SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- Happy Independence Day to fellow Filipinos, from cold Sydney! I am here, escaping hot and humid Manila, to speak at Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent Extremism: Challenging Terrorist Propaganda. (And, may I add, escaping the depressing deliberations on the BBL at the House of Representatives and the Senate.)


Listening to the speeches of Prime Minister Tony Abott, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and Attorney-General George Brandis, I felt the urgency and fears driving the Australian government to support a regional CVE strategy.

Last month, here in Australia, 5 teens were accused of planning a terrorist attack on Anzac Day. Fear gripped Australia. This followed the attack last year, right here in Sydney. PM Abbott has said, ”The best thing you can do in the face of those who would do us harm is to live your life normally”.

How do we live normally, when violent extremism has taken root?

What makes a young man or woman vulnerable to joining a violent extremist group? What made 2 Singaporean men decide to take their families to join ISIS in Syria? Is it poverty, lack of opportunities, and support? Once they’re recruited, can we neutralize the lure of violent extremist groups?

Last April, Singapore and the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies (RSIS) hosted an international conference on deradicalization and reintegration of apprehended terrorists. The discussions were so valuable that I invited Ambassador Ong Keng Yong and the RSIS to come to Manila and share with our leaders the analysis of the dangers and share with us the best practices. They came last month and some 200 of our leaders listened, awakened to the reality of the threat. Alarmed, our leaders (I hope) will finally work on a systemic strategy that involves stakeholders, as our East Asian neighbors are doing.

A conference organized by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) early this year looked at the push and pull factors that influence paths to terrorist violence. The USIP policy paper notes that while State and security actors are better positioned to manage the risks associated with directly challenging, pursuing and apprehending violent extremists and counter their recruitment efforts, the community engagement efforts “have the most impact when focused on prevention: equipping those who are vulnerable to recruitment with the skills and knowledge and opportunities needed to be resilient. Clearly, a community-led CVE program is logical to create a stronger sense of social cohesion and, quite crucial, to promote a deeper understanding and awareness of the dynamics of radicalization.

Personally, I am encouraged by the successes of Singapore in deradicalization and social reintegration, linking government and community, civil society and religious leaders. In conflict-affected Philippines, our government is just starting to formulate a systemic and integrated approach to CVE, apart from counter-insurgency. Philippine civil society has actually done more.

For instance, we at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID) have always felt that the Muslim religious leaders (MRLs) are the most influential at our community level. Based on this gut-feel, we tried to help organize the Muslim religious into a national network for peace, democracy and development. From 2002, we networked with our MRLs and helped them organize the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (NUCP), which was registered in 2008. (A survey we did in 2013 proved this -- almost 90% of our communities in Muslim Mindanao chose the MRL as the most influential. The second most influential was the barangay captain.)


We also reached out to the women religious teachers and leaders (known as ustadzas) who teach in the madrasah (Islamic school). By 2010, we had organized the Noorus Salam (NS) or “Light of Peace.” We have networked the NS ustadzas with groups that could provide capacity-building on democracy, peace and development (such as the Commission on Human Rights, Women and Gender Institute, among many).

Together with the MRLs, we have developed an Islamic peace education model. We have been implementing a pilot project known as AMAL (Actions for Madrasah-based Advocacies and Learnings). AMAL is an Arabic word that can mean action or hope or change.


I shared all of these, during our panel session on the role of women and families in countering terrorist propaganda. AT CVE conferences, the roles played by communities and religious leaders are always discussed -- but not too much about the role played by women and their families. I was therefore very encouraged that Australia had incorporated the role of women into the conference and quite excited that Foreign Minister Bishop delivered the key speech for our panel. After all, Islam brought equality to women -- forbidding the killing of girl babies, forbidding concubinage and limiting the number of wives to 4, recognizing women’s rights of inheritance, among others. Further, Muslims are taught that paradise lies at our mother’s feet. Since the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, women -- particularly mothers -- are key to unlocking the doors to our communities.


Our panel focused on the cultural role of women and families in countering violent extremism, including terrorist narratives. We discussed the importance of the role of women in the global movements for peace, dialogue, CVE, among others. Daisy Khan of New York, executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, share one flagship program dedicated to making on-the-ground social change: the Global Muslim Women’s Shura Council. The Council is committed to promoting an ethical and egalitarian Islam. Yenny Zannuba Wahid, advisor of President Jokowi (and daughter of the late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid), shared the work of the Wahid Institute in the retelling of Islam to counter the misinformation spread by extremist groups. Yenny’s programs -- where women engage their children and the youth of their communities in discussions to reclaim the truth about Islam -- will resonate in our own communities, as we search for strategies to make them resistant to the lure of extremism.


A community that promotes tolerance, inclusivity, equality, and peaceful resolution of conflict is less vulnerable to violent extremism. Community engagement in CVE requires the participation of women to be successful. Women’s participation in community matters, in any way, strengthens its cohesion. In particular, women who teach in the madrasah can help build the sense of belonging and self-esteem that youth and children need to resist the lure of extremists.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke of the key roles played by women in our region, citing Peace Adviser Teresita Quintos-Deles in moving the peace process forward. She stressed the commitment of her government to supporting the participation of women. Makes absolute sense. If the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, shouldn’t governments engage the mind that animates that hand?

Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy. Surveil is her column in BusinessWorld.