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US awards French mother for anti-radicalization message

Latifa Ibn Ziaten whose son was a victim of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah
Latifa Ibn Ziaten whose son was a victim of Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah AFP/Joel Saget

Latifa Ibn Ziaten has been named one of 14 "International Women of Courage" by the US government and invited to explain her anti-radicalization message in American cities. After her son, a French soldier, was murdered by Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah in 2012, Latifa Ibn Ziaten formed a group to prevent radicalization and promote dialogue.

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"No more Merahs," she declared, referring to the petty criminal turned jihadist who murdered her son at point blank range during the sale of a motor scooter that Merah had advertised.

The young extremist pulled out a gun, but Imad, a sergeant in France's 1st Parachute Regiment, refused to lie on the ground.

Before he was killed by police 11 days later, Merah would kill two more off-duty soldiers, then a rabbi and three young children in an attack on a Jewish school.

Ibn Ziaten admits she has much more work to do but refuses to "surrender to fear" in the face of growing Islamist attacks.

"If we're afraid, we'll make no progress, and that's what the terrorists want. If we cede to fear, it is they who gain ground," she told AFP after Tuesday's ceremony.

Ibn Ziaten suggests that dialogue and compassion are the way forward. "We need to open up the housing projects, the ghettos. We need to promote diversity in schools, equality of opportunity," she explained.

"We need to listen to those young people who, when they speak at all, say 'The Republic has forgotten us'," she said. "That's where the malaise lies."

After her son's death she began to tour prisons and schools to preach interfaith respect.

"I dissuaded three young men from leaving for Syria," she said.

"I work with young women who have converted. I work with a lot of parents who are having difficulty coping."

In one of her biggest projects, Ibn Ziaten took more than a dozen young people from a Paris suburb to Israel and the Palestinian territories as "peace ambassadors."

In another, she opened a center in Paris' underprivileged immigrant suburbs from where many radicals emerged to listen to the concerns of young people and their families.

The goal is to identify early signs of violent extremism.

"Today, some parents say: 'We didn't pay attention. We didn't notice'," she warned.

"A child left alone, living in his own head, this is what happens. That's why I forgave Mohamed Merah," she said.

Already a recipient of France's highest award, the Legion of Honor, Ziaten said the US award would only encourage her in her mission.

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