Anne-Azza Aly: an influential voice in counter terrorism


Cecily Huang

Dr Anne-Azza Aly

Dr Anne-Azza Aly: it is important for Muslims to speak out

Anne-Azza Aly, author of Terrorism and Global Security, is the first Australian female scholar with an Arabic Muslim background to publish a book on this subject. She speaks for Muslims against terrorism.

A research fellow and associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin University, she is an expert in the field of countering violent extremism. With a background in policy development, and seven years experience of working for the West Australia government, she leads several projects that bring together government, law enforcement, academia and NGOs to explore emerging themes in countering violent extremism.

In recognition of her research in counter terrorism and her contribution to the field of security studies, Dr Aly was inducted into the inaugural Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

She is elegant and stylish. She says Egyptian women never walk out without getting their hair done, without dressing up nicely. She takes great pride in her Egyptian heritage. Anne Aly migrated to Australia with her parents when she was two. Living in two cultures, she grew up and finished high school in Sydney in the 1970s.

To reconnect with her roots, and learn about Egyptian culture, she went back to Egypt and studied at the elite American University in Cairo. She says as the only Australian on campus, she experienced culture shock. Most Egyptians she met saw her as a typical Egyptian teenage girl and had expectations of her behavior. Unknowingly, she made many mistakes in social etiquette, such as laughing out loud on the street.

However, the experience of studying in Cairo deepened her perception of the culture and religion in the Arabic Muslim community, and established the vital base for her future research.

Anne-Azza Aly is frequently not treated as an Australian, even in her senior position and even during her terms as Senior Policy Officer in the West Australia government. Because she did not have “an Anglo-Saxon look”, she was asked questioned such as “Where are you from? You look quite exotic”. She says she got this question all the time.

Dr Aly has contributed to over 40 publications – books, journals and conference papers – on counter terrorism, counter violent extremism, radicalisation, Muslim identity and building resilient communities through collective security arrangements.

She says biased media coverage is not helpful for people trying to understand the Muslim culture and community, that people misunderstand her and assume her Muslim background clashes with her profession. She says access and links to Islam, which are advantageous for her research, are sometimes used to discriminate against her.

She is an outspoken critic of Muslim extremism and the Islamic State. As a result of her saying Islam is not about terrorism or beheadings, she received a series of hate emails and threatening messages. However, she thinks it is important for Muslims to speak out, to say, “This isn’t in my name, this is isn’t what Islam is about”.

She says her background is not the only difficulty in her field of work. She faces the challenge of gender equality in a male-dominated field. When she started her research, she was the only woman speaking at the conferences she attended. She says that as women reach a certain level in her profession, they do not get judged by the same standard as men do. The first thing women get judged on is their appearance. She says no man is judged on what he is wearing.

“I don’t give a shit on how I dress up or how I look. This is my work, judge me on that,” she says. “You have to make sure your work is perfect or more than perfect. You have to be 150 per cent better than the men.”

Dr Aly has taken on multiple roles as a senior academic and researcher, founding chair of People Against Violent Extremism (PaVE) and author. Each year, she takes at least 10 overseas trips and when she is not travelling, as now, she organises counter terrorism workshops at her house for young university students.

Dr Aly has been rewarded for her hard work. She received the Citizenship and Multicultural Interests Award for her role in promoting anti-racism from the Office of Multicultural Interests and she was listed as one of the 100 Women of Influence 2013 by The Australian Financial Review.

She does not agree that military action will help to win the counter terrorism battle, she thinks the key is discovering the root causes. Meanwhile, it requires more understanding between different nations, culture and religions.

“Extremism isn’t just a national security issue, it is a human and a social issue. People become radicalised in an environment, they won’t become radicalised in a vacuum. Environment is equally as important as the personal factors that are involved in a young person become so extreme that they choose violence.

The mother of two sons, she says, “I would love it if I could make one little, tiny drop of difference, to bring peace to this world. That’s my ultimate goal.”

Anne-Azza Aly will join counterinsurgency analyst David Kilcullen and author Mohsin Hamid to explore the political and social forces behind current trends in fundamentalist behavior at the session, Extremism: What Are We Dealing With, today, 11.30-12.30, Sydney Dance 1.