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How French-Moroccan activist Latifa Ibn Ziaten tackles the root causes of radicalization

DUBAI: Since her son was shot dead by an Islamist terrorist exactly 10 years ago, French-Moroccan activist Latifa Ibn Ziaten has dedicated her life to promoting inter-religious harmony and fighting radicalization.

She created the IMAD Association in honor of Imad, a 28-year-old French army paratrooper who was the first person killed (March 11) by Mohamed Merah during his 12-day shootout in March 2012 in Toulouse and Montauban, in the south-west of France.

Merah, a Franco-Algerian, targeted soldiers as well as children and teachers at a Jewish school, before being also killed by the police. Seven people, including three children, were killed and five others injured.

Ibn Ziaten launched the IMAD association after the assassination of his son, Imad, in 2012. (Supplied)

For his tireless work addressing the root causes of radicalization, Ibn Ziaten was co-recipient of the 2021 Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity in the United Arab Emirates, an award launched in 2019 following Pope Francis’ visit to Abu Dhabi to promote interreligious dialogue.

Despite the passage of 10 years, Ibn Ziaten’s painful memories of the day are still fresh. “After Imad’s death, I felt alone and helpless. My friends suggested that I create an association to remember him,” she told Arab News.

“My son was so dear to me that I went to the scene where he was murdered to find any trace he might have left, but I only found his blood and that is the only contact I have. I was able to have with him.”

Grief-stricken, Ibn Ziaten traveled to the underprivileged Toulouse suburb of Izards where Merah lived – a hotbed of Islamist radicalism – in search of his son’s killer. There she asked a group of young men where she could find him.

“They told me he was a martyr of Islam because he brought the country to its knees. They glorified murder,” Ibn Ziaten said.

“I watched them for a few minutes because I was so shocked that a murderer could be perceived as a hero and a martyr of Islam. I told them that I was the mother of the first victim of the terrorist attack, and they were surprised.

They pointed to the living conditions around them, explaining that destitute immigrants like them were seen as a source of problems for French society. Ibn Ziaten remembers their expressions of pain, helplessness and loneliness.

“I found them like that,” she says. “They are the source of pain in my life, but instead of fighting back, I decided to help them and open a new association to work with all those who suffer, and that helped me to do facing the immense pain and suffering of losing my child.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten fought tirelessly against radicalization and for the protection of human rights. (Provided)

“They wanted me to help the next generation, and I told them that if they can find the love in their hearts, it’s never too late, and we can work together to make things happen.”

This is how his mission began. Soon she began visiting schools two or three times a week to open the minds of young people to the real cause of their struggles, both locally and abroad.

“I tried to have educational programs for young people to open up to the world,” said Ibn Ziaten. “Today, in France, the situation is quite difficult, and there is a great misunderstanding about religion in general and Islam in particular. There is a great divide and hatred in society, and that is the main difficulty.

Ibn Ziaten also campaigned alongside French Jews in their fight against anti-Semitism, even traveling to Israel to help promote interreligious dialogue.

She recently spoke to the Emirates News Agency about her work with the French Ministry of Education and the weekly talks she gives to raise awareness among vulnerable young people.

“We offer outreach programs that help young people get out of this vortex, allowing them to explore other cultures and open up to the world,” she told WAM, adding that despite the fact that Islam is a religion of peace and compassion, some people do not. understand the principles of the faith.

Aware of the circumstances that cause racism, fear and suspicion, Ibn Ziaten has also campaigned on migration issues. On a recent visit to the French port city of Calais, she encountered a group of Sudanese migrants living on the streets trying to reach the UK.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten has dedicated her life to promoting interfaith harmony and countering radicalization. (Provided)

“In this kind of situation, I wonder where human rights are and how it is possible that people have to flee their country to be treated with respect,” she said. “There are other types of suffering in the world, there are, but what I saw that day was quite scary and shocking to me.”

Through his lectures on tolerance, respect and coexistence, Ibn Ziaten hopes to build a culture of unity in France. And although she witnessed great pain, she believes that everyone can relate to their story. Love, she believes, can overcome division.

“But many lack love, guidance and a framework to be able to thrive in this society,” she said. “So they are helpless and they don’t have a structure to develop.

“So I’m trying to bring that to them. A lot of people have thanked me for being able to continue their journey, and that’s the best outcome for me. I made a promise to my son that as long as I’m alive and in good health, I will fight for these people to improve their situation.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of his son, Ibn Ziaten was to inaugurate Friday in France the Imad House, a place of reception for young people in need of care and shelter.

Ibn Ziaten received the Zayad Prize for Human Fraternity in 2021. (Supplied)

Ibn Ziaten also worked with young people in French prisons, many of them imprisoned upon their return to France for having fought alongside Islamist militants in Syria. After a few sessions with her, many admit that they have been brainwashed by “holy war” propaganda, but they still need help in moving beyond their radical ideology. His advice to them: Read.

“Reading books is the only way for people to come to terms with the reality of this world,” she said. “When they have failures in their life, they should not hate others, but they should understand their situation, whether it is because of a lack of support or love from their family. I try to make them understand the difference between radicalism and religion.

Ibn Ziaten says his main objective today is to establish an insertion center in France to rehabilitate radicalized individuals. She hopes to set up a similar center in Morocco to help young migrants get an education and find work in their country of origin. She intends to fund the project with prize money from the Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity.

“The award will contribute to all my actions,” she said. “It’s going to help me because I don’t get any help from the government, so it’s a new form of recognition and a way to encourage me to continue my fight. I am ready to help young people, whatever the cost. Even if I don’t have all the resources possible, I have to continue for my son. It’s the right thing to do.

Outside France, Ibn Ziaten gave several lectures in Abu Dhabi on terrorism and participated in seminars on how to save the youth from terrorism, in addition to lectures she gave in Morocco, the United States, India and in Mali.

She says it is vital that the efforts of Pope Francis and Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, who established the Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity, succeed for the world to overcome violence, terror and suspicion.

On February 4, 2019, the two religious leaders met in Abu Dhabi to sign the Document on Human Fraternity, a joint statement calling for peace among all peoples while setting a blueprint for a culture of dialogue and collaboration among people. religions.

However, Ibn Ziaten believes that everyone has a role to play.

“I’ve created a global movement in prisons, which is amazing because it’s usually a place of hate where people have a lot of problems and struggles,” she said.

“I try to share happiness and love with everyone and work with each one of them so that when they get out of prison, they leave behind all this problems and this hatred, and bring hope. and love to all those around them.

“The youth of the world must be the embodiment of love and peace. They need role models, and we are role models. There is a huge amount of work to be done with them today.

Twitter: @CalineMalek