A prominent human rights activist from Pakistan has criticised the UK Government’s counter terrorism strategy during a visit to Scotland.

Gulalai Ismail runs an internationally renowned organisation called Aware Girls who worked with Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban for promoting women’s education.

Last year Ismail helped the Sunday Mail expose madrasas linked to extremism during the newspaper’s investigation into Islamist terrorism in northwest Pakistan.

The 29 year old was in Scotland to give talks in Findhorn and Edinburgh on challenging Islamist militancy and violence against women.

Ismail was 16 years old when she founded Aware Girls in 2002 with her younger sister, Saba.

Their initial aim was to advance women’s rights in the city of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where many women suffer appalling discrimination.

The Ismail sisters began campaigning against domestic violence, acid attacks, honour killings and exploitation of women in the workplace.

Aware Girls has since expanded and has a network of hundreds of peace activists who try to stop people being radicalised for jihad and suicide bombings.

Speaking in Edinburgh, Ismail condemned the UK Government’s controversial PREVENT strategy which aims to stop young people being radicalised.

Critics of PREVENT say the policy alienates Muslims and could turn people towards extremism rather than away from religiously motivated violence.

Ismail said: “The world has suddenly awakened to the problem of violent extremism but this is a problem we’ve been dealing with in Pakistan for many years. We have a lot to contribute and the world can learn from us.

“Any policy that creates more stigmatisation and alienation will do more harm. Extremist organisations create an identity crisis for young people. In Pakistan, they cut people from their indigenous identities and create a new identity – they link them with the larger Islamic identity.

“They cut them from their local identity. So, a person in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be told they don’t belong there, that they belong to Saudi Arabia – creating a fake identity crisis.

“They make them feel alienated in the culture where they live so the British Government should have policies that make people feel integrated. They should make young people feel part of UK culture.”

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In 2013 Ismail was named as one of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers of the year and she won the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia, among other major awards.

Her visit to Scotland was in conjunction with an organisation called Peace Direct who try to resolve conflicts around the world.

Ismail believes the best way to combat terrorism is through education and Aware Girls’ network of more than 300 peace activists –  called Youth Peace Network – are trained in peace-building in Peshawar.

On return to the villages and towns where they live the activists try to stop their peers being radicalised and joining extremist groups.

Ismail said: “We have been working on preventing young people from joining militant organisations. We have been working on promoting alternative narratives for non-violence through our Youth Peace Network.”

Working with the Sunday Mail in January 2015 Ismail helped journalists gain entry to two so-called ‘militant madrassas’ in Swabi district, a Taliban stronghold in the northwest of Pakistan.

One of the madrasas – Panjpir – was where the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, aka Radio Mullah, studied in Swabi district.

The other madrasa – Jamia Qasmia – was in a village called Dhodhdr which is also in Swabi.

The religious school had links to the controversial Islamic movement Tablighi Jamaat and Jamiat Ulama-Islam, a political party that wants a pure Islamic state in Pakistan.

Ismail said Aware Girls has since visited 21 madrasas in Swabi to engage with young people and teachers who hold extremist views including Jamia Qasmia.

She said: “We spoke to teachers and students. It has been difficult as they don’t trust NGOs but we have been allowed to talk to some students about their views on jihad. We have done this with 21 madrassas including 10 all female schools.

“In these madrassas they create this mindset within boys and girls that they have to go for jihad. They do this so that when militant groups conduct wars in the name of jihad they receive the support of the madrassas.

“We try to give an alternative perspective of non-violence and pluralism. We talk about peace and how we see peace. These are young children and we should not see them as enemies.

“It will take time but we will have more dialogue with them. It’s been a huge success that these madrassas and children have opened up to us. Even if it is dangerous, we should talk.”

Ismail added that after speaking to the boys in Jamia Qasmia they wanted to hear more.

She said: “These children have developed an extremist mindset because the only information they get is about extremism, so it’s not their fault. And when they get to hear different narratives about a different world, they want to explore that world and be part of a nicer world. They want a happier life.”

However, in response to Ismail’s criticism of PREVENT, Security Minister Ben Wallace defended the UK Government’s policy.

He said: “We have seen all too tragically the devastating impact radicalisation can have on individuals, families and our communities and protecting those who are vulnerable and at risk is a job for all of us.

“Prevent is making a positive difference contrary to those who seek to undermine it. It is not about division but helping individuals feel they belong. We are working in partnership with local communities and grass roots organisations to challenge poisonous extremist narratives and safeguard our young people and our society.

“We now have more than 550,000 frontline public sector workers trained since 2011 to recognise the signs of radicalisation so that they know what steps to take.

“This has led to more than 1,000 people being supported through Channel, the voluntary, confidential programme for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.”

Photography by Angie Catlin.

This story was published by the Sunday Mail on 18th September 2016.

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