David Cameron has announced measures to combat the ‘poison’ of extremism at home and abroad in his government’s most comprehensive anti-terror strategy to date. It comes just two weeks after the tenth anniversary of the 2005 London bombings, and barely a month after 30 Britons were slaughtered by an Islamist gunman in Tunisia.
Cameron’s plans will focus on young people, who are often targeted for radicalisation by extremists. The government will ‘incentivise’ integration in schools and universities by establishing engagement forums. Students and staff at universities will be urged to challenge the views of extremist speakers.
The measures remind us of a startling and brutal fact. The young are at the heart of extremist activity. Radicalisation, as with conflict, is a process that needs to be interrupted. Responses to conflict breakouts, while necessary in itself, acknowledge the failure of violence anticipation and disruption. “No-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start”, said Cameron in his speech.
While national and international powers wrestle with questions over what to do to counter extremism, peacebuilding organisations continue to find great success with streamlined, locally-tailored efforts. One such organisation is Aware Girls, based in north-western Pakistan. More than 50,000 people have died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the last decade. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, where AG work, 31 people have been killed and 63 injured in suicide attacks in 2015 alone. Pakistani forces have struggled to maintain control in the region, international intervention efforts remain politically difficult and are often met with hostility by extremists on the ground.
Aware Girls was set up by local peacebuilders Gulalai and Saba Ismail. They have worked for eight years to meet the shortcomings of the international response, with remarkable success. Last year, Aware Girls reached almost 4,000 ‘at risk’ young people through their programmes, engaging with them in a variety of peer-to-peer activities such as study circles, book groups, sermons and presentations, using mosques and interactive discussions around the teachings of Islam about peace and pluralism. All of which contributed to activists reaching 851 women who may otherwise have been marginalised by Pakistani political processes. This work is based in some of the most conservative areas of Pakistan and is understandably dangerous. The risk is compounded by the fact Aware Girls is run and mainly staffed by women.
The organisation believes that young people are best equipped to respond to their own struggles. Aware Girls contest the vacuum left in society by a lack of a credible voice for young people, by teaching volunteers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA the value of positive social engagement. They understand the central role women should play in filling this void. They see a deeper integration of young women in society as an essential tool for unlocking improved inter-ethnic dialogue, and unpacking growing insecurity.
Gulalai was absorbingly candid when, during her appearance on the BBC World Service earlier this year, she laid out the blueprint of her work. “The Taliban are promoting militancy among young people”, she said, “we are promoting non-violence. They are promoting hatred, we are promoting harmony by bringing people of different cultures together.”
The precious value of this work is never more apparent than when reading the personal accounts of those affected by her work in Pakistan. Peace Direct readers will be able to hear first-hand from former Islamist combatants in Pakistan in our upcoming Peace Action newsletter. If you are not already signed up to our mailing list, you can do so now by clicking this link.
We look forward to sharing their story with you.