Photographer:Fotograaf: Philip Driessen
MAASTRICHT. The SBE lecture hall is full on the evening of Wednesday 23 November. Security is tight, and the mood is sombre. Three speakers have been invited for a discussion that is “perhaps even more important to have now – now that the issue is out of the headlines again”, in the words of one of the organisers, Luca Bucken. The theme of the evening: ‘An honest conversation about Islam, terrorism, and extremism.’
The first speaker is a British imam with death threats to his name. Ajmal Masroor sees the essence of Islam as honesty and compassion. “There is, however, a new narrative that is proliferating. Islam has become synonymous with terrorism. But where does this come from? The Quran says, ‘if you kill a man it is as if you kill all of humanity.’ You cannot be a Muslim and a murderer at the same time; that’s an oxymoron. Terrorists have no religion. Extremists have no religion. So we need to stop using the phrase ‘Islamic terrorist’ because this way you’re honouring them. Stop glorifying these nutters!”
“We live in a time of extremes”, Masroor goes on, and while he has no solutions to save the world, he makes a few suggestions. Blaming Islam is not it, he says with a chuckle. “We need to rewrite our history to rid it of its colonial roots and acknowledge Muslim contributions, and we need to have an honest conversation internally and externally.”
The floor is passed to Nicola Benyahia, founder of the counselling organisation Families for Life, whose son Rasheed joined ISIS in 2015. She describes Rasheed as an animated boy with a “cheeky sense of humour.” She attributes his radicalisation to “somebody from the outside seeing his vulnerability and taking advantage of it” during a time in which her son was withdrawing into himself.
“From the moment he left I felt completely powerless.” She didn’t know where to look for support until she was put in touch with Mothers for Life, a network of mothers whose families have been affected by radicalisation. “They prepared me for the moment he would contact me.” When that moment came, she had to suppress her maternal instinct to “beg him to come home” so as not to scare him into severing contact. And while she constantly asked herself “what the hell made him quit the security of his home and the little boy within him?” she slowly came to the realisation that that “little boy” never disappeared. “For example, the Rasheed knew I hated motorcycles. One time he messaged me asking whether he could use his leader’s bike. He still needed me as his mum.” Between sporadic periods of radio silence, Rasheed would phone his mother, and send her pictures – among them a goofy selfie that she shares with the audience.
When the family received notice of Rasheed’s passing, Benyahia had to deal with a complete lack of support. “We were perceived as an extremist family, not as a grieving family. That is why we created Families for Life. We need to empower other families in similar situations, and we need to give our children hope.”
By the time Karolina Dam’s turn to speak comes, the hall is completely silent, interspersed only with the occasional sob. Dam reflects on Benyahia’s experiences. Her own son was diagnosed with ADD and Asperger Syndrome, making him particularly vulnerable. She describes him shortly before he left for Syria as “the best version of Lukas I had ever seen”. Nonetheless, there are differences in the mothers’ situations. Though they were in touch, Lukas never told Dam what he was doing. She found a Facebook page on which he was declared a martyr, and contacted the admins. “All the information I got was from Syrian fighters”, she says. Her conclusions about the fighters echo Benyahia’s experience. “They might be Syrian fighters, but they’re just boys. They need somebody to tell them to put on their woollies when it’s cold.”
A verse from the Quran appears on a slide. “Jihad does not mean holy war. It means to strive; to create a better you, a better everything.” Using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, Dam continues: “Islam did not kill my son. Daesh did.”
A student addresses Benyahia and Dam: where do they find it within themselves to still view Islam so positively given what they’ve been through? “I can detach myself from the narrative because I know what Islam is really about”, says Benyahia. Dam is blunter. “I get sick of that question. It makes me sad that Muslims have to justify themselves all the time. I might not be Muslim, but my son was, and for a mother who’s seen her son suffer, seeing him at peace is absolutely fantastic. It’s Islam that gave him that.”
The conversation turns to the role of women. Masroor mentions that four in five converts to Islam are female, and a student references her own experiences to ask why it is that in Muslim countries misogyny is still quite prevalent. “The reality is heart-breaking. Muslims today are not a good representation of Islam. As to the converts, I’d say these women met Islam and not Muslims.”
And how do we reconcile the narrative Masroor stands for with that dominating the media? “Like this. What we’ve done here is amazing. It’s continuous dialogue. Second? We need stronger and more powerful relationships with one another. And lastly, we need to be influential ourselves. The problem of the world is not that bad people do bad things; it’s that good people aren’t doing enough.”