When I went to school, looking up on the walls of the classroom there was a framed picture of the president and the holy cross: the standard equipment in every school. Religion was a constant in life, the Sunday Mass was a central meeting space and all good Austrians were Christian.
Coming of age in the late sixties and seventies, the fabric of life was torn apart by our impatient young generation throwing the old symbols and beliefs overboard. We students of the post-'68 movement not only rocked the boat but created a new age of enlightenment. A new authority not based on tradition only but the human dimensions of liberté, égalité, fraternité -- the call of the time.
Yet, we young women stumbled over fraternité. We soon realized that this new revolution was not inclusive at all. Side by side, women and men, we were writing the scripts, promoting the cause and taking to the street. But in the aftermath, we looked around us and noticed that fraternité did not include sisterhood. We had again empowered the men as the front runners, the brotherhood that a few decades later went viral across the globe.
Meanwhile the all-Christian white fabric of the majority of the Western hemisphere changed. We were fighting to throw off the old wardrobe of pomp and formalities and to push for a more open society. Millions of migrants looking for work, hope and a different future settled in the West and embraced the new spirit as well. A whole generation of Muslims took up this lightness, in their attitudes and expectations and actions, not only in their dress. They joined us as we built up welfare states together, with equal access to quality information, education and professions. So the classrooms became more mixed, though it was not an easy journey together.
We who protested the narrow dogmas of our times and rightfully so, became parents ourselves. I enrolled my own children in a school without crucifix or a dominant religious creed and with 23 nationalities represented in the classroom. At the opening of the school year, the director said that although our school is on the street named 'Avenue of Human Rights', as you leave the grounds, you may find that the world is a different place and does not necessarily welcome diversity. And indeed Nigerian or Pakistani youngsters were often treated as suspicious when they tried to enter discos. Slowly, those kids retreated to the basements instead of partying in the public spaces as we did. In fact the public spaces where everyone could meet were shrinking.
We realized that living together is the biggest challenge we encounter in our daily Western lives. Our own children don't want to take on the world in the same way; they want to feel safe in it. Many of my Muslim friends are surprised by the urgent search for identity that their offspring express. Fathers in suits look at their sons with long beards incredulously. On the other hand, many frictions evolve when families unwittingly live with one foot in their motherland and one foot in another. Everybody seems to be confused.
While Western societies were still coming to terms with these developments, other forces sprang into action and began hijacking this space of uncertainty. From hate preachers, to fundamentalists of various outfits, particularly young people were drawn to look for new certainty in old traditions and beliefs of the past. All of a sudden we are all travelling back in time, not decades but centuries. This is scary if it comes with archaic strings attached: with bans and fatwas, bullets and bombs, that don't fit the open society we want to build.
Many extremists insist that they are fighting a war for freedom but along the way they would actually be extinguishing freedoms -- freedom of movement, of expression, of dress, of sexual orientation, of faith, to an extent where not even thoughts are felt to be free and safe anymore. We must not allow our world to be turned into a war-zone even in the most unlikely places: shopping malls, entertainment centers, churches, mosques and dormitories.
This new warfare is a campaign against critical thinking led by terrorist strategists because they instinctively know that critical thinking is our strongest defense mechanism against them. Think of Boko Haram (Western education is sinful), turning their war on Western knowledge into their very slogan. In Afghanistan with the Taliban's radical actions against girls' school education, and Al Shabab (The Boys), who train their youths as killing machines. Even Talib means religious student. The women's quest for inclusion looks so innocent in the face of these lethal fraternities. In fact their political principles implicitly declare war on women.
Meena the female icon of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, who fought for women's education and paid for it with her life in 1987, coined a wonderful allegory: 'Politics is a wild animal; we just have to tame it'. Yes, indeed, we have to tame it. We as members of civilizations, women and men, Muslims and non-Muslims, need to engage, need to mobilize for a new sisterhood -- fighting the demons and downsides of the defunct fraternities.
Schlaffer created the global SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) campaign -- the first female counter terrorism platform. Women's eNews included her as one of the '21 Leaders for the 21st Century', and she was named one of Newsweeks' 150 Movers and Shakers.