November 20 – 21, 2014 Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, San Diego
I was honoured to be part of this conference for a panel titled “Started From my Living Room: community based models for anti-radicalization and reformation”.
Before coming to this conference, I had no idea what it entailed and upon getting here I was blown away. This is how the conference is described:
The rise of violent religious extremism and its impact on women and communities worldwide is an urgent and deepening crisis. From Nov. 19-21, the IPJ will convene its 10th international working conference to examine the issue and gendered strategies to confront this disturbing trend.
Responding to a call from its Women PeaceMakers network, the IPJ and its partners will bring together local and international policymakers, religious leaders, security sector representatives and peacebuilders to discuss the support and interventions needed to defend human rights in contexts where extremist voices in religious communities call for violence, rather than tolerance and peace.
In particular, the conference will focus on the ways in which women and women’s rights are often the first to be targeted by violent religious extremism, and what strategies women and their allies are using to combat the polarization of their communities, assert their rights, and create the space for moderate and/or interfaith dialogue to establish peace.
I was particularly enthused to meet some dynamic women from Pakistan which gives me great hope about my native land that women will bring change. They spoke about the dreaded Blasphemy law that has targeted minorities and how many of them are working in rural areas to bring about change.
Among the sessions I attended was one called “Testimonials” in which diverse women gave personal testimony about how extremism has affected their lives. We were all in tears to hear Vicky Ibrahim of SAVE Network and Women Without Borders, who is a British mum of Andrew Ibrahim, accused of plotting to bomb the Bristol Shopping Centre in UK. She spoke from the heart about how her son got radicalized, how she became a pariah to the community and how counsellors who saw the signs, ignored them as ‘growing pains’. There are a lot of lessons from her work.
Among those who gave testimony was a young woman from Sri Lanka who spoke about rise of attacks against Muslim minorities and a member of the Yazidi community in Iraq.
We had to miss some of day one sessions as we were taken for some TV and radio interviews about the issue of honor. The host kept trying make the focus of the interviews Islam and Muslims making remarks like “we have a large Muslim population in San Diego!” Seriously? And what does that mean? Luckily the amazing Jasvinder Sanghera was with me and we really put him right.
Back to the conference for a panel called “Talking to Extremists” – an excellent panel. Direct from Nigeria came Khadija Hawaja Gambo who has taken on Boko Haram and speaks out against them. Khadija spoke openly and honestly about how the Boko Haram recruit from the illiterate and socially challenged population – she could have been speaking about ISIS or Taliban. I met her later and we connected. She’s travelling and speaking about Boko Haram and the crisis created by them. Education of the masses is needed she said.
Anne Speckhard, author of the book “Talking to Terrorists” spoke about her cutting edge work of interviewing women Jihadis and other terrorists. There have been 220 female bombers since 2006.
Her book is described on Amazon as follows:
This is an account of traveling through the West Bank and Gaza, into the prisons of Iraq, down the alleyways of the Casablanca slums, to Chechnya, into the radicalized neighborhoods of Belgium, the UK, France and the Netherlands, of sitting with the hostages of Beslan and Nord Ost, and of talking to terrorists. Dr. Speckhard gives us the inside story of what puts vulnerable individuals on the terrorist trajectory and what might take them back off of it. With more than four hundred interviews with terrorists and their friends, family members and hostages, Dr. Speckhard is one of the few experts to have such a breadth of experience. She visited, and even stayed overnight, in the intimate spaces of terrorists’ homes, interviewed them in their stark prison cells, or met them in the streets of their cities and villages. Dr. Speckhard gives us a rare glimpse of terrorists within their own contexts. From the mouths of terrorists, their family members, comrades-and even their hostages, we learn of the manipulation of human weakness that can lead to violent acts. Through careful research of culture and religion and a genuine desire to understand the factors that motivate individuals to embrace terrorism, Dr. Speckhard deftly defines the lethal cocktail that leads to the creation of a terrorist. An internationally recognized expert on the psychological aspects of terrorism and an expert in the area of posttraumatic stress disorder, Dr. Speckhard’s research also produces a knowledge of how to disengage, deradicalize, rehabilitate, and reverse the trajectory of a terrorist. Dr. Speckhard’s studies spanning over a decade provide us with a deeper understanding of one of the most dangerous and violent phenomena of our times.
In the same panel was Merile Millet Mendoza who has been kidnapped by ASG – Abu Sayyaf Group that operates in the Phillipines. She was held captive for 61 days and spent time trying to understand the motives of her kidnappers.
On a panel called “Gender Initiatives” we heard that its extremely urgent to look at the barometer of extremism before it becomes political and powerful. There is no universal panacea for violent extremism – it develops in different ways and for different reasons in various parts of the world. A mother who lost her son to terrorists spoke bravely and said “it’s not enough to condemn the killers – we must find out what compels them”.
An unusual and compelling presentation was made by Ulrich Kropiunigg, Director of Research – Women Without Borders about the power of MOTHERS! An amazing presentation showing research tracking mothers role in de–radicalization across 6 countries. They travel all over countries affected by extremism to empower mothers and spoke about a Mothers School created by women in Tajikistan. They also work with SAVE – Sisters Against Violent Extremism.
In December they are hosting The Lure of Syria: Working with Mothers for Strategies and Solutions, A panel presentation with mothers whose sons and daughters became radicalized and chose to travel to Syria.
Later in the afternoon I attended a working session in which I heard Pari Farmani from the Institute of Inclusive Security speak about moderating extremism in Pakistan (I was drawn to the discussions around Pakistan 
She explained that there are few public spaces in which activist women can speak out but women at the same time are early warners of signs of extremism. Their work is to help train women from all sections of civil society to work in rural areas to train other women, push curriculum reform and create awareness. She also spoke about the importance of women-only police stations which are gaining popularity. The Pakistani Parliament has passed 24 laws to protect women but unless women part of the decision-making process, they can’t succeed.
A representative of the US Government at this panel informed me that there are plans in the works to have a 5-year legislative intervention in Pakistan in 2015 – she did not elaborate.
One general theme that emerged from various speakers and researchers about extremists is that they are ideologues and in most cases are wrecking violence on others as a revenge for real and perceived attacks on their own groups/countries in the past so they justify the violence. Many speakers focused on where the extremists are getting their funding from and to cut that cord. There was general consensus that you can’t dialogue with terrorists. We learnt that women can be collaborators or detectors of early warning signs. Women need to be at the table on discussions about anti-terrorism issues and the peace-making process.
The conference ended on Friday with regional dialogue about how to further the involvement of women in anti-extremism policies and activism which is a very important solution to the problem.