Mothers Schools help Muslims spot potential jihadis at home
Women Without Borders scheme helps Muslim women stop radicalisation of their children
Melanie, Maynat Kurbanova, Edit Schlaffer and Salita Salamova with Women Without Borders’s Mothers Schools certificates in Vienna. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Journalist Maynat Kurbanova fled Chechnya after receiving death threats for reporting on the atrocities that Russian security forces committed against her people.
Fourteen years on, Kurbanova lives in exile in Vienna and helps other Chechen women fight a different threat – the lure of radical Islam to a generation of children growing up far from their troubled Caucasus homeland.
She is a trainer in the groundbreaking “Mothers Schools” that have taught more than 2,000 women around the world how to spot and tackle signs that their children may be falling prey to extremist preaching or online jihadi propaganda.
It is five years since Austria-based Women Without Borders ran a pilot Mothers School in Tajikistan, paving the way for the programme to be launched in about a dozen countries from Indonesia to Nigeria and from Jordan to Britain.
We help mothers recognise that their children may be becoming radicalised, alienated, or attracted by criminal groups
“We help mothers recognise that their children may be becoming radicalised, alienated, or attracted by criminal groups,” Kurbanova said as a group of Chechen and Afghan women received their Mothers School diplomas recently in Vienna.
“We give women the tools to help them react – what to say, how to behave, who to approach for help – and we create a network of mothers who can support each other, so they don’t feel they have to deal with this alone.”
In recent years, about 300 people from Austria went to Syria and Iraq to fight with Islamic State; among European Union countries, only Belgium was a bigger per capita source of volunteers for the group.
About half the recruits from Austria came from its 30,000-strong Chechen community, which has grown rapidly during 20 years of war and terror in the republic waged by Russian troops, militants and Kremlin-backed local leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
“They see Assad as the enemy of Chechens because he is Putin’s friend. Russia has basically been fighting the Chechens for 400 years, and young Chechens who can’t fight Putin directly saw the war in Syria as a way to get revenge.”
Chechens were also influenced by radical preaching at small mosques and prayer houses, some of them secret, and by videos and recruiters online.
“Mothers can notice a change in how their children behave,” Kurbanova said.
“They might stop sharing details about their life, become more closed, suddenly start using Islamist phrases and break off contact with former friends. We help them learn how to talk to these children, to win their trust and to not cause panic or put pressure on them,” she added.
“If that doesn’t work and their child has already been indoctrinated, we teach mothers how to influence them and who to approach for help. And we tell them to talk about it, to not be ashamed.”
Melanie – who changed her name when she came to Austria from Grozny a decade ago – said Chechnya’s turmoil had uprooted its young people and made them susceptible to recruiters who offer them a sense of purpose, adventure and glory. “They got this idea from the wars in Chechnya that they can become a hero somewhere,” she said after receiving her certificate as a Mothers School graduate.
“There are some very religious people in the Chechen community who will quickly go and help someone in need. The internet is overflowing with videos saying that women and children and the elderly [in the Middle East] need help. Young people believe they are going to save civilians and they get pulled into things that way.”
Line of defence
Edit Schlaffer, a social scientist who founded Women Without Borders in 2002, got the idea for this programme while discussing radicalisation in Tajikistan.
“One of the women said: ‘What I learned today is that we mothers need to go back to school.’ That was the moment when this concept started working in my head,” Schlaffer recalled.
She set out to “create a movement of those who are at the first line of defence. They are the mothers. And they often don’t have a voice in their societies, so how can they break through this stigma and isolation and disempowerment?”
We are trying to build this bottom-up security idea, so that all of us understand – and mothers understand – that we are all part of a sustainable security pyramid
“Some women come in and tell the mothers how their own sons were killed in the Middle East. It’s not just a technical thing about training – it’s a movement of mothers,” Schlaffer said.
“We are trying to build this bottom-up security idea, so that all of us understand – and mothers understand – that we are all part of a sustainable security pyramid.”
With Islamic State in retreat in Iraq and Syria, Europe now faces the prospect of hundreds of jihadi fighters trying to return home.
“I think it’s smart to bring in these mothers as security stakeholders . . . so we learn more about the mechanisms [of recruitment] and learn when kids might come back and what will happen to them,” Schlaffer said.
“In terms of rehabilitation, we need to strengthen the place these kids come back to. In the best-case scenario – after a prison term – that will be the family. So the family has to be prepared,” she added.
“Usually, mothers would support anything to have their children back. They say it’s better that their child is in prison, than dead.”