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I Lost My Daughter To The Salafists, One French Mother's Tale

Claire, who raised her daughter near Paris as an atheist, has seen the teen fall in love with a deeply conservative young man from Egypt. The dream is to escape to live under Sharia law.

Behind the hijab
Behind the hijab
Soren Seelow

PARIS — Through the pink voile curtains in her room, Hélène looks out onto the trees in the playground of her old nursery school. Some children are playing hopscotch. Hélène is 17 years old. She lives near Paris with her mother, a teacher, on the second floor of a red brick schoolhouse in a large flat that comes with the job.

Hélène hasn’t left the apartment in weeks.

Five times a day, at fixed hours, she puts on clothing that conceals her figure and prostrates herself on a pink mat in the bathroom that serves as prayer rug. Hélène has broken off relationships with her male friends. She no longer listens to music. The make-up she was using until a couple of months ago has been thrown out. She took down the photographs of herself and her friends that hung in a heart shape on the wall above her bed.

Also over the past few months, she has bought two jilbabs, one black and the other the dark color of eggplant. The long full-cut garments are made to hide her hair and the contours of her body.

Cloistered in her childhood room, Hélène is waiting until she turns 18 and is no longer a minor when she intends to leave for Cairo and marry her Egyptian sweetheart. A month ago, she wrote out a list of 26 "major objectives." Heading it, in capital letters: "When I turn 18, set aside some money so I can leave quickly and practice my religion."

The couple intends to move to a country with Sharia law so that Hélène can realize her dream of wearing a niqab and "submit to the will of her husband," her mother Claire explains.

On the living room table, the distraught mother nervously spreads out files, photo albums, a cell phone, and turns on her computer where she has stored text messages, official correspondence, Facebook profiles — all the stages of her child’s radicalization, the signs of "brainwashing." Hélène never attended religion classes. Her parents are atheists and she went to public schools.

Ramadan in secret

The young woman converted to Islam in the spring of 2012, when she was 15. With two girlfriends from high school, she pronounced the phrase "Allah is the only god and Mohamed is his messenger." She stopped eating pork and began observing Ramadan in secret. Her mother discovered this while they were on holiday at the Club Med in Djerba (Tunisia) but didn’t get unduly upset about it.

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Paris — Photo: LiisArt

Then her daughter announced she’d decided to stop smoking and dating, and to never drink alcohol. "She seemed to be seeking a framework, something that we perhaps hadn’t given her. We were always a bit lax, particularly her father — from whom I separated when she was six," says Claire ever in search of answers. "I accepted her conversion because it didn’t seem to me that it would have any consequences."

But at the beginning of 2014, the pace of the girl’s metamorphosis hastened. Hélène stopped tweezing her eyebrows, and replaced her skinny jeans with figure-concealing clothing. She broke with her male friends — several of them Muslim — when she decided she would no longer keep mixed company.

One day, to her mother’s stupefaction, she tore up a photo of herself as a child. Then in an email several pages long addressed to her family and interspersed with Koranic verses she announced her decision to adopt the veil.

Claire became alarmed. She did some research about Islam and had some long discussions with her daughter, showing her interviews with Elisabeth Badinter, the philosopher and feminist, and the imam from Bordeaux, Tareq Oubrou, with his view on the veil. Her daughter replied that those who do not respect the Koran and Sunnah to the letter are not real Muslims.

"I didn’t know it yet, but my daughter was in the process of becoming a Salafist," says Claire.

While the Salafists favor a literal reading of religious texts, not all espouse jihad. And Hélène never expressed any desire to go to Syria. Everything pointed to her identifying with the quietist Muslim tradition based on predication. But this little girl with a lot of growing up to do had integrated many warped notions.

Hélène watches videos of Nabil Al-Awadi, a Kuwaiti preacher suspected of being one of the major funders of the "Islamic State" (ISIS). "These films refute Darwinism, and talk about the end of the world, heaven and hell…," her mother says with a sigh.

Terrorized at the idea that her daughter might leave for Syria, Claire sometimes manages to get her to watch reports on ISIS. She asks her what she thinks of the beheadings. Her daughter answers that she "can’t judge, I only believe what I see. These could be montages produced by the Americans." What about taking hostages? "It depends on the cause, they’re sometimes treated well."

Panicked, Claire takes Hélène to the emergency psychiatric ward. She is agitated, but her daughter remains calm. The doctor tells Claire she is fatigued and that she must respect her child’s faith. "They didn’t understand that I wasn’t talking about religion but mental manipulation!"

It was only on May 20 that Claire understood more about her daughter’s conversion. Hélène had fallen in love with a young Egyptian, Adham, whom she met at Janson-de-Sailly high school in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Since returning to Egypt, the young man had taken charge of her religious education and regularly sent her Salafist videos.

Allah is watching

Claire picks up the smartphone she has confiscated from her daughter and scrolls through the messages. "When I discovered this correspondenceit took me a whole night to read it. I couldn’t believe it, it was horrible. The next morning I was sick to my stomach. Then I went and filed a complaint for abuse of weakness and mental manipulation. At the prefecture I filed an opposition à la sortie du territoire to prevent her from leaving the country while she is still a minor."

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Cairo — Photo: Ahmed Hamed Ahmed

Adham, whom Hélène calls "Nounours" (Teddy Bear), returned to Cairo in the spring. His texts peppered with heart icons and "ROFLs" ("rolling on floor laughing") forbid her to have any contact with men. He also forbids her from going to the movies, as doing so would constitute an act of "miscreance," and urges her to break with her family. The correspondence, intense and obsessive, adds up to dozens of text messages a day.

"No kissing anybody hello or goodbye (…). I trust you (…). Do you manage to avoid the men when there are guests?

— I’ll try, inch’Allah.

— Touching a pubescent male stranger = fornication. That’s one of the things that can annul the marriage (…). Good night my heart, my life, my love, my princess, my wife, my baby.

— You’re going to annul because somebody forced me to shake a guy’s hand? I won’t always be able to avoid it, Nounours, I do what I can, inch’Allah.

— I’m not joking, you don’t ‘do what you can,’ you do it (…). Religion comes before all else. You’ve been warned, this is serious. ALLAH SEES YOU!"

Adham promises to take Hélène to live in a country where there is Sharia law, like Brunei — "a country that’s 100% Muslim." He renames her "Sarah" — "it goes down better" — and tells her that her mother is a "miscreant."

For several weeks now Claire has been implementing "de-indoctrination" tactics she calls her "pink strategy." "It’s no longer possible to appeal to reason. I’m trying to heal her with love." She convinced her daughter to throw out her old prayer rug, bought her a kitten and took her to Ikea where she bought the pink mat and a cat tree. Hélène is so taken with the little cat she’s even forgotten some of her prayer sessions. And she’s started rereading her favorite children’s books, Grimm’s fairy tales and "One Thousand and One Nights."

But the countdown has started in Claire’s head: in 11 months, her daughter turns 18.

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