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Countering Paranoia: Muslim Women Are Leading The Fight Against Terrorism

14/06/2017 08:05 BST | Updated 14/06/2017 08:05 BST
Eric Audras via Getty Images

When was the first time I felt counter-terrorism strategy seeping into my life?

Was it when I felt compelled to run a Muslim women's faith group in Watford whilst doing my GCSEs, inviting women and children to come and express their faith in a positive way, through reciting nasheeds or using their voices to speak to politicians? Maybe, it was when I was aged 16, and I went along to a Muslim youth leadership weekend at a fancy hotel, where there was an engagement officer from the police. We were taught how Islam is peaceful and not a justification for violence or hatred.

Even when I got to university, I felt the differences. The University of York had a module for every student on spotting signs of radicalisation in others. I will confess: April 2017 marked the first time I wrote an essay talking about Muslim women, 4 years after starting university, because I was worried about the books I was reading, in case I turned out like another student from another university. Even my dad gave me lectures consistently about internet usage, and was worried about me taking my helium birthday balloons up to York from Kings Cross, if they weren't in a clear bag! Counter-extremism strategies have so far only bred paranoia among the Muslims I know. If we want a strategy that works, without alienating existing allies, we have to do better.

Born in 1995, I've grown up with counter-extremism initiatives hidden in every part of my life. I was so excited to go to that Muslim youth leadership weekend. I thought I was going because I was there to be recognised for what a confident person I was, with a commitment to a better society. Instead, I felt patronised and wondered why I, someone who is - let's be honest - never going to be a terrorist of any kind, was sitting there listening to things I already knew. Surely it was a waste of resources?

And so, it follows. I'm still achieving things, and I remember virtually nothing from that weekend. Except one thing: praying. I remember that was the first time that I, as a Sunni Muslim, had seen a Shia Muslim pray. I thought it was so strange and different. That's what resonates with me; that seeing difference in the way people practice their faith didn't fill me with rage, but instead with understanding.

This is what I believe so many people fail to understand. We are so obsessed with sectarian conflict, we forget that so many of us live in diverse communities. We may bemoan a lack of integration within communities, but we forget that even among Muslims, we must learn to live as neighbours with those who differ from us in many ways.

So why not recognise that? There are so many organisations that put Muslim women at the centre, understanding their capability and intelligence, rather than treating them as passive. Take the Women Against Radicalisation Network (WARN), who:

"provide a platform for all women from all backgrounds, to come together and discuss ways to fight extremism reaching women and children in their community."

Whether it is through workshops on online grooming, or how misogyny affects women, WARN work with all kinds of people on actual information, rather than just fearmongering. Other organisations like Connect Futures do the same, working in schools and organisations on how to safeguard against violent extremism, as well as engaging directly with those concerned - students and teachers - in building resilience.

We need a culture where Muslims feel free to ask questions; where gender or age does not prohibit them from holding others to account. We need a society which recognises that Muslim women and young people are not just victims of aggression; that they are active participants in the reclamation of religion from people who use it to promote violence based on toxic masculinity. We need a government and a press which not only acknowledges the work that Muslim women and young people are doing, but actively gives them column space and the ability to lead committees, rather than just pushing photos of flag-bearing hijabs as the sole symbol of integration. When there's an attack, I literally pray to Allah for it to be someone who doesn't resemble the way I look. But enough is enough; I shouldn't have to hope that.

I am a brilliant citizen, who takes part in democracy, takes every opportunity to give back to society, and works damn hard. I should not have spent my childhood under suspicion, nor fear taking a slightly oversized suitcase on holiday. As Muslim women and young people, we are overlooked far too often as the solution. This is why the letter we sent to the Sunday Times was so important.

In "Letters to the Editor", myself and multiple prominent Muslim women highlighted how politicians have used the idea of "British Values" to distract from the calls for increased funding to Muslim women's counter-extremism initiatives. The best part? This wasn't just from faith activists. This was a cross-party statement, with secular and BME activists, all united by a common cause: to dispel the myth that Muslim women are helpless.

The arguments over how the attackers in London and Manchester were radicalised have veiled the fact that women and young people are tirelessly trying to speak up, and are often ignored. We are sick and tired of being held up as solely victims of gendered violence, when we also fight to stop it, by challenging outdated preachers and reviving new techniques of engaging with maligned people.

If there is anything I have learnt growing up, it's that doing the right thing always seems wrong to someone else. Too bad for our extremist opponents that we will not shut up and back down, in the ways they wish to dominate the world and, indeed, suppress women and young people. We will not let the government and the press tell us we are only victims of honour killings, but we are also arbiters, leaders of progressive movements.

We're fighting the good fight, and whether we wear a hijab or not, we are here to stay.