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By Flora Bagenal
On May 7, 2002, a right-wing extremist broke into Kenza Isnasni’s family home in Brussels and started shooting indiscriminately. He killed her parents and badly injured her two younger brothers before setting himself on fire.
Today, Isnasni, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, is living in Ifrane, Morocco, and is working toward her master’s in international studies and diplomacy with a concentration in peace and conflict studies. She is also co-founder of Marrakesh Organics, a permaculture organic farm project that aims to bring people from different backgrounds together to promote health, green living, and intercultural understanding.
Isnasni, 33, says she sees anger and ignorance about religion and immigration driving communities apart all over the world. Young Muslim women in particular, she says, are increasingly made to feel excluded and inferior for behaving in ways that display their faith. She believes extremism can be prevented, but says the solution has to come from a place of trust and respect.
We had been living in the flat for four years when the attack happened. We were warned when we moved in that there was a difficult person living in the flat downstairs, a racist who was involved in various right-wing parties in Belgium. My father decided the way forward was to invite him round to create good neighborly relations. But a few months after we moved in, the man started shouting and swearing at us. Once, my father was actually threatened by the guy with a gun in the corridor. We called the police, they took a statement, but then no further action was taken. It was really shocking to us the issue wasn’t being taken more seriously.
Other families in the neighborhood had complained [about the man], too, and some had left because of his actions. My mother wanted us to leave, too—she was really afraid for our safety. It was shortly after 9/11 and the atmosphere in Belgium had turned really nasty. There was lots of Islamophobia, Muslims were being targeted and everyone felt on edge.
Isnasni credits her parents, who were killed by a far-right neighbor, with teaching her that respect and understanding are more powerful than hate.
On May 6, 2002, the man broke down the exterior door to our apartment. We called the police. They took down details and then went away. The door stayed broken. It was then my mother made up her mind to leave. She said we should go as soon as possible. But we never had a chance because at 4 a.m. the following morning, he came back. He forced his way into the apartment and started to shoot everywhere. My two youngest brothers, Yassine, 11, and Walid, 6, ran into my parents’ bedroom for protection. They were both shot multiple times in the back, arms, and legs. They played dead so the attacker would leave and stop shooting. Another brother, Abdelmounaim, 16, managed to escape unhurt from a window. I hid on the balcony off my bedroom. I could hear him shooting. I prayed the bullets he was using weren’t real. Eventually, I saw he was setting fire to our apartment. He set himself on fire as well and died at the scene.
I was saved by my neighbor, with his ladder. People took me to the hospital and it was there I found out my parents were dead. It finally started sinking in, what was happening was real and there was irreversible damage.
Immediately after the attack, I was in shock. I was devastated and disoriented. I was angry, but I didn’t want to feel hatred. I knew this attack wasn’t representative of what all Belgians thought. That was down to my education and the values my parents had instilled in me from childhood. I was only 18, but I felt I had an important role to play—as a victim, but also as a citizen—in fighting the racism and extremism that had led to that horrific day. Nothing broke my conviction that, with the right values, we can create a better society with more peace, respect and more dialogue.
I knew I had to make something positive out of what had happened, so I started sharing my story with others to try and encourage peace and dialogue. I did a lot of humanitarian work as well, particularly in Palestine, where I learned so much from people’s attitude in the face of adversity. It reminded me of the struggle my family went through in the lead-up to the attack and gave me comfort to understand how other people keep on going despite anguish and heartbreak.
I also traced my roots in Morocco in the Rif Mountains to try and understand more about the history of immigration to Belgium. After World War II, a lot of Moroccan workers were recruited to work in Belgium to rebuild the country. We were welcomed then, but now look how we are treated. There is a discourse of hate against people like me and my family, whipped up by extremists and encouraged in the media. There are constant negative stories about immigrants and foreigners. We are still treated like outsiders in our own country. This attitude has to change.
In particular, we need to find a way to send a positive message to young Muslim girls who experience a lot of this hatred and are increasingly made to feel like outsiders, often simply because they choose to wear a headscarf. Every year, when it is time for school to start again, we have the same debate in Belgium over whether girls should be allowed to wear a headscarf. The constitution guarantees the fundamental right to practice a religion. I am Belgian, I contribute to society, so why should it matter if I cover my head or not?
For a very small number, this pushes them to extremism. Much more often, I see Muslim girls defying the prejudice to become doctors, teachers, social workers, and entrepreneurs. If we really want to combat these hateful messages, we need to celebrate these success stories. We need to send positive messages to young Muslim women that they are wanted and needed for a better, more just society. Give these girls a sense of personal value, allow them to express themselves how they want, and inspire them with self-confidence rather than excluding them.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on Women & Girls, and you can find the original here. For more news about the role of women in the Islamic Jihadi movement, you can sign up to the Women & Girls email list.
Read more on this topic in the winter 2016/2017 issue of World Policy Journal in "Partnering up: How to work with religious leaders to counter violent extremism" by Manal Omar.
Flora Bagenal is a British journalist and film maker. She has reported from four continents, living in Beijing, Washington, Nairobi, London and Bangkok over the past ten years. Her work has been used by The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Reuters, AFP and Channel 4 News.
[Photos courtesy of Kenza Isnasni]