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.
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."