Friday, July 15, 2005

Speaking of terrorists and families: the Moussaouis

In a previous post, I referred to an article that appeared in the February 2003 Sunday NY Times Magazine, about the family of Zacarias Moussaoui. It's unavailable now except through the archives, but I saved a copy of it when it first appeared. Here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few short excerpts to give you a flavor of the family.

One caveat: by presenting these facts, my aim is not to exonarate Moussaoui in any way. He is completely responsible for his own actions.

The title of the article is "Everybody has a mother," and it focuses particularly on Moussaoui's rather strange and emotionally labile mother, Aicha el-Wafi. Moussaoui is one of two brothers and two sisters. His brother has written a book purporting to tell the story of Zacarias' life; both sisters are considered mentally ill and perhaps schizophrenic.

First, the mother and brother:

A divorced 56-year-old born in Morocco, el-Wafi has lived in France for close to 40 years. Having spent two and a half decades working for France Telecom, she now lives in a comfortable home, complete with deck, grill, sea view and a dog named Tango. One of her sons has admitted in court to being a member of Al Qaeda and will be tried for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. The other has written a tell-all condemning her for what he recalls as her unloving, harsh ways. It's unclear who has disappointed her more...

It's a book that tries to account for the genesis of a terrorist, relying not just on familiar, sweeping geopolitical terms but on the language of pop psychology, referring to the specifics of a dysfunctional family -- a vocabulary irresistible to some but inherently untrustworthy to others. Politics versus psychotherapy: one seems to explain, while the other can seem to excuse, or even victimize, the wayward. ''We're scared about this book, and we don't scare easily,'' Simon says. ''If it had a hard time finding a publisher here, it's because people like Moussaoui are untouchable. It's leprosy.'' Publishers assume, in other words, that Americans don't want to see an accused hijacker humanized. ''But we thought it was important to point out that this is not 'Lord of the Rings, Part II,' with evil characters coming out of the mud,'' Simon says. ''Everybody has a mother.''

Aicha El-Wafi married in Morocco at 14 and moved, with her husband and two babies, to France five years later. By the time she was 22, she had four children, the youngest being Zacarias. After 10 years of making excuses about her children's bruises, as well as her own, she finally managed to leave her husband, putting the kids in an orphanage for a year while she stayed in a shelter. She worked a series of menial jobs -- in a factory, as a seamstress -- before starting work as a cleaning woman for France Telecom. She may have been sweeping floors, but she had secured that particularly prized French status of fonctionnaire, a government employee, with superior benefits, virtually guaranteed employment and reliable housing...

Here is the brother's account of the radicalization of Zacarias (note particularly the London connection):

In 1991, unable to find a job, [Zacarias] picked up and moved to London, where at age 23, he became, as his brother observes, a perfect target for well-financed, dangerous Muslim extremists who prey on disillusioned young men. Abd-Samad's book devotes a chapter to the ways that fringe extremists -- especially the more violent factions of the Wahhabi strain -- recruit young foundering Muslim men, giving them inflammatory religious texts, offering them free meals, relying on a language of exclusivity that would apply to the vanity of ambitious, but thwarted, searchers. ''I am convinced of one thing,'' Abd-Samad writes. ''If it worked with my brother, it can work with plenty of other young people.'' Moussaoui started attending lectures by radical clerics like Abu Qatada and Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri and became a regular at the Finsbury Park mosque.

And here are the two sisters. Notice especially Nadia, the elder of the two:

Nadia is wearing jeans, a green fleece under her windbreaker and no makeup; by Parisian standards she looks like someone who has stayed home for a sick day, which is basically the case. Nadia's life has been a series of sick days since around 1985, when, as she says, ''the craziness came,'' triggered by a bad breakup. She has since suffered through depression and four suicide attempts. Like her younger sister, Jamila, she has been told she is schizophrenic. Her life has frozen since her first illness. Although she is clearly bright and strikingly articulate, there's something disconcertingly adolescent about the eagerness of her smile, the high pitch of her voice, even the look of her face, which belongs to a woman much younger than 39. She has had odd jobs here and there, but in the months since the 11th, she has barely been able to leave her small, state-subsidized apartment. ''I like solitude, and I tend to hide myself in sleep,'' she tells me. ''I love to sleep. Sleeping, that's my sport.'' If her life is lonely, she has partly engineered it that way. ''I was afraid to repeat my mother's history, having all those kids, marrying a man who was abusive,'' she says. ''Jamila herself says she did just that.'' (Jamila eventually divorced her husband; now when el-Wafi is not laboring on behalf of Zacarias, she's going to court to fight for her daughter's visitation rights.)...

Like her brothers, Nadia has a complicated relation to her religious background. Unlike her brothers, she speaks Arabic fluently and spent many summers as a child with her mother's family in Morocco. But if her brothers left mostly secular homes to devote themselves to Islam, Nadia looked altogether elsewhere, developing, when she was in her 20's, an abiding devotion to Judaism. ''In my heart,'' she tells me, ''in my heart, I am Jewish.'' What's more, she loves Israel, would go tomorrow if she could, without blinking; her dream is to see the Brooklyn Bridge, to go to Brooklyn, ''because that's where all the Jews are in America.'' If you mention Palestine, she'll point out sternly that no such nation has been recognized; she returns frequently to the subject of Israel with a passion that cannot be circumnavigated. She regularly listens to Radio Shalom or Radio Communaute Juive, reads books like ''Jewish Thought'' and ''Bibliotherapy.'' She has written her brother to say that she loves him but says that even if she could fly to the United States to visit him, he would refuse to see her.

Tolstoi famously wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But some families are unhappy in especially unique ways, and this seems to be one of them.


At 12:00 AM, July 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The news coming out of London about the bombers and now this article you share makes me think more about how to win the war on terrorism. It seems like we could spend as much energy destroying the allure of extremism as we do hunting down insurgents. Obviously something about blowing oneself up is attractive to these "disallusioned young men." I'd be interested in seeing a sort of "cult deprograming/ debunking" stratagy as part of the plan to win the war on terrorism.

At 1:41 AM, July 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very good post, neo, thanks.

I would just add, to Kung Fu's comment above, that we need more than cult deprogramming/debunking -- we need to go after the leaders and promulgators of such cults in the first place. There needs, in other words, to be a serious limit to the tolerance of liberal (small-l) society -- that limit being at those who propose the violent extinction of such societies.

At 7:21 AM, July 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just found the full text of the article

At 10:32 AM, July 16, 2005, Blogger goesh said...

Menial jobs, divorce, dysfunction - I've know and have known some people like this, I wonder why they aren't blowing up mosques and arab arilines and markets ????? I like what Larry said, start taking out some of the rabid clerics that urge their followers to terrorism.


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