Terrorism just got a new haunting image, a Muslim man with bloody hands stands in the streets of London holding a meat cleaver that he used to butcher a Royal infantry soldier only moments earlier. This fateful incident connects two young men from very different walks of life. The attacker Michael Adebolajo, apologized to the women nearby for the gruesome sight, declaring that women in their lands "have to see the same" and explaining that "The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day."
At this point we should take a step back to reflect on whether we are in danger of stumbling into the stereotyping trap. Some will be quick to judge, that the two perpetrators actually represent the people in the far lands that one of them was referring to.
In the course of my recent work in the most volatile regions affected by terrorism, I had the enlightening experience of listening to the voices of fathers and mothers of suicide bombers who had lost everything that was dear to them; their children and their dignity. Yet instead of calling for revenge, they express an entirely different sentiment: "You may not use our country as an excuse to spread terror, death, fear, and bloodshed." This message undermines and discredits the typical narratives spread by recruiters, who refer particularly to Palestine as a source of grievance and justification for engaging in violent extremism.
The Palestinian mothers whom I met want to get this message out to the Western youth: "This is our fight, not yours." We have to respect this idea, for they are front-runners and are taking high risks within their society. Indeed, Nabila, a mother from Ramallah, told me that when she heard the news of her son's martyrdom, she fell to her knees and praised God. Soon after she reassessed he initial reaction: "What am I doing? I am thanking God, but instead I should be asking for his forgiveness." So she stood up and demanded for the women around her to stop their celebratory cheering. Even while this shocked her husband, she bravely faced the assembled group and challenged the local male culture of bravery. Reflecting on the aftermath she says, "We are still where we are, but just without him. He was my eldest, my strength and my protection." Now she wakes up every night, begging him in her thoughts: "Please come home, just one more time, my darling."
When I learned about the drama that unfolded on that London street, another mother came to mind: Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a scout leader and former teacher. She engaged one perpetrator in a very personal way, asking him what he wants, managing to calm him down. Maybe this was a rare moment, when someone asked him to spell out his fragmented thoughts. This is a remarkable approach that starkly contrasts the "hard power" methods that are more commonly used. Such new "soft power" applications could act as the basis of an effective alternative in counter terrorism strategy.
The consequences of this assault immediately affected the delicate community cohesion, so that Muslim citizens again feel under attack and threatened. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, a London-based blogger, voiced her sense of personal unease when leaving her home after the Woolwich attacks: "I felt scared, fearful of how I was perceived and what people would be thinking. I'm worried for my safety, for the security of my family."
Western anti-Muslim sentiment needs to be balanced by Muslims voicing their determination to confront the Islamist threat and expose the abuses of Islam by a small minority of extremists.
These voices are indeed widespread, even within Pakistan, a country closely associated with terrorism. I was very impressed by a group of women from the SWAT Valley -- a hotbed of extremism -- all of whom have a son or husband who was forcibly recruited by the Taliban or arrested by the army for Taliban involvement. Yet what do we actually know about these people and their stories? In some cases the villagers had witnessed symbolic public executions in front of their houses to scare those who wanted to resist joining the militant forces. The village women, recognizing how "Jihad" brought violence and misery to their families, are keen to voice their opposition, even in light of the well-known potential, brutal consequences. Madeeha, one of my interview partners, insists: 'If the recruiters come back and the men in our village cannot stop hem, then we women will join forces against them.'
Aisha Al-Wafi is the mother of Zacarius Moussaoui, who was the only person ever to be tried in a US court for being involved in the 9/11 attacks. In a conversation with me, Al-Wafi passionately exclaimed, "Strangers come and give orders to my son not to respect me? What's that about?... The extremists -- I hate them, because they don't love Islam, because The Prophet says, 'your mother, your mother, your mother'... And the extremists say, 'don't listen to your mother?' That's Islam? No, that's not Islam." She is calling out for tolerance and respect for others: "We (Muslims) need to respect, so that we'll be respected."
Talking about community cohesion makes me contemplate the countless missed bridge-building opportunities that could have materialized on a global level. A workshop with a group of women, family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks, showed me that more than ten years following the attacks there was still a need to come to terms with the aftermath of the attacks. The most remarkable feature of this meeting was the complete absence of hatred or desire for revenge towards Muslims at home or abroad. These women do not fuel any toxic anti-Islam rhetoric. Rather they highlight the commonalities between themselves and families living in regions of the world within which terrorism constitutes a daily and very real threat. These women of the Tuesday's Children group set an admirable example, and sent out a joint declaration that they refuse to hate.
What we see here is fascinating: new female approaches that challenge the mainstream scenario, namely Jihadists' claim that they are acting with the support of Muslim communities. Ultimately, we all have to find a way to live together, and we need therefore to be actively engaged in making the ambitious project of peaceful co-existence work. We have to realize that there are alternatives and powerful new players: women, co-shaping the security arena.