How Latifa ibn Ziaten became a campaigner against radicalization of young French Arabs

Latifa ibn Ziaten. (Supplied)
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Updated 01 December 2020

How Latifa ibn Ziaten became a campaigner against radicalization of young French Arabs

  • Latifa ibn Ziaten recalls her transformation from grief-stricken mother to campaigner for religious and cultural tolerance
  • Arab News en Francais/YouGov study suggests many young French of Arab origin feel abandoned by mainstream society

PARIS: On March 11, 2012, Latifa ibn Ziaten, a mother similar to many others living in the Toulouse region of southwest France, saw her life turned upside down.

Her son Imad, 28, a parachutist in the French army, was killed by a 24-year-old terrorist, Mohammed Merah, nicknamed “the scooter killer.”

The two young men did not know each other. They agreed to meet after Merah posted an advertisement on the internet to sell a scooter. The ad, however, was a trap: Merah knew that Imad was a soldier. When the latter arrived at the meeting place, Merah killed him in cold blood with a firearm.

His mother was devastated. She was deeply affected by a terrorist who stole her son, her pride, from her. Although overwhelmed with pain, she refused to throw in the towel and managed to overcome the tragedy to take positive action. She decided to act against radicalization.

What helped her not to surrender to grief and hatred was first of all the unconditional love for her son. She told Arab News that she had five children, “but with Imad’s death, I lost half of me.”

The prosecutor of Toulouse later told her that her son died standing, refusing Merah’s orders to grovel. She decided to search for the killer to know why he had killed her son. Subsequently, Merah claimed six other lives, before being shot by special forces.

Ibn Ziaten went to the district where Merah grew up, in a suburb of Toulouse, in order to meet young people there. She was flabbergasted by the pride they took in the crimes of Merah, who they considered “the hero who brought France to its knees.”

Their shocking comments made her realize the seriousness of the situation. So, in a message to the young people, she said: “You are the cause of my suffering, but I want to extend a hand. I want to help you.”

However, her words were only received with sarcasm. One of the youngsters said: “We’ve already heard this many times and we don’t believe in it anymore.”

She pointed out that Islam was not representative of what Merah did, and that France was a country of freedom and rights, not a country of hatred.

The youth replied and said: “Look at where we live, madam, look around you. We are like monkeys, like caged creatures, and we try to take revenge on society.”

Ibn Ziaten added: “But you can’t blame this on society. If you need help, you should protest or write. You should call for help, but not kill.”

In answer, the youth said: “Nobody listens to us, the journalists come and film us as if we were monkeys. We are lost, madam.”

Ibn Ziaten vowed not to give up and to do everything in her power to prevent these young people from falling into violence and to avoid a new Merah emerging from among them and causing more deaths.

Since then, she has devoted her energy to carrying a message of tolerance, brotherhood, and courage, hoping to neutralize the hate speech distilled among young people to try and turn them against society and into killing machines.

She noted that the same language of despair and feelings of abandonment could be found in all the French or European suburbs that she visited, in prisons, and even in schools. There was “a huge amount of work to be done with young people from the suburbs, in France but also in Europe,” she said.

Her observation was evident in the findings of the Arab News en Francais-YouGov survey, which show that while people of Arab origin in France had largely adapted to the French way of life, the young suffer from a lack of educational means, in an age when education is the most important way to progress in life.

The Imad Association for Youth and Peace founded by Ibn Ziaten, allowed her to contribute to the task, and to remain standing, just like her son, while keeping his memory alive.

“I didn’t know anything about how associations work. I learned step by step. When I look back at the number of people I’ve helped, I tell myself that this is what Imad would have wanted me to do,” she said.

Despite not having received any formal training about how to fight against radicalization, she has been guided by her motherly instinct and speaks to her audience in her own way, using simple language.

Ibn Ziaten said: “When I talk to them (young people) about love, some of them start to cry. This also happens when I speak of the presence of parents. Many are left to fend for themselves. They rarely see their parents, who don’t talk to them.”

She pointed out that many young people shunned education due to a lack of means but most said they had religious faith. “But when I ask them if they know what religion is, they say that they don’t.”

She said schools, families, and social circles needed to provide joint support for youth.

When she meets terrorists jailed for attacks and killings, she said: “I see in front of me a person who has committed an act and who is paying in prison for what they have done, and I wish for them to make it out.”

Ibn Ziaten admits to still feeling resentment toward Merah’s mother, who she met during the trial of her second son Abdelkader, who was convicted of complicity in his brother’s crimes.

“I cannot forgive her. She let her four children down. She abandoned them to drugs and violence, and when I asked her if she was aware of the mess she was responsible for, she replied: ‘It’s not just your son who died; mine died too.’”

Dutch government collapses over benefits scandal

Updated 36 min 54 sec ago

Dutch government collapses over benefits scandal

  • Parents being targeted for investigation because they had dual nationality also underscored long-standing criticisms of systemic racism in the Netherlands
  • The row threatens to leave the Netherlands without a government in the midst of a surge in cases of a new Covid-19 variant

THE HAGUE: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government resigned on Friday over a child benefits scandal, media reported, threatening political turmoil as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of parents were wrongly accused by Dutch authorities of fraudulently claiming child allowance, with many of them forced to pay back large amounts of money and ending up in financial ruin.
The fact that some parents were targeted for investigation by tax officials because they had dual nationality also underscored long-standing criticisms of systemic racism in the Netherlands.
Dutch media said Rutte was due to give a statement at 1315 GMT about the resignation of his four-party coalition cabinet, which comes just two months before the Netherlands is due to hold a general election on March 17.
A hard-hitting parliamentary investigation in December said civil servants cut off benefits to thousands of families wrongly accused of fraud between 2013 and 2019.
The row threatens to leave the Netherlands without a government in the midst of a surge in cases of a new Covid-19 variant that first emerged in Britain.
Rutte had opposed the cabinet’s resignation, saying the country needs leadership during the pandemic.
He had however said that if it resigned he could be authorized to lead a caretaker government until elections — in which polls say his Freedom and Democracy Party would likely come first.
Other parties in the coalition had pushed for the government to take responsibility for the scandal, which Dutch media said some 26,000 people had been affected.
They could have also faced a confidence vote in parliament next week.
Pressure mounted on the government after opposition Labour party chief Lodewijk Asscher, who was social affairs minister in Rutte’s previous cabinet, resigned on Thursday over the scandal.
Victims also lodged a legal complaint Tuesday against three serving ministers and two former ministers including Asscher.
Many were required to pay back benefits totalling tens of thousands of euros (dollars).
Tax officials were also revealed to have carried out “racial profiling” of 11,00 people based on their dual nationality, including some of those hit by the false benefit fraud accusations.
The Dutch government announced at least 30,000 euros in compensation for each parent who was wrongly accused but it has not been enough to silence the growing clamour over the scandal.
Rutte has led three coalition governments since 2010, most recently winning elections in 2017 despite strong opposition from far-right leader Geert Wilders.
Polls say he is likely to win a fourth term in the next election, with public opinion still largely backing his handling of the coronavirus crisis.