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To Stop Kids From Radicalizing, Moms In Denmark Call Other Moms

The picturesque town of Odense — the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen — is one of the Danish cities battling ISIS and its recruitment efforts. Denmark has one of the worst radicalization problems in Europe.
Walter Bibikow
Getty Images
The picturesque town of Odense — the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen — is one of the Danish cities battling ISIS and its recruitment efforts. Denmark has one of the worst radicalization problems in Europe.

Sarah, a 21-year-old new college graduate, initially didn't pay much attention when one of her classmates double-clicked on a YouTube video from a Muslim extremist and cranked up the sound. The soft voice that came out of the speaker was that of Junes Kock, the Scandinavian spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global Islamist group that has a following in Denmark among young Muslims.

For months, Sarah and her friends had been talking about what it meant to be Muslim in Denmark. The general consensus was that it was hard. Junes Kock, in hundreds of videos online, spoke to that.

"Muslims in Denmark are always under suspicion," he began in one popular, Danish-language video posted last year.

"No Muslim can live in Denmark without being accused of being a terrorist," he continued. "And the struggle is getting harder, Muslims are trying to keep their faith, but politicians are fighting against us, they claim this is part of the battle against terrorism." The video has had thousands of views.

For Sarah, who would only speak on the condition that we changed her name (and disguised her voice in a radio piece), Junes Kock seemed to understand what she was going through. "There was a trend in school back then, people were listening to what he had to say," she said. "In that moment, in the classroom, I didn't really care much about it, but afterwards, I double thought about it."

The videos struck a chord, she said, because when she looked around, Junes Kock seemed to have a point. Although Sarah was born in Denmark and spoke perfect Danish, she had this sense, as a Muslim of Somali descent, that no matter what she did, no matter what she said, she'd never be Danish enough.

"They want us to mix the Danish and Muslims together," she explained. "They say that we shouldn't wear our traditional clothes, and we should take off our scarves and we should be more like a Dane."

Sarah's story provides a window into how young Muslims in Denmark can fall in with radical Islamists. People like Junes Kock tap into insecurities young Muslims feel as they try to find their place not only in the world, but in Western society more generally. And studies show that local Islamist groups act like a gateway drug for young Muslims: while they may not overtly send followers to Syria, by stoking a young Muslim's disaffection, it doesn't take much for an ISIS recruiter to convince someone that ISIS might offer a solution.

It is important to understand the contours of the battle: Denmark has one of the worst radicalization problems in Europe. According to official figures, there are more Danes leaving for Syria per capita than in any other European country, except for Belgium. Some 5,000 Westerners are thought to have traveled to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq and literally hundreds of them returned to Europe. To be sure, some put the experience behind them. But others, as seen in Paris and Brussels, return to attack.

Because it is almost impossible to know with certainty which returnees are dangerous until it is too late, Denmark has been experimenting with a variety of community-based programs aimed at preventing Muslims from radicalizing in the first place. As fate would have it, Sarah grew up in Odense, a town in the heart of Denmark that has been testing what may be the ultimate grass-roots approach to combating violent extremism: harnessing a mother's touch.

A Different World

There is a storybook quality to the city of Odense, where Sarah was born and raised. It sits about two hours west of Copenhagen and has the requisite palaces and cobbled streets you'd expect from the town that produced one of Denmark's most famous writers — Hans Christian Andersen. He was born in Odense, and there is a cottage industry that has grown up around that. There is a museum in his boyhood home and an endless array of his fairy tale books propped up in shop windows.

Ayan Muumin was one of the founders of Sahan, a group of community activists working to make their neighborhood of Vollsmose a safer place to live. In addition to battling gangs and crime, the mothers are trying to stop radicalization before it starts. The group answers hotlines around the clock, fielding calls from concerned mothers.
Dina Temple-Raston / NPR
Ayan Muumin was one of the founders of Sahan, a group of community activists working to make their neighborhood of Vollsmose a safer place to live. In addition to battling gangs and crime, the mothers are trying to stop radicalization before it starts. The group answers hotlines around the clock, fielding calls from concerned mothers.

But if you drive just a couple of miles west of downtown, you enter an entirely different world, an immigrant community full of cinder-block buildings known as Vollsmose. This is an area with crime, poverty and unemployment. That's the Odense where Sarah grew up.

It is also the Odense where some 150 ethnic Somali mothers have started an organization called Sahan, which is putting a decidedly maternal twist on the issue of violent extremism. So when Sarah's mother happened to overhear her daughter listening to Junes Kock videos on her cellphone, the first call she placed was to the women of Sahan.

To understand how Sahan works, you have to think about how well mothers know their children, and how good they are at watching for subtle cues that suggest changes in them. It isn't just how a mother knows if her child isn't eating or had a fight with a friend. The signs could be more discreet, and the first one to notice is usually a mom.

The night I arrived to visit the mothers of Sahan, there were three dozen Somali woman in brightly patterned headscarves and multicolored jilbab robes filing into a small cinder-block building in the center of Vollsmose. They call it the clubhouse.

