A Moroccan-French woman whose son was killed in a terrorist attack nearly a decade ago, has been commended for her powerful activism countering youth radicalization, and her efforts to replace the desolation of loss with ‘a prayer of love’.
Latifa Ibn Ziaten is co-recipient of the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity, an honour she received earlier this month alongside the UN Secretary-General.
Her son, Imad, a 30-year-old paratrooper in the French Army, was among seven people murdered by Mohammed Merah, a self-proclaimed jihadist, during a nine-day killing spree in southern France in March 2012.
Barely a month after her son’s death, Mrs. Ibn Ziaten established The Imad Association for Youth and Peace, which promotes tolerance.
Since then, she has worked with families and communities in France and abroad to prevent young people from becoming radicalized, spreading a message of peace, dialogue and mutual respect.
A grieving mother’s journey
Speaking to colleagues from the UN News Arabic language service, Mrs. Ibn Ziaten recalled how she travelled to Toulouse, the city where Imad was killed, to search for an explanation for this tragedy.
“I searched on my knees”, she said. “I found his blood on the ground. I took the sand between my hands and rubbed my son's blood, and said: ‘O Lord, help me, oh my God.’ I screamed out loud.”
The grieving mother also experienced something that would cause her even more pain.
She was in Les Izards, the rough neighbourhood in northeastern Toulouse where her son’s killer grew up, and where he met his end in a police siege.
Mrs. Ibn Ziaten approached a group of young men who were hanging out on the street. She asked them where Mohammed Merah lived. When one responded with a sarcastic smile, she wondered if there was something wrong with her question.
“He told me ‘No, but aren't you watching TV? Do you not read the newspapers, madam?’ I said, ‘I am asking you where does Mohammed Merah live, please?’ He told me: ‘Mohammed Merah is a martyr. A hero of Islam. He brought France to its knees!’”
From anguish to activism
Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage shocked the nation.
Imad Ibn Ziaten was the first person he killed in a series of shootings in Toulouse and nearby Mountauban, between 11 and 19 March 2012. The other victims were two more off-duty soldiers, and a rabbi and three small children at a Jewish school. Five people were also injured.
Like Imad, Merah was the son of immigrants. But while one man chose to serve his country, the other pursued the path of terrorism. Explaining why is not so simple, according to Mrs. Ibn Ziaten.
"Unfortunately, some young people lack education, they lack the presence of parents, they lack a supportive framework”, she said.
“There are lost youth and we have to get them back, we really have to work with them. We really have to communicate with these young people because they are the future.”
Message of tolerance
Mrs. Ibn Ziaten has been fulfilling this mission through the organization that bears her son’s name, crisscrossing France to share her testimony and message of tolerance. She lectures high school students, parents and others who reach out to her, such as teachers and prison directors.
In his statement on receiving the peace award, UN Secretary-General António Guterres praised the mother of five, saying “her dedicated efforts to support young people and promote mutual understanding, arising out of immense personal tragedy, have won admirers at home and beyond.”
Mrs. Ibn Ziaten has carried out projects in other parts of the world. Several years ago, the Imad Association for Youth and Peace, together with Sarcelles College in France, collaborated to bring 17 young “Ambassadors for Peace” to Israel and Palestine.
The tireless campaigner has also spoken to inmates as part of a programme to prevent violent extremism in French prisons.
‘Dream about something beautiful’
She recalled meeting one young man in particular, who revealed that he felt rejected and excluded in the land of liberté, égalité and fraternité. Mrs. Ibn Ziaten told him about how she wants to build a “fraternal and cosmopolitan France” where everyone has a place.
She also offered him words of advice so he would not “fall into this trap” of extremism, like Mohammed Merah.
“Try to turn the page,” she said. “Read. Dream about something beautiful...and when you pray, pray a prayer of peace; a prayer of love.”