Anne Aly is the Founding Chair of PAVE – People against Violent Extremism and a board member of the Council for Australian Arab Relations (Dept Foreign Affairs & Trade). She speaks with us about her motivations, projects and about the importance of social research, particularity as an influence upon Government policy.
Your project Tweeting for God caught my eye, what was the catalyst for this research?
There are a lot of assumptions made about social media and its influence particularly on violent extremism and terrorism. The catalyst for all my research is really trying to look at some of those assumptions and really understand the influence of social media use on these phenomenon. The Tweeting for God project is just one of our projects at the Countering online Violent Extremism Research Program. We are looking into how the language used on social media constructs understanding of violent extremism and how people respond to it.
You’re the Founding Chair of PaVE- People against Violent Extremism – what drove you to start this NGO?
Before I became an academic, I worked for State government in a policy and management role. In my government role I noted how a lot of policy was developed without an input from research. There seemed to be a general apprehension to engage with academia in the development of policy. Policy isn’t just about government- particularly social policy- it’s about people and a good policy needs to mobilise people in order to be effective. It also needs to be reflective of the contexts and environments in which certain phenomenon exist. Then I joined academia and I saw things from a different perspective. I noticed how a lot of good research wasn’t influencing or shaping policy because it was primarily aimed at improving academic knowledge. At the same time, I also noticed that the not for profit sector did not have a lot of capacity to deal with issues around countering violent extremism. There was a lack of coordination between policy, practice and research but there was also a lot that could be learned by engaging all sides. So I started PaVE as Australia’s first NGO dedicated to raising awareness and improving practice in countering violent extremism. Our first major event was the CVE 2013 Symposium in Perth where we brought together practitioners, policy makers, academics, law enforcement and former perpetrators to discuss ways in which we could all work together to counter violent extremism in Australia and the region. PaVE was launched at this event. Since then, we secured funding for our website and the production of three short films. We realised very quickly that our major challenge was awareness raising. Most people think that dealing with violent extremism is the job of government and law enforcement. Our role is to engage the community is the broader goal of preventing violent extremism and to contribute to better effectiveness in countering violent extremism by bringing research, policy and practice together. In 2014 we had our second CVE Sympoisum hosted by our partner Hedayah International Centre for Countering Violent Extremism in Abu Dhabi. Next year -2015- we’re planning a host of innovative new events- so stay tuned!
You’re quite an influential voice as both an academic, and individual and as a board member of the Council for Australian Arab Relations, do you find that you meet much resistance from the public in striving for equality and social justice?
Most of the resistance I get comes from the right wing fringe who tend to be very vocal at discrediting everything I say because it suits their agenda. Generally however, I actually find a lot of support from the Australian public. Australians are great people with big hearts and a real sense of empathy and social justice. I am consistently heartened by some of the lovely heart felt messages I received from members of the public. It’s a great feeling to know that something I said might have made someone feel better or inspired someone to think differently. But I also realise that I don’t do it alone. There are so many good people working out there to make change without recognition. There are also people making change without even knowing it. I try to tell people that they have the power within themselves to affect change. You don’t have to be in the public eye or have a PhD or be on a board- sometimes just a smile to a stranger can make a whole lot of difference to that person’s life.
Who inspires you?
I come from a very working class background. My grandfather, whom I didn’t know as he died before I was born, was a very simple man. He did not have the opportunity for an education and he ran a textiles shop on the main street in el Minya- the town where my mother was born in Egypt. Despite this my maternal grandfather insisted that his 3 daughters get an education. This was in a conservative town in Egypt in the 1940s! He was advised by so many of his male patrons that women didn’t need an education – they only needed to know how to cook and look after their husbands- but my grandfather persisted. When my mother finished high school, he enrolled her in nursing school at Cairo’s largest teaching hospital. He drove her the 200 k or so on her first day and insisted on being allowed into the nurses quarters to see where his daughter would be sleeping for the next 3 years while she completed her training.
So my maternal grandfather, a man whom I have never met, is my inspiration. In a time and place where education for women was frowned upon, his determination to get his daughters educated, set in motion a sequence of events that eventually led to my parents migrating to Australia and I credit him for instilling the value of educating women in our family. He truly was ahead of his time.