Extremism and its terrorist consequences have radically altered the world's security framework. Two University students are addressing the root causes of extremism; one technology based, one through greater understanding.
Terrorism has changed national security priorities, divided communities and shifted our sense of personal security. With every violent atrocity comes new and sometimes uninformed calls for greater action.
Within the University of Sydney’s Department of Government and International Relations, Hussain Nadim and Daniel Tasso (BIGS 2014) are working in different ways to develop real and lasting measures to prevent vulnerable Muslims from becoming radicalised by extremists.
Hussain Nadim’s worldview has been shaped by some profound and devastating personal experiences.
In May 2010, terror attacks on two mosques in Lahore killed almost 100 people.
“We lost a lot of family members in that attack,” says the 28-year-old doctoral candidate. “Even beyond that, on a daily basis we would see attacks on schools and in our cities. We would see people we knew - sometimes very close, sometimes distant - who were being killed in waves. That was very disturbing for us.”
Nadim shaped his personal grief into determination to act. “Coming from Pakistan gives you a serious reality check,” he says. “This life, this world, is a little bit beyond yourself. There comes an inner commitment to serve the people, to serve the country, and really, it’s in that desperation that you want to change the situation.”
Positively using energy to deliver solutions to problems; to fight against extremism; to fight hate and bigotry. I think I am radical in that sense.
Nadim came to the University of Sydney to undertake doctoral research on security and development. Before this, he was a special adviser to the Pakistani government and, at 25, was founding director of the Peace and Development unit of Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms.
He is also a graduate of George Washington University in Washington, DC, and Cambridge University in the UK.
He has been a research fellow at Oxford University and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, also in Washington.
More recently, Nadim has been a cool-headed contributor to Australia’s national debate on violent extremism and terrorism. “The worst thing the government can do is respond with a knee-jerk reaction,” he says.
He urges the government to respond in proportion and to avoid the mistakes made overseas. “Don’t inflate the threat,” he says. “If you keep on creating this threat which isn’t there, you might actually see more people turning towards radicalisation.”
Nadim believes integration is the key to any long-term strategy to safeguard against harmful radicalisation. He says Australia has done well in terms of integration policies but it must do more to avoid having to confront the same issues that some European countries are experiencing now.
Nadim is cautious when asked if he considers himself radical. It’s controversial for a young Muslim to say so, given the overtones of the label. But Nadim stresses that radicalisation is distinct from violent extremism and can be a force for good.
“I think I am a radical person, but in terms of what? Positively using energy to deliver solutions to the problems; to fight against extremism; to fight hate and bigotry and have more understanding between cultures. I think I am radical in that sense,” he says.
Nadim’s ongoing advocacy earned him a place on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. The influential American business publication describes it as “600 of the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents”.
While Hussain Nadim has been shaped by his Muslim faith and culture, Daniel Tasso (BIGS ’15) has no cultural or family connection to Islam. But his strong interest in international affairs led him to complete honours research into Islamist radicalisation in the West.
The International and Global Studies graduate is now one of three young Australians developing a prototype smartphone app called iUmmah, which will provide faith-based information and social networking for Sydney’s Muslim communities.
“We live in an age where we can get in contact with thousands of people at the click of a button and I think that’s a really important way to build cohesion and a strong sense of community,” says Tasso.
Tasso hopes that building trust and social resilience through apps such as iUmmah can provide an alternative narrative to that of violent extremists.
The project was born when Tasso went to an event hosted by People Against Violent Extremism (PaVE) in Melbourne. It was called MyHack and the people attending were asked to think about innovative solutions to violent extremism. Tasso was partnered with Fahad Akhand and Tyra Kruger, and together they developed the iUmmah idea.
The trio, who are all in their 20s, used the opportunities provided by MyHack to meet and speak to deradicalised Australians about their drift toward extremist ideas. While Tasso points out such pathways are complex and varied, one common thread that emerged was the distinct lack of, and longing for, a firm identity.
“Identity issues play a massive role” he says. “Humans are very social beings and we need to belong and have a strong identity.” His research revealed that second and third generation immigrants who are drawn to radical views often cite a sense of non-belonging as a reason.
iUmmah’s name is a nod to the Arabic word for community. As the winning concept at MyHack, the app received $10,000 from PaVE and the Australian Government.
Once consultation with Muslim communities in Sydney is complete later in 2016, the developers hope the app will be available for download on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems.
Tasso describes the app as “a roadmap to one’s Australian Muslim identity”. It will have a GPS function that shows local mosques, a calendar to flag or notify users about upcoming Islamic festivals, exhibitions and workshops, a chat feature, and information about the history of the faith in Sydney.
For Tasso, iUmmah is inspired by his belief that a strong Muslim community is one of the best strategies to combat fringes of violent extremism.
“The Islamic tradition in Australia has really come into focus in the post-9/11 years because of what has happened overseas - but that tradition didn’t start in 2001,” he says. “We really want to emphasise that and to say ‘let’s not get too caught up in those black-and-white narratives that extremist organisations are putting out there’.
“We’re bigger than that, we can deal with that, and let’s do it together.”
Written by Luke O’Neill
Photography by Victoria Baldwin (BA ’14)