By Cecily Huang
Published on Issue 3, At the Festival during 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival
Anne Aly, the 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.
Aly is a research fellow and associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities of 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 Government of Western Australia, 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, Aly was inducted into the inaugural Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
With distinguished Egyptian facial structure, golden brown skin color and stylish short hair cut, Aly is often seen in an elegant dress and well-matched jewelry. She said Egyptian women never walk out without getting their hair done, without dressing up nicely. She takes great pride of this Egyptian heritage.
Born in Egypt, Aly migrated to Australia with her parents at the age of two. Living in two cultures, she grew up and finished high school in Sydney in the 1970s.
To reconnect with her roots, and learn Egyptian culture, she went back to Egypt and studied at the elite American University in Cairo. As the only Australian on campus, she experienced culture shock. Most Egyptian people she met still saw her as 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.
Aly is frequently not treated as an Australian, even in her senior position. She said, ‘it is not something like you can change your skin, your face’. Even during her terms as Senior Policy Officer in the Government of Western Australia. In a few board meetings, because she did not ‘have an Anglo-Saxon look’, she was questioned by the others, ‘Where are you from? You look quite exotic.’ She says she got this question all the time.
Aly has contributed over 40 publications in books, journals and conference proceedings in the area of counter terrorism, counter violent extremism, radicalization, Muslim identity and building resilient communities through collective security arrangements. She also serves on the Board of the Council for Australian Arab Relations.
Biased media coverage is not helpful for people from outside understand Muslim community. People misunderstand and assume Aly’s Muslim background would clash with her profession, no matter how many times she explains it. Furthermore, her access and link to Islam, which is advantageous for her research is sometimes used to discriminate against her.
Aly is an outspoken critic of Muslim extremism and Islamic State. As a result of saying Islam is not about terrorism or beheadings, she has been receiving a series of anti-Islamic hate emails and threatening messages. 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’.
Brad Bird, the Security Coordinator from Chevron Australian Business Unit Team, who worked directly with Aly, commented on her Linkedin, ‘Dr Aly is a leading authority on Counter Terrorism and community engagement. She is a vital asset to law enforcement.’
For Aly, her background is not the only difficulty in this field. She faces challenge of gender equality and double standard of assessment on her work. Her research is in a highly male-dominated field. When Aly started her research, she was the only woman speaking at the conferences.
From her own experience, Aly points out that in every field, after women reach a certain level in this profession, they do not get judged by the same standard as men do. The first thing women get judged is their appearance. All kinds of hypothesis are easily made on it. In comparison, no man is judged firstly by what he is wearing.
In response to it, Aly said ‘I don’t give a shit to how I dress up or how I look. This is my work, judge me on that!”
‘You have to make sure your work is perfect or more than perfect. You have to be 150 percent better than the men. ’
Aly takes multiple roles in her profession—a professor, a researcher, founding chair of NGO, People Against Violent Extremism (PaVE), and an author. Each year, she takes at least 10 overseas work trips. Right now, when she is not travelling, she organizes a counter terrorism workshop at her house with young university students. The tight working schedule does not allow Aly to take a break on weekends.
Aly is rewarded by her hard work. She received the Citizenship and Multicultural Interests individual award for her role in promoting anti-racism from the Office of Multicultural Interests. She is listed as one of the 100 Women of Influence 2013 by Financial Review.
Aly does not agree that military action will help to win the battle over counter terrorism. She thinks the key is discovering the root causes. Meanwhile, it requires more understanding between different nations, culture and religions.
She explained, ‘Violence and extremism isn’t just a national security issue. It is a human and a social issue. People become radicalized in an environment. They won’t become radicalized 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.’
In January 2013, Aly founded PaVE, a non-government organization dedicated to eliminating all forms of violent extremism in Australia regardless of religious, ideology, and political or social affiliation.
Aly is also a mother of two sons. If she could find time, she would love to take up her gardening. She regards it as a natural connection and ‘seeing plants growing is rewarding.’
Aly said, ‘I would love if I could make one little little, tiny tiny drop of difference, to bring peace to this world. That’s my ultimate goal.’