The soft power of mothers: Fighting extremism begins at home

Why We Wrote This

All parents try to raise their children to think independently to some degree. But what if a young person is in danger of being radicalized? Edit Schlaffer realized mothers can be trained as the first line of defense.    

Courtesy of Women without Borders
Social scientist and activist Edit Schlaffer founded Women without Borders in Vienna in 2001. Her work in crisis zones led to MotherSchools, a curriculum that operates in areas where young people are vulnerable to radicalization.

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Their sons were dropping out of school, joining radical mosques, and breaking off contact. Hundreds of mothers had told Edit Schlaffer such stories when the Austrian was a social scientist researching conflict zones around the world. Scared and isolated, the women were eager to regain influence over their children, but unsure how to do so.

Today, the empowering program Ms. Schlaffer created nine years ago has reached some 3,000 women in 16 countries, from Tanzania to Bangladesh and Belgium. “Mothers are our security allies,” she says. “They have the closest proximity to the children who might be at risk.” 

Fifteen MotherSchools pupils in Miltenberg, Germany – who came from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere – recently completed weekly meetings to learn how to observe children’s development, monitor internet use, and recognize warning signs. They engaged in role-playing meant to boost self-confidence.

For women who rarely receive any type of recognition in their lives, a festive graduation ceremony that concludes training is, says Ms. Schlaffer, a “sign that at long last, society was looking at mothers as resources it needs to trust and support.”

Edit Schlaffer felt as if she was part of history in the making when 60 mothers from this southern region of Germany recently received their MotherSchools diploma from Bavaria’s social minister.

Ms. Schlaffer initiated her MotherSchools syllabus nine years ago for women in Tajikistan who were concerned about Islamic extremists recruiting their children. The program has since become a global movement whose goal is to fight extremism not with soldiers, but with mothers.

And now, Germany has its first batch of graduates – women with roots from Syria to Algeria. They’ve learned not only how to better detect, and respond to, early signs of radicalization, but also how to better connect with their sons. When Ms. Schlaffer initially met them, the women had tended to be shy, their hands often crossed on their knees and their heads bent down. But on graduation day, donning colorful headscarves and shiny suits, they mingled with top brass politicians in a castle overlooking the Main River here.

At the ceremony, Ms. Schlaffer knew that her tireless efforts to bring mothers to the fore of the fight against terrorism were beginning to bear fruit. For women who’d rarely received any type of recognition in their lives, the festive graduation was MotherSchools’ “crowning moment,” she says.

“It was such a visible sign that at long last, society was looking at mothers as resources it needs to trust and support,” says Ms. Schlaffer, a native of Vienna who herself has two adult children. “Mothers are our security allies. They have the closest proximity to the children who might be at risk.”

MotherSchools has reached some 3,000 women in 16 countries, from Tanzania to Bangladesh to European nations including Austria and Belgium. It was named a “best practice model” by UNESCO and the European Union’s Radicalisation Awareness Network about three years ago.

Ms. Schlaffer has achieved something major, “to get mothers out of their isolation and get their children to look at them at eye level,” said Emilia Müller, Bavaria’s minister of labor, social affairs, family, and integration, at the graduation ceremony.

From researcher to activist

Ms. Schlaffer’s interest in women’s issues grew in the Vienna of the 1960s, where she was a sociology student. As a lecturer and researcher later on, she traveled to countries in crisis and transition to document the experiences of women. Witnessing the violence and brutality waged against female and child refugees made her an activist.

In 2001, Ms. Schlaffer founded the nonprofit Women without Borders. Aimed at empowering women to become agents of change in their communities, it spurred initiatives ranging from a telephone hotline for female victims of Islamic extremism in Yemen to soccer games for women victims of the genocide in Rwanda. Ms. Schlaffer went on to create Sisters Against Violent Extremism, known as the world’s first female counterterrorism platform.

But it wasn’t until 2010, when she was talking with mothers in the mountains of Tajikistan on a research mission, that she began to envision MotherSchools. There, the mothers she interviewed echoed what she’d heard from hundreds of mothers in other conflict zones. Their sons were dropping out of school, joining radical mosques, and breaking off contact. Scared and isolated, the mothers were eager to regain influence over their sons, but they were powerless and unsure how to do so.

“Then a mother said, ‘I know what we need. We need to go back to school,’” Ms. Schlaffer recalls.

