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When your daughter suddenly becomes radicalized

Esther Felden | Matthias von Hein
November 10, 2018

Children's life decisions are often difficult for parents to bear and even more difficult to understand — especially when the children radicalize themselves. DW met an affected German mother.

A veiled woman
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

It's something no mother would ever want to experience. The unexpected appearance of state security officers on your doorstep, to inform you that your daughter was planning to leave for Syria to allegedly join the terrorist militia "Islamic State."

But that is exactly what happened to Monika Müller. She recalls every detail of that particular day in 2014 when she was told about her daughter Sophia. Her shock was followed by relief: The police had been acting on false rumors the officers had seemingly picked up in a mosque. But how did Sophia and her family get to this point? Müller was willing to share her daughter's journey with Deutsche Welle, but only on the condition that her family's anonymity be protected. Not everything they have been through can be published here.

Read more: From Germany to 'Islamic State' — Christian's Journey

Switching on the brain

In her early 60s, Müller is a woman who likes to laugh. Her alert face is framed by short red hair. She is a doctor in a mid-sized town in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), where we met in her practice.

We became aware of Müller through an aid project focusing on de-radicalization. For two years now, she has been working with the project, trying to warn young people about the dangers of Islamist radicalization.

During her talks, she always recalls her daughter: "Young people should switch on their brains so that they are not simply persuaded to do things by just anybody."

She emphasizes that this does not only apply to religious radicalization: "It would be the same if the young people were right-wing extremists. Radicalization can cause a family to break apart."

Monika Müller Salafismus
Monika Müller's family has suffered from intense pressureImage: DW/M. von Hein

Müller's family is still intact. The mother maintains close contact with her daughter Sophia, who is now 24. They call and message each other almost every day, and visit each other regularly. Sometimes they go out together — for example to the Christmas market.

But that wasn't always the case. There were times of complete silence — sometimes for months, when the family's fabric disintegrated under intense pressure.

Through trauma to Islam

Monika Müller attributes Sophia's conversion to Islam as a young teenager to a great extent to an event that she prefers to describe only as a "traumatic experience outside the family." It profoundly changed Sophia, who was 12 years old at the time. Afterwards, her mother explains, she developed a strong desire for protection, a desire which ran through Sophia's life "like a red thread."

She turned to therapy but then took a step that her mother found incomprehensible. "She convinced herself that she had to convert to Islam because this religion could protect her better than the religion she grew up with," she remembers.

Sophia had been baptized Catholic and later she was also active as an altar girl in church services.

At the age of 16 the girl began attending mosque, at first secretly. Sophia surrounded herself almost exclusively with girls who "had an Islamic or culturally Moroccan, very patriarchal, background," her mother remembers.

Read more: Abu Dujana — the Salafi preacher

When the daughter decided to don the headscarf at the age of 17, the peace in the family became disturbed: "Sophia has two siblings. There were always discussions. Always quarrels. We were insulted as infidels. Sophia always carried the Quran around with her. Or books like 'The Muslim woman, the Muslim marriage'."

First marriage as a teenager

Then, one day, Sophie disappeared. Unknown to her parents, she married a Turkish man. But the marriage didn't last very long.

"The man wasn't devout enough for her, and she came back to us. That's when we first thought: Now it's over. Now she becomes reasonable again. But that wasn't the case."

Instead, Sophia trawled Muslim marriage forums on the internet, searching for an orthodox, strictly religious husband.

Deutschland Symbolbild Salafismus
Sophia trawled the internet to find a devout Muslim husbandImage: picture alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen

Soon, the situation at home escalated yet again. Sophia's father took away her phone. She then dropped out of her vocational training program shortly before she was set to graduate.

Sophia left her parental home for the second time. "A few weeks later we learned that she was living in Münster [location changed by DW] and that she had married again. At that time she was already fully veiled, wearing the niqab", Monika Müller recalls.

Since then, Sophia has had two children and is pregnant with a third.

"I do try sometimes, but it's not easy"

Her mother feels that her daughter is leading a life based on an extremely regressive gender model where "the woman stays at home, looks after the children and makes sure that there is food on the table for her husband when he comes home".

Nevertheless, Müller tries to maintain "as normal a relationship with my son-in-law, who comes from Albania, as is possible."

Müller describes him as a fundamentalist who has traveled to Syria twice. She told DW that he drove aid convoys there for "Medizin mit Herz" (Medicine with Heart), an organization NRW's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, classifies as an extremist Salafist group: "Its aim is to use supposed humanitarian aid to win over young people in particular to an extremist ideology. Ultimately, this is one of the reasons for young people to travel to Syria," NRW's domestic intelligence chief, Burkhard Freier, said in 2015.

In the past few years, almost 1,000 people in Germany have been radicalized to such an extent that they joined the terrorist militia "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Nearly 300 of them came from NRW.

Read moreInvisible and dangerous — the Salafist scene in NRW

Has Müller ever confronted her daughter about Syria, IS, and its legacy of terror? "Yes," she says, but only cautiously, never aggressively.

"Sophia then tells me: 'They're not true Muslims, doing such things,' like killing or beheading others, like killing children. But I believe that my daughter is not really following politics or history at all."

Syrien IS-Kämpfer im Einsatz in
'IS' fighters in Syria in October 2017Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/Planet Pix

According to her mother, Sophia does watch some news. "But I don't know if she really understands it all or if she perceives it as propaganda," Müller says, before adding: "I just try not to talk a lot about such things. I do try sometimes, but it's not easy. And then I always think: Okay. That'll sort itself out somehow."

Cautious concession

Monika Müller is aware that some fundamentalist families isolate their children, forbidding them to sing or watch television. But in the case of her daughter Sophia, the doctor is relieved that motherhood seems to have softened the religious attitude. At first, Sophia refused to send her children to kindergarten. But now, Müller told DW, she has realized the importance of "children growing up with others and experiencing a less limited view of the world."

The kindergarten has also helped her daughter to make new acquaintances: "Sophia doesn't have such a large circle of friends," says Monika Müller. "She's not from Münster. Her friends are mostly her husband's friends and family. My son-in-law has two brothers with children."

Spat at and bullied

The doctor is also encouraged by the fact that her daughter now takes off her niqab for her paternal family's reunions and weddings.

At the same time, Müller gets angry when she talks about her daughter's experience of wearing her full-face veil in public.

"Sophia has often been spat at and jostled. Someone even stood up in front of her and said: 'Someone like you should be shot!' I have seen for myself that people have mobbed her when I was standing next to her on the street."

That's why Müller can understand why Sophia sometimes says: "It's not that easy to live in Germany."

Deutschland Pictureteaser Salafismus/deutsch
Sophia has been spat at and bullied for wearing a niqabImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER

In the past, her daughter would often talk about moving to an Arab country, to learn Arabic and study the Quran.

But with time her daughter seems to have changed her mind, which she also puts down to her grandchildren: "My daughter has noticed that it is important for her children to receive a good education. And that this is not so easy in Arab countries, especially not for a woman."

Monika Müller is no longer afraid that state security might suddenly appear on her doorstep, warning her that her daughter might pack up and leave for Syria. But German authorities are likely, she adds, to further monitor her son-in-law. Last year, the flat of Sophia and her family was searched while they were away.

Names have been changed by DW, at the behest of interviewees, to protect identities