Terror in Europe

France's Moral Force Against Islamist Terror: A Muslim Mother

Latifa Ibn Ziaten's son was a victim of the 2012 Toulouse and Montauban killings, widely considered a pre-cursor to the recent Paris attacks. She's putting her pain to good use.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten shows her "Je suis Charlie" support.
Latifa Ibn Ziaten shows her "Je suis Charlie" support.
Marie-Claude Martin

PARIS — Broadcast on French television, it was an improvised exchange between two parents who were plunged into mourning by the evil of terrorism — and it moved viewers deeply.

"We need to be very brave, to stay strong," the woman in a headscarf says.

"The truth is that it's not easy," responds Rabbi Batou Hattab, the father of Yoav Hattab, who was among those murdered by jihadist Amédy Coulibaly Jan. 9 at a kosher supermarket in southeast Paris. "He had been invited over to someone's house. He wanted to bring something. He went to buy a bottle of wine. He lost his life there."

The woman listening to him and comforting him knows the rabbi's grief far too well. For Latifa Ibn Ziaten too lost a child. It was on March 11, 2012. Her son Imad was a French soldier killed by Mohamed Merah with a gunshot to the head before the Islamist radical murdered two other soldiers and four civilians, three of them children, outside a Jewish school in Toulouse.

"May God bless his soul," the rabbi says to the mother.

The same day this exchange was broadcast on French television, Ziaten, 55, marched through the streets of Paris with more than a million other mourners. "After striking the military, the police and schools, the press is now being attacked," says Ziaten. "It's very serious. I am Charlie."

Ziaten has become perhaps France's most important icon of moderate Islam. After her son's death, she began wearing a veil as a sign of mourning. She was lost and couldn't understand why it happened, and to him of all people. For insight, she went to see where Merah lived and met young people from these tough neighborhoods who told her that they looked upon the cold-blooded killer as a hero and a martyr of Islam. She was stunned. To her, Merah was a murderer, a terrorist, but surely not a Muslim.

"He soiled Islam," she says.

But she understood then and now that evil must be grasped by the root, and she embraced the importance of working with abandoned youth in the banlieues who are left to fend for themselves and often become targets for jihad. She believes everything is a question of education. So she decided to "save those who are at the root of her pain."

A call to action

In 2013, she founded an association for youth and peace called Imad whose goal is to raise awareness about the danger of sectarian threats. Since then, she has been visiting at least one school a week. She speaks about her anger — her son was initially suspected of being Merah's accomplice — and her disillusion with an ungrateful France (she published Mort pour la France, "Died for France," to express her feelings to the government). Finally, she talks about her grief.

She tries to make people understand that this vengeful Islam is not the Islam she knows. Her Islam is not a weapon to kill but a religion like any other that advocates peace, tolerance and respect. Sometimes, her work is rewarded, like when she redirected from a doomed fate a young man who wanted to leave for Afghanistan.

Ziaten, a former cook living in the northwestern France town of Rouen, arrived in France when she was a teenager without knowing the language. She is now an internationally respected voice who says she owes her strong character to her mother. When her mother was pregnant, she divorced her adulterous husband and left her native Morocco for Spain. Unfortunately, Ziaten lost her mother when she was just nine years old and had to return to Morocco, where her stepfamily worked her fingers to the bone instead of sending her to school.

It was 10 long and painful years before she met Ahmed, a French railway worker whom she joined in France and with whom she has five children. "I raised them with respect towards God and the French republic," she says. "They all found work."

Her strength comes from her faith, she says. "I'm a strong believer. You know, my son died standing. He didn't want to lie down when Merah demanded it. So today, I don't have the right to sit on the sidelines."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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