When we talk about the atrocities that happened in Paris, we have to wake up to reality, it is ongoing everywhere: suicide bombings across Iraq, Syria and Pakistan make headlines, Taliban reemerged in Afghanistan and girls were stolen in Nigeria and no military force has been able to stop it.
We watch one atrocity after another, always one step behind and breathless as the rate of landmark events is getting faster. The latest targets are the very building blocks of modern civil society: in the Peshawar school, the Pakistani children of military service men were called up and killed by name. In Yemen, police cadets were targeted at the doors of the Police Academy by an exploding vehicle at the gates. Then on the very same day the Kalashnikovs were aimed at artists at a downtown media house in Paris which produced the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The latest move of the terrorists is particularly dangerous because it is aimed at dividing and polarizing the mainstream. To Muslims, the message is clear that Westerners do not honor the image of the Prophet. The message to the non-Muslim community is that Muslims do not tolerate freedom of expression, especially those that conflict with their religious values.
Unfortunately, these messages are accommodating two different clients -- the Islamists on one end of the spectrum who are encouraged by such punishing actions and the xenophobes who see their own arguments strengthened and in line with ideologies of the upcoming extreme right power-bases across Europe. The rising of these two groups can seriously challenge the democratic equilibrium where the mainstream voices are overpowered and hijacked. The way forward is clear -- the vast majority in the middle must break the silence and take action.
In France and other capital cities, thousands have come out in solidarity with those caught up in the killing spree despite warnings that public gatherings might be targeted. So we seem to be ready to leave the increasingly uncomfortable space of the bystander and more directly contribute in whatever capacity that we can.
Working together is the call of the hour. One unlikely group of allies, mothers from Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada whose children decided to follow the lure of Syria and become fighters or brides of fighters came together for the first time in Vienna last December not only to share their grief but to reach out to security stakeholders and warn families to act at the earliest.
If we are serious about working together, we have to acknowledge that the 'them and us' labels are a misleading distraction. Such mothers did not choose to become a mother of a Syrian fighter and they show great courage in putting society first, above their own feelings of shame and guilt. Elfriede, a mother from Germany says it well. "I am here because I won't keep quiet. If we keep quiet we are siding with the people who ruined our children" Her 19-year-old son left two years ago and she does not know if he is still alive.
Currently we are watching a manhunt unfold across France, to catch the perpetrators and take them to justice, but actually this is too late in the process. We need to be mindful and be better prepared to prevent such scenarios in the pre-criminal space. In sharing their experiences, these mothers are in fact a valuable source of information. No politician, no secret agent, is closer to the mechanisms of recruitment than the families. They are the most important, albeit unwitting and frightened witnesses to their children's dissent on the path to radicalization. By addressing the personal experiences we will find a way to unlock the riddle of radicalization. Better to support and learn from them than to 'otherize' them.
We can observe that young people are recruited so fast that they don't even have time to study the surahs of the Koran. There is a tendency to engage religious leaders but the problem is that extremists reject Muslims who are not ready to support their radical Salafist crusades. Therefore it is not possible to leave prevention entirely to the religious communities. Concrete social and communal efforts are needed from the very outset.
Western nations and security strategists seem to be overwhelmed and to take short cuts in these situations, mainly because they sidestep those directly involved. So far, we have left our families, teachers and youth more or less alone to cope with growing extremism. This is not only a lost opportunity; it is a ticking time bomb.
________________ Edit Schlaffer is a social scientist and the founder of Women without Borders and Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), the world's first female counterterrorism platform. www.women-without-borders.org