Mother knows best: group seeks to enlist mothers to fight extremism

Jarmi felt something was amiss when two men she did not know began visiting her son at home in Surabaya, days before he was arrested for possession of explosives and a firearm in July.

But it did not cross her mind that her son, Priyo Hadi Purnomo, had embraced religious extremism.

“My son was a good boy,” she said. “He didn’t talk much, but he did well in school.”

Jarmi’s story is common among parents whose children have been arrested on suspicions of involvement in terrorism in Indonesia.

“We’ve talked to mothers whose children have gone overseas to join radical groups, including Islamic State (ISIS),” said Dewirini Anggraeni, the Indonesia coordinator for Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), an anti-terrorism initiative founded in Austria.

“They didn’t know anything about ISIS and said their children had told them they were working at oil companies overseas,” she said.

The Mothers School programme run by SAVE is trying to equip mothers with parenting skills to deal with family issues relating to their children, including looking for signs of radicalization.

In Indonesia, the Mothers School was first launched three years ago in East Java province and has produced 150 graduates. A similar programme has been introduced in Tajikistan, Nigeria and India.

The upcoming World Peace Forum in Jakarta from November 1-4 will explore the role of women in countering violent extremism.

“Women often bear the brunt of violent extremism but their roles in counter-terrorism have been less explored by policymakers,” said Wahid Ridwan, the head of the Forum’s steering committee.

The forum, jointly organized by Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, will be attended by about 200 religious leaders, officials and activists from around the world.

At the Mothers School, women attend a workshop once a week for 10 weeks, where they learn skills such as detecting and responding to early warning signs of radicalization, developing self-confidence, and improving their knowledge of religion, she said.

“Mothers’ roles are very important, because they have a strong bond with the children and are usually the first to know when their children start to change,” she said.

Indonesia has been hit by several deadly attacks attributed to Islamist groups since 2000.

A police crackdown that followed the 2012 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, has resulted in scores of militants arrested and jailed, but the threat of attacks remains.

A gun and bomb attack in Jakarta in January killed four militants and four bystanders.

The role of women in preventing radicalization has been overlooked in government counter-terrorism strategies, said Ridwan Habib, a terrorism analyst at the University of Indonesia.

“Families have an important role in countering dangerous ideas that hold power over young children,” he said.

“Recent cases of terrorism showed that some of the perpetrators are young men who come from decent families and have access to the internet at home, which can be a source of radicalism,” he said.

Low numbers of female practitioners involved in counter-terrorism presents a challenge, he said.

“Female law enforcement personnel are important because they can be more sensitive, and may be better suited to elicit intelligence and information,” Habib said.  

Yohana Yambise, the minister for women empowerment and child protection, acknowledged that the government does not have a women-centred programme to counter radicalism.

“We are conducting a study and hopefully in 2017 we can start a programme to empower women to fight radicalism and promote peace,” she said.

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