Meet Fatima: the SOAS graduate fighting extremism

Asian Women of Achievement Awards Fatima Zaman

Fatima Zaman, 25, has already been tipped to win a Nobel Peace Prize one day. A native Londoner, in 2005 she witnessed first hand the effects of extremism with the 7/7 bombings. Fatima was 13 at the time and the attacks played a pivotal role in her life’s trajectory. At 18, she received a scholarship to attend SOAS where she studied BA Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East. Fast forward seven years and she has graduated, completed a Master’s, worked for the MET and is now just one of ten handpicked advocates for Kofi Annan’s initiative Extremely Together, which works to counter violent extremism.

You were recently recognised at The Asian Women of Achievement Awards for your work with the Kofi Annan Foundation, helping to prevent girls from becoming radicalised.  Can you tell us a bit about what you are doing in this area?

So in April of last year, Kofi Annan and his foundation, in partnership with the European Commission, decided that violent extremism is clearly one of the singular challenges of our generation. And essentially he wanted people working in the counter-extremism field, people under 30, to be able to tackle this generational problem.

I was lucky enough to be selected as his UK CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) advocate with a mandate to advise and guide him on policy around centring violent extremism. I was one of 10 people selected from all over the world. So this is a very global initiative. One that Mr Annan has pioneered but is very much being led by myself and the other nine advocates.

What we aim to do is to build resilience to messages of violent extremism; dispel, discredit and destroy the propaganda and the narrative that is utilised by extremist organisations. And, more importantly, and this sets up apart from other CVE organisations, we try to offer a more positive alternative. We do this through outreach, through peer to peer network of empowering, engaging and inspiring youth. For me to be able to do that under the guidance of Mr Annan is a huge honour and a great responsibility – one that I take very, very seriously.

How did you connect with the KA Foundation?

I was already affiliated with the US Embassy which is how I became aware of the opportunity. I had been working in the field both nationally and locally prior to that and so I had built my career base in that area of counter-extremism. And this goes right back to my studies at SOAS and my subsequent postgraduate studies.

What resources are made available to you?

We recently launched the first ever CVE guide. It’s a practical toolkit that provides anyone who wants to break into the CVE space with a guide and a useable resource to make a positive impact in this area. We adopt a holistic approach, so we don’t differentiate between different types of violent extremism.

Since the launch we have seen a huge, positive impact from the people we have reached, not just through our social and mainstream media campaigns, but also through a series of workshops we have held.

Where can people download the guide?

Just head to

“I think we need to take a more holistic approach to coverage around terrorism.”

What are the main strategies we should be pursuing to combat extremism?

It’s very difficult to whittle it down to just a few things. If I had to choose, say, three things, particularly around the UK context in light of the recent attacks, I would say we need to understand the drivers of radicalisation, particularly around young people.

SOAS is a great place to do that. It’s a hub of diversity and cultural richness and so working and empowering young people through mainstream informal and formal education is a key way to prevent violent extremism.

Secondly, and I think a lot of people have missed this, is the gendered aspect. Understanding why women are radicalised – that is very important to me. I work with young women and I have to understand what the drivers of their radicalisation is in order to unpick and undo that process. So it’s very important we begin to recognise this on the national scale.

Finally I think we need to take a more holistic approach to coverage around terrorism. The headlines are invariably ‘Terrorist bombs XXX’ but it’s about seeing the positives too – the first responders. PC Keith Palmer who put his life on the line in order to stop Khalid Masood – that should be the headline. He was a hero. And that’s the positive alternative to a horrific event, which we could be focussing on.

So you received what I guess you could say was the signature prize of the evening – the Chairman’s Award – what was that like?

Well I was nominated for the Young Achiever Award, which was won by the esteemed Anoushka Babbar who does incredible work. Naturally I was a little disappointed but also just delighted to have been nominated and also very happy for my colleague.

And then came the last award of the evening, which typically goes to someone who’s very well-established. So I kind of made AWA history that night because never before has a Chairman’s Award gone to anyone from the Young Achiever’s category, so it was a real double-whammy for me and the people I work for and represent. Elation!

You must have had to ad-lib a bit of your speech?

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t have anything prepared. I just wanted to go and enjoy the evening and be in good company and so when I did win I was a bit ‘oh no!’ I have to come up with something. But, you know, I spoke from the heart and I hope it resonated with everyone in the room.

Is it true you mentioned SOAS in your acceptance speech?

I did, I can’t not mention SOAS, right? SOAS is home and it will always be the place where I was able to explore the concept of identity. I arrived here when I was 18, wanting something very heterodox, very vibrant and very rich – and it didn’t disappoint. And I received a scholarship to study here, so I’m just incredibly grateful for everything SOAS has done for me in terms of my education and development of my character. So it was only fitting that I attribute some of my success to SOAS.

“The whole idea of being Muslim – the binary that extremists use that you can’t be Muslim and be British, or be Muslim and democratic – that class really discredited that notion.”

You’re a civil servant – which area of government do you work in?

I’m about to move roles but previously I was in the Department of Education. I worked for a Junior Minister managing his portfolio around counter extremism. It was a great experience to consider these things at a national level and be at the heart of policy-making.

You studied Politics at SOAS – were there any specific lecturers or modules that you remember that were formative in terms of helping you to choose the path you have gone down?

Professor Charles Tripp. His ‘Politics of Resistance the Middle East’ class I took in my second year was fantastic. I sat in the front row and it really opened my mind to issues that seemed quite foreign but are actually very pertinent. Matt Nelson’s ‘Islam and Democracy’ class blew my mind. Difficult and challenging. The whole idea of being Muslim – the binary that extremists use that you can’t be Muslim and be British, or be Muslim and democratic – that class really discredited that notion.

I did straight politics but took the opportunity to dabble in certain areas – Development Studies, for example. I knew I wanted to specialise in three regions: Middle East, Africa and South Asia. And I recall a friend of mine who I met in my first few weeks at SOAS, he was a second year, and he told me: ‘You don’t know realise how powerful it is to be a SOAS graduate, because you are a commodity; the education you get, the skills you get, is not rivalled anywhere else in the world’. And I figured he was being over the top, right, but after I graduated that stayed with me and I now know what he meant by that. A SOAS education is something highly valued by employers and is well-respected – I’m so glad I chose at 18 to come here.

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