Mother Of Slain French Soldier Fights Against Radicalization

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 6:44 pm

The terrorist attacks in Paris this year — in January and November — were both carried out by French citizens who became Islamist radicals. The phenomenon of home-grown terrorism first came to light here three years ago, when a French citizen of Algerian descent killed a teacher and three children at a Jewish school and three French soldiers in a rampage in southwestern France.

The Moroccan-born mother of one of those soldiers, who was Muslim, has led a personal battle ever since.

Students pour into the auditorium of a high school in the gritty northern suburbs of Paris. It's in places like this that Latifa Ibn Ziaten has waged her campaign over the past three years. Most of the kids here are from immigrant backgrounds. The majority are Muslim.

Teachers bark orders as the rowdy teenagers file in and take their seats. But you can hear a pin drop as soon as Ziaten begins telling her story.

The soft-spoken mother of five says her life changed forever on March 11, 2012, when a man named Mohamed Mehra shot and killed her 30-year-old son, Imad, a French soldier.

Soon after his murder, Ziaten visited the housing project where Mehra had lived in Toulouse. Following his killing spree, he'd also died here in a shootout with police.

She approached a group of young men.

"Ever since I heard them tell me, 'Madame, Mohamed Mehra is a martyr, he's a hero of Islam,' I haven't been able to stop doing what I'm doing," she says. "I thought, God, no. We have to help these lost young people. So I promised my son, I said, 'Imad, I'm going to start an association and I'm going to save others so they won't suffer like me.' "

Ziaten says the boys in the housing project were stunned and apologized when they found out Mehra had killed her son. He shouldn't have killed a Muslim, they said.

Ziaten retorted that Muslim or not, no one but God has the right to take a life.

Amand Riquier, the principal of the high school Ziaten is visiting in the northern suburbs of Paris, says so far, no students have radicalized. But teachers are always looking for the signs, such as a sudden and zealous display of religiousness.

Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty. In French schools, neither students nor teachers can come to class wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim veil or the Jewish skullcap.

Riquier says Madame Ziaten's visit is important.

"She'll be able to explain to them that secularism in schools is not meant to constrain their faith, but is a necessary principle for us all to live together in harmony and equality," he says.

Ziaten tells the students how she moved to France from Morocco at the age of 17. She tells the kids this country gave her — and her French-born children — every opportunity.

She says boys like Mohamed Mehra, and those who attacked Paris this year, were abandoned by their families and society. She says they are utter failures who know nothing about Islam.

Islam is not at war with Europe, Ziaten emphasizes. She tells the students that some are trying to turn Islam into an identity. But it's a religion, she says, and it's a private matter.

"Your identity is French," she says. "And you have a future to build in France."

Ziaten is well received. The students applaud, then pepper her with questions.

One student asks how young people can know the right way to practice Islam. Ziaten tells her they must learn from their parents and never turn to the Internet.

The student, 19-year-old Souhir Khayat, says she became interested in learning about her faith after attending Catholic school.

"So I began watching videos on the Internet, like everybody," Khayat says. "Alone in my room. And I started to wear the veil and stopped listening to music. I began having some radical ideas. But luckily, my mother noticed what was going on and she said, 'No, Islam is not like that.' "

A boy asks Ziaten, "Why do the media always point at Muslims after attacks?"

Ziaten agrees the media tend to stigmatize Muslims. But people are scared, she says, and that's understandable.

"We have to show who real Muslims are," she says.

For her work, Ziaten has received a presidential award — and threats. When she leaves the lycee for her next appointment, she's accompanied by an armed bodyguard.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Both terrorist attacks in Paris this year in January and November were carried out by French citizens who became Islamist radicals. This kind of homegrown terrorism also happened three years ago when another French citizen killed a Jewish teacher and several students. He also shot dead three French soldiers. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley says the mother of one of those soldiers who is Muslim has led a personal battle ever since.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: It's in high schools like this one in Paris's gritty northern suburbs that Latifa Ibn Ziaten has led her campaign over the past three years. Most of the kids here are from immigrant backgrounds. The majority are Muslim.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The teachers bark orders at the rowdy teenagers as they fill the auditorium rows, but you can hear a pin drop when Ziaten begins her story.

LATIFA IBN ZIATEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The soft-spoken mother of five says her life changed forever on March 11, 2012, when Mohamed Mehra killed her 30-year-old son who was a French soldier. Soon after his death, she went to the housing project where Mehra lived and died in a shootout with police. She approached a group of young men.

ZIATEN: (Through interpreter) Ever since I heard them say, Madame, Mohamed Mehra is a martyr; he's a hero of Islam, I haven't been able to stop doing what I'm doing. I thought, God, no, we have to help these lost young people. So I promised my son. I said, Imad, I'm going to start an association, and I'm going to save others so they won't suffer like me.

BEARDSLEY: Amand Riquier is the principal here. He says so far, they haven't had any students who have radicalized, but teachers are always looking for the signs, such as a sudden and zealous display of religiousness. He says Madame Ziaten's visit is important.

AMAND RIQUIER: (Through interpreter) She'll be able to explain to them that secularism in public schools - the fact that you can't come to class wearing a Muslim headscarf or a Jewish skull cap - is not meant to constrain their faith but is a necessary principle in order for us to all live together.

BEARDSLEY: Ziaten recounts how she moved to France from Morocco at the age of 17. She tells the kids this country gave her and her French-born children every chance. She says boys like Mohamed Mehra and those who attacked Paris were abandoned by their families and society. They are utter failures who know nothing about Islam.

Islam is not at war with Europe, she tells the students. She says some are trying to turn Islam into an identity. But it's a religion, and it's a private matter, she says. Your identity is French, and you have a future to build in France.

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: She's well-received, and then the students pepper her with questions. Why do the media always point at Muslims after attacks, asks one boy. Ziaten agrees the media tend to stigmatize Muslims, but people are scared, she says, and that's understandable; we have to show who real Muslims are. One girl asks how young people can know the right way to practice Islam. Ziaten tells her they must learn from their parents and never turn to the Internet. But my parents don't practice, says the young woman. She's 19-year-old Souhir Khayat, and she says she became interested in learning about her faith after attending Catholic school.

SOUHIR KHAYAT: So I began to watch videos on the Internet, like everybody does, alone in my room. And I started to wear the veil and stopped listening to music, and I began having some radical ideas. But luckily, my mother noticed what was going on, and she's no, Islam isn't like that.

BEARDSLEY: Khayat says she never considered going to Syria, but she bets there are a few in the room who have. For her work, Ziaten has received a presidential award and threats. She leaves the lycee for her next appointment accompanied by an armed bodyguard. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.