelming. Still, Remadna is mostly afraid for her children and others’ children, and scared everyone must live with the fear of terrorism, like Tunisians, Algerians and Egyptians. “Everyone is afraid,” she says. “The terrorists don’t want to live anymore because for them life has no meaning. But we love life and that is the difference between them and us. What makes me scared is that the politicians respond with such prudence. They put on their kid gloves but they shouldn’t be afraid to offend those who commit attacks.”
The solution will, however, not be found in striking ISIS in Syria and Iraq, she concludes.
“It isn’t Daesh [the Arab acronym for Islamic State] that they need to attack, it is here they need to attack,” said Sevran’s best-known mom. “By bombarding and killing children and civilians you are not going to stop radicalization.
“You have to do the work with civilians at the grassroots and demand that all the lawmakers be held accountable. Enforce the laws on secularism and equality and stop throwing money out the window — all the money we have wasted in the suburbs is terrible. [Far right National Front leader] Marine Le Pen is happy.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons