Fatima Zaman Hyphen

Fatima Zaman Q&A: Women hold the key to creating peace

Photograph courtesy of Fatima Zaman

The counter-extremism and peace-building expert says that governments have failed to understand what drives radicalisation and who is best placed to fight it

Christine Luby

Repatriation of European citizens from Islamic State (IS) camps in Iraq and Syria is crucial for justice, according to British-Bengali security expert Fatima Zaman. 

Many western European governments have been reluctant to bring back foreign fighters and their families, fearing renewed radicalisation at home. Instead they have left nearly 200 women from 11 European countries and 650 children in the Al-Hol and Roj camps in Syria, which Zaman and other experts say are a breeding ground for terrorism.

In July, France changed course, repatriating 51 women and children from Syria, according to the national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office. Zaman hopes other countries will follow suit.

Zaman, 29, has dedicated much of her life to peacebuilding and security in the UK and abroad through her work with the Kofi Annan Foundation. She was named as the UK’s Asian Woman of Achievement in 2017. 

Zaman spoke with Hyphen about the factors that have driven European citizens — particularly women and young people — to radicalisation and her belief in the importance of holding them accountable in the countries they left behind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You were only 13 years old when you witnessed the 7/7 London bombings, which killed 52 people and injured more than 700. What impact did that have on you?

These were some of the worst bombings to occur in London since the days of the Irish Republican Army. I was near the Aldgate blast and I felt the panic. As a young Muslim teenager, it changed the way I grew up. I was either having to apologise for extremists who killed in the name of Islam — which I believe is a peaceful religion — or having to vehemently prove my Britishness. I knew that if I didn’t want to see terror in my life again, I would need to dedicate my life’s work to ending it.

According to Europol, there were 57 terrorist incidents in 2020 in EU member states. An additional 44 jihadist or extreme right-wing plots were foiled between 2018 and 2020 in the EU and UK. Where are these terrorists coming from?

We often view Islamist-inspired extremism as a foreign problem from a distant Middle Eastern land. This is a fundamental misconception, because when you look at the figures, western Europe is a net exporter of international terrorism. For example, Swedish national Lisa Andersson was radicalised in 2012 and became an IS  bride. She was not the product of a broken country undergoing civil war. 

When you export your own citizens as terrorists, you have to look at the conditions inside the domestic community and understand the drivers of radicalisation. What is breaking the fabric of society that made this individual feel that they were not heard at home, that they felt they had to become violent extremists?

In your view, what drives radicalisation?

I believe there is a push and pull factor. The push is feeling like you don’t belong in the community you grew up in. Many Muslims experienced this in Great Britain after 7/7. The pull mechanism is that there is a radicaliser on the other side, usually online, saying: “Hey, you don’t fit into British society and therefore you should respond with violence. I can offer you a utopia where you will belong.” When you combine a push mechanism with a pull mechanism, that’s when you find radicalisation. 

In the case of IS, how important are women to the group?

Often, people wrongly assume that women are not relevant because they are innocent bystanders or are only used in suicide tactics. But, what we’ve seen with a lot of terrorist groups is that women are recruiters, logisticians and facilitators, as well as battle-hardened fighters. They recruit thousands of others, grooming them to “birth the next generation of fighters”. Their role is hugely important to state building, and to overlook this is a gross underestimation of how to tackle the problem. 

Now, on the flip side, we need to understand that just as women are integral to terrorist efforts, women peacebuilders are equally important in disenfranchising and demilitarising these organisations. Additionally, their involvement in security and negotiations is proven to result in a longer-lasting and more sustainable peace.

Murders of women human rights defenders and peacebuilders are on the rise. What risks have you faced in your own work and how do you mitigate them?

When I joined this field at the age of 22, I didn’t really understand the risks until I received my first death threat. Since then, there have been several more threats, as well as online slander. While I’m taking a huge risk, I realised that this is a sort of feedback from extremist groups, letting me know that I’m being effective. At the same time, you have to be extremely vigilant and you need to surround yourself with organisations and individuals who understand that risk. 

Most countries, such as the UK, refuse to take back their citizens who joined IS, fearing that they may carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries. You’ve disagreed, saying they should be extradited back to their home countries. Why? 

Terrorists abhor western democratic values, including equality, fairness and justice. If they want to hurt us, we should penalise them under a western criminal justice system that will ensure that they pay for their crimes. We also need rigorous rehabilitation systems with coordination from military, intelligence services, law enforcement and civil society. Leaving individuals in foreign detention or refugee camps is not a healthy solution. When you have terrorists operating among refugee populations, you are creating an even bigger terrorist threat, because they can radicalise others. 

Muslim women are often portrayed as oppressed or voiceless in the media. What would you like others to know about you?

Young Muslim women are the best agitators and disruptors. Often the media portrays us as being submissive and exotic, without any presence. But the reality is we are the future leaders of tomorrow, with positive and brilliant ideas. For so long, women as a whole have been marginalised, our bodies policed and our power securitised. The fact that we are now able to determine our own futures and make change is what makes us so dangerous in the most beautiful of ways.

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