Julia Ioffe writes: [After the death of her son, Damian, Christianne] Boudreau felt that she was constantly on the verge of losing her mind. She cried all the time; she couldn’t sleep. “Every time I closed my eyes, it was just too quiet,” she says. She had to hold herself together for Luke, Damian’s half-sister Hope, and her stepdaughter Paige, but, she says, “I felt so lonely and dark.”
There was only one person who seemed to know what she was experiencing. Shortly before Damian died, Boudreau had made contact with Daniel Koehler, a German expert on deradicalization. Koehler, who is based in Berlin, used to focus on helping people leave the neo-Nazi movement, but in recent years he had also started working with Muslim radicals and their families. After Damian’s death, Koehler stayed in close touch with Boudreau, trying to help her understand what had happened to her son.
What Boudreau had witnessed was a classic radicalization process, Koehler told me. Its phases are remarkably similar whether the person is joining a sect of religious extremists or a group of neo-Nazis. First, the recruit is euphoric because he has finally found a way to make sense of the world. He tries to convert those around him — and, in the case of radicalized Muslims in recent years, to make them care about the suffering of Syrians. The second, more frustrating stage comes when the convert realizes that his loved ones aren’t receptive to his message. This is when the family conflicts begin: arguments over clothing, alcohol, music. At this point, the convert begins to consider advice from his cohorts that perhaps the only way to be true to his beliefs is to leave home for a Muslim country. In the final stage, the person sells his possessions and often pursues physical fitness or some kind of martial training. As his frustration mounts, his desire to act becomes overwhelming, until he starts to see violence as the only solution.
Six months after Damian’s death, Boudreau visited Koehler in Berlin, and he introduced her to three other mothers whose children had been killed after joining extremist groups in Syria. They had all brought photo albums and shared memories of their sons. They discovered similarities in the stories of how their children had been radicalized. One of the women’s sons, Boudreau learned, had been killed in the same town as Damian. Talking with the other mothers made Boudreau feel “like this black cloud finally started disappearing,” she says. Koehler told me he had wanted these women to see that “it’s not a unique thing in the universe that struck them down, that they couldn’t have done anything.”
After she returned home, Boudreau threw herself into activism. If what had befallen her family was possible, she realized, it could happen to anyone else. With Koehler’s help, she founded two organizations — Hayat Canada and Mothers for Life — to help the parents of radicalized youth. She travels around Canada speaking to teachers, students, and police departments about how to spot signs of radicalism in one’s friends and relatives, and what to do about it. She is a constant presence in the media. “We’re not educating our kids,” Boudreau said as we sat in her kitchen, her smoker’s voice raspy and urgent. “We educate our kids about drugs, sex, alcohol, bullying —all these other topics and how to cope with it, but we’re not educating them about this.”
Koehler told me that there are usually two groups of people who are good at getting through to young radicals and starting them on a path to reform: former radicals and mothers. “The mother is extremely important in jihadist Islam,” he explained. “Mohammed said ‘Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.’ You have to ask her permission to go on jihad or to say goodbye.” He says he has dealt with fighters who desperately try to set up one last Skype call with their mothers — either to say farewell or to convert her so that they can meet in paradise. An Austrian NGO called Women Without Borders is starting “mothers’ schools” in countries battered by Islamist extremism, like Pakistan and Indonesia, to teach mothers how to keep their children from being radicalized. The group is now building five more mothers’ schools in Europe.
And, with a few exceptions, mothers are the ones doing this work. In the families of children like Damian who convert to Islam, the father is often not in the picture. In the families of Muslim immigrants to the West, the fathers are often present but unengaged. Magnus Ranstorp, a Swedish expert who co-chairs the Radicalization Awareness Network, a European Union working group, says that Muslim men often feel emasculated by Western society and fade into the background. “The mother is the pivot,” he says.
The experts that I spoke with also noted that mothers and fathers who lose children to jihadist movements tend to deal with their grief in very different ways. The fathers often withdraw into feelings of guilt and shame: They have a hard time admitting to outsiders that their parenting was in any way lacking. The mothers do the opposite. They are hungry to share their sorrow with others, to plunge themselves into the world their child inhabited, to gather as much information as they can. It is their way of gaining a tiny measure of control over the unfathomable. “They immerse themselves,” Koehler told me. [Continue reading…]