There were trays overflowing with Somali food: hot roast chicken, rice spiced with cardamom and cloves, yogurt and chili sauces. Handing out plates at the front of the room was Ayan Muumin, a Somali mother of eight who helped found the group six years ago.

She helped transform Sahan from a group of volunteer mothers to an army of community activists who answer hotlines around the clock, track down missing children, crack down on gangs and drugs and try to make Vollsmose a safer place to live. All their work is volunteer and done without complaint, because nearly all the Sahan moms have leaned on the group at one time or another when their own children ran into trouble. Now they are here, paying it forward.

'Watch, But Give The Child Some Space'

If a mother calls the hotline and says she is worried her son or daughter is radicalizing or might be thinking of going to Syria, the Sahan volunteers launch into a series of questions to gauge the seriousness of the problem. Are the children dressing differently? Have they become more judgmental about religion? Have their friends changed, are they spending more time alone in their rooms?

These are signs that a mother would notice right away. "I don't have a script for parents," says Muumin, who handles most of the radicalization cases. "I don't tell them what to say. But when they come to Sahan asking for help, the thing that we find works best is to watch but give the child some space."

Sometimes that is doubly difficult to do because Sahan is working in a neighborhood that is seen in Denmark as a hotbed of terrorism. Ten years ago, police arrested four men from Vollsmose after discovering bomb-making chemicals in their apartments. They were convicted of plotting to bomb the Danish parliament in retaliation for the publication of some Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as, among other things, a dog.

The neighborhood never quite got over it — so much so that after the Paris and Brussels attacks, mothers in Vollsmose fanned out all over town to make sure their children were all accounted for and hadn't somehow seen the attacks as a clarion call from ISIS that they were obliged to follow.

"Everyone was just a bit concerned about where their kids might be," Muumin told me. "They wanted to double-check they were at school. They made doubly sure the children came home on time. That's what happens around here. When attacks happen, everyone is extra vigilant."

That sort of vigilance born out of a mother's intuition played a huge role in a recent episode of lost children in Vollsmose. Two mothers called Muumin on the hotline and said their boys, ages 13 and 15, had disappeared with their passports. In most tough neighborhoods, moms worry about gangs or drugs. In Vollsmose, ISIS and Syria embody a mother's worst fears.

Muumin has a protocol when kids disappear with their passports. She rings a contact at a social services organization in Odense called the SSP (for Schools, Social Services and Police), which then works with police to find the children. The teenagers who went missing recently were found just hours after Sahan's initial call.

What happened next is an indication of how different the Sahan mom experiment is from the way a case might unfold in the U.S. The kids weren't questioned by police. Instead, they were sent home.

"After episodes like this, when kids are doing something that maybe they shouldn't be doing, it is very important not to frighten them," says Muumin. "It is very important not to start yelling at them. We find that if the child is relaxed and thinks, 'OK, my parents aren't as mad as I thought they would be,' typically they are so relieved, they can't stop themselves from revealing what they have done."

'It Is Not That I Wanted To Be A Terrorist'

It doesn't matter whether it's gangs or drugs or ISIS, she says. The kids eventually come clean — which is what may make Sahan so special. It is harnessing maternal instincts and wielding them against Islamist recruiters, which is essentially what happened in Sarah's case, the young woman we met at the beginning of our story.

She's still struggling to understand her attraction to Junes Kock, the charismatic spokesman of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but she is no longer doing that alone. She and her mother are now talking about it.

"I can't explain it exactly," Sarah said. "He sounds so trustworthy. He is a convert, but I feel like he understands Islam better than I do, and understands what it is like to be Muslim in Denmark because he chose to be Muslim. It is not that I wanted to be a terrorist, it is not that. I just thought it was interesting what he had to say."

The Sahan moms suggested Sarah's mother bring the whole family to a local lecture about radical Islam. It was presented not as something that Sarah needed, but rather as a family activity. Sarah was never asked directly to talk about her flirtation with the ideas of Junes Kock. Her mother just waited until she was ready to talk about it, and eventually she did.

The Sahan network also found a program that taught young people how to explain Islam to non-Muslims, and slowly, Sarah said, she began to realize that having those discussions didn't diminish her faith. Instead, it made it stronger. Sarah says she's embarrassed to talk about Junes Kock and his videos now.

"It is kind of hard because I wouldn't say that I was attracted to Junes Kock, in that extreme way, not at all. It was just in the moment," she said.

Young people all over Denmark are having similar moments, and acting on them. Dozens have left Copenhagen for Syria in the past couple of years. Dozens more have left Denmark's second largest city, Aarhus, about an hour's drive west of Vollsmose and Odense.

It might not be an accident that even though Odense is Denmark's third largest city, with a huge immigrant community, there are no reports that anyone has left there for Syria. Maybe the Sahan moms stopped them before they could.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 8, 2016 at 9:00 PM PDT
In an earlier version of this story, Hans Christian Andersen's name was misspelled as Anderson.