My name is Fatima Zaman and I am a counter-extremist. I’ll tell you what that means later on, but first I’d like to tell you how I got here.
On Thursday 7 July 2005, I found myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. That day, I witnessed the most devastating terrorist attacks to ever face the United Kingdom.
It was a normal day. I was sitting in class, when I heard the loudest roar.
Then came the sirens. Repetitive, blaring and deafening. Then came the silence. Sitting less than a few hundred metres from the blast, I had yet to comprehend what had happened. And as I watched the frenzy unfold around me I realised that London had been bombed.
I had just seen terror at its peak. A direct attack on my community. In that moment, I saw what hate, anger and violence could do when materialized inside a bomb.
Never again, I said to myself.
7/7 was the first time violent extremism invaded my life. It scarred me, it affected me and it formed the basis of every choice I have made in my formative years.
Earlier, I told you what I do for a living. I am a living, breathing counter-extremist. I became an activist, not out of choice but out of necessity.
In almost every corner of East London, I heard radical voices. I saw violence and I saw hatred. I saw my own community divided, cohesion disappear and pave the way for a type of populism that seems to make reconciliation impossible. And so, I decided it was my duty to take action! I was compelled to act, for the sake of my community and for the sake of my country.
While 7/7 was the event that tore my community apart, it is also the catalyst for all of my work.
13 years on from the attacks, my work seeks to bring young people’s involvement in violent extremism to an end. De-radicalisation isn’t an exact science. But if I had to summarize how to prevent it, I’d say it comes down to 3 Ps:
Let’s start with proximity. I don’t mean that in the geographic sense. We’ve already learned over the last two days that communities can be both local and global, and that place is simply one aspect of human connectivity.
In a similar vein, my approach to de-radicalisation is based on peer-to-peer engagement. That I am closer to my peers, in terms of age, culture and creed so that I may be able to help them desist from engaging with extremist rhetoric.
In 2016 I helped launched an initiative called Extremely Together. Touring communities across the UK, I have worked to disengage vulnerable young men and women from extreme violence. I’ve developed a CVE toolkit, and delivered training programmes to deconstruct and debate issues of identity, build resilience within communities and strengthen the resolve of individuals to dispel extremist propaganda.
This brings me onto the next P – partnerships.
Any meaningful attempt to bring someone back from the grips of terror, can only be achieved if one understands their grievances. Often validating grievance is a simple yet powerful act of empathy. Every time I work with a young woman who’s willing to perpetrate violence, I know she is harbouring a genuine feeling of frustration that, left unchecked, has been exploited by extremist groups – she is left to feel her only choice in life is extreme violence. I know this because I felt the exact same anger after terrorists attacked my home.
By understanding grievances and debunking the prestige that extremists attach to violence, I am able to support her recovery out of radicalisation.
Finally – passion.
It is passion which allowed me to rebuild my community, by relying on the power of ordinary people to do some of the most extraordinary things. My work has shown me that when you combine the resourcefulness of people with the power of place you can rapidly remedy the root causes of violent extremism.
But this isn’t because I have figured out the key to successful de-radicalisation (although I hope to do so). But rather, my approach can be applied to education, reformative justice and social advocacy.
So next time you’re troubleshooting a crisis, take a moment to think. Ask yourself, how can I influence my proximity, enhance my partnerships and use my passion to deconstruct the silos that exist between different groups of people?
Sometimes, you need to be in the right place at the right time to truly realise your position in this world. The factors that converged on 7/7 have allowed me to see what was wrong and go on to build what is strong.
And so, as my former mentor, the late Kofi Annan would remind me: if not now, then when? If not us, then who? And if not here… then where?
It is often an uncommon hope and an uncommon story, in the most uncommon of places, that has the power to truly change this world.