“That was it,” she says. “That’s when the idea for MotherSchools was born in my head. I realized that it is mothers who are at the front line against terror,” she adds. “We have to equip them with not only the confidence, but also the right tools and techniques to better interact with their children.”

Courtesy of Women without Borders
To help combat extremism, MotherSchools launched in Zanzibar in 2014. “In a context in which education and radicalisation are … intertwined, and young people [grow] discontented with their economic, social, and political prospects, parenting becomes a daunting task,” says Women without Borders.

A bottom-up security strategy

With its onion-shaped Baroque churches, this picturesque city nestled in the Franconian hills is far from some of the places that Islamic terrorist groups have hit, from Pakistan to sub-Saharan Africa. But increasingly, it’s in these tranquil communities that the battle against Islamic radicalization is being waged. A wake-up call came three years ago when a 17-year-old Afghan refugee, wielding an ax, attacked and injured five people near Würzburg, making Germany part of the growing spiral of Islamic terrorism engulfing Europe. Here, too, recruiters have been luring Europe’s vulnerable youth.

Yet in France and other European countries, the government responses distressed Ms. Schlaffer. By sharpening their security and law enforcement methods, they were deepening the divide between national security officials and civil society – and excluding “those who are directly involved.” Decades of research into the root causes of radicalization had taught her that “no politician, no secret agent is closer to the mechanisms of recruitment than the families.”

Leaving them to cope with extremism by themselves “is not only a lost opportunity; it is playing with a ticking time bomb.”

Against this backdrop, Ms. Schlaffer found “mobilizers” to launch MotherSchools in Europe. In London, for instance, she worked with a Bangladeshi immigrant. And in Austria, which ranks second in the EU after Belgium for Islamic State recruitment, Chechen exile Maynat Kurbanova became Ms. Schlaffer’s anchor for Vienna’s booming, vulnerable Chechen Muslim community. “Women aren’t aware of how much enormous potential they have,” says Ms. Kurbanova, a journalist. With MotherSchools, “they get the chance to reflect on their possibilities in a real trusting, protected atmosphere.”

In Germany, long before the 2016 ax attack, Bavarian government officials took an approach different from elsewhere in Europe. They asked Ms. Schlaffer to set up MotherSchools as part of the state’s budding violence prevention and deradicalization network. Now, this region was “looking at [mothers] as a resource where they can get information from, help make change, find support from,” she says.

Starting with self-confidence

Recently, a group of 15 MotherSchools pupils has been meeting in Miltenberg, a town of timber homes along the Main River near Würzburg. Once a week for 10 weeks, the women have engaged in role-playing meant to boost their self-confidence and have learned how to observe children’s psychological development, monitor their use of the internet, and recognize warning signs.

When the women are asked to take part in a “fashion show” and parade across the room in front of everybody, laughter ensues.

“We don’t start with radicalization; we start with all of us being mothers,” says Bouchra Mecheri, a translator and guardian of refugees who is Ms. Schlaffer’s mobilizer in Bavaria. “Our language is the language of mothers.”

There are emotional moments at these meetings, as when a Yazidi mother confesses that, although Islamic State had killed her husband in her native Iraq, set her village on fire, and taken women as sex slaves, she had learned in the MotherSchools group that “not all Muslims are the same.”

Shaden, who asked that only her first name be used for safety reasons, is originally from Syria. She fled Jordan to live in Germany 15 years ago. And with three children under age 14, she is a MotherSchools graduate. “I am here because I want to learn how to better protect my children,” she says.

In all, over 200 women in Germany have become MotherSchools graduates to date.

Today, Ms. Schlaffer’s closest allies include the mothers of terrorist perpetrators. She remembers the Indonesian mother whose son left for Yemen, never to return. “She said, ‘I go to MotherSchools because I don’t want to give up,’” Ms. Schlaffer says.

“Mothers do not give up,” she says. “They will go to the last straw.” And that, perhaps, is the greatest mother power.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story misstated when Ms. Schlaffer initiated her MotherSchools syllabus and when she was on a research mission in the mountains of Tajikistan. Those parts of the story have been corrected. A reference to Ms. Schlaffer’s children has also been corrected to reflect the fact that she has a son and a daughter. In addition, the piece has been updated to include the total number of MotherSchools graduates in Germany to date.

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