A Muslim Woman's Fight Against Radical Islam

by ABIGAIL R. ESMAN February 27, 2017

If one were to find a single question that defines the geo-politics of our age, it might well be the question Farhana Qazi has been asking herself for almost 20 years: why do so many Muslims kill in the name of their religion?

If she has not found all the answers, Qazi has done much to facilitate our understanding of the issues, primarily as they relate to Muslim women and the rise in women extremists. A Muslim herself, she has worked largely behind the scenes: at the Counter-Terrorism Center in Washington, D.C.; at the Rand Corporation think tank; as an instructor on terrorism for the U.S. military; and as an author. Her work has taken her back to her native Pakistan, where she has immersed herself in the lives of Muslim extremist women, met with the mothers of suicide bombers, come to know women who have endured imprisonment, and shared stories with women who, in her words, "have tried to break the barriers of patriarchy and patrilineal traditions."

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Qazi came to America with her mother at the age of 1, joining her father who was already working in Tennessee. Soon after, the family moved to Austin, Texas, which Qazi considers her hometown. Her work since then, both in the service of her country and as a beacon for moderate Muslims seeking to reconcile their beliefs with the violent extremism facing the world, has received lavish praise and numerous awards. She is now working on a book that examines why Muslims turn violent, and the ways in which recent political events contribute to violent extremism.

She told us her story in a recent interview, and shared her crucial insights on radical Islam, women terrorists, and where we stand now in the face of the radical Islamist threat.

Abigail R. Esman: Why did your family move to the U.S., and how old were you at the time?

Farhana Qazi: My father came to the U.S. because it was his dream since he was a child. He admired Western values and later, he worked with American clients when he was a young accountant in Lahore, Pakistan. He came to the U.S. (to the rolling hills of Tennessee to pursue an MBA), and thanks to Al Gore, my father was allowed to stay in this country to work after his student visa expired. Gore wrote a letter on my father's behalf. I was a year old when I moved here with my mother. I barely remember my birth city, Lahore - the cultural nerve of Pakistan. I lived in a small town in Tenn. before moving to the capital city of Austin, Texas, my childhood home.

ARE: How important was religion to you growing up?

FQ: My parents were born Muslim but their practice was liberal, almost secular. My father is an intellectual and philosopher who admires all religions; he values the Ten Commandments that came from Moses. He idolizes the principles of Buddhism and he believes in the Christian concept of charity. My father has raised me to be a "humanist" rather than a Muslim. I embraced Sunni Islam later in life

ARE: Many women in Pakistan face oppression, forced marriage, and family violence. How do you explain the freedom you have had in your life?

FQ: I am blessed to be an American Muslim woman. My father often tells me he came to the U.S. for me; because I am a girl from a middle-class family in Pakistan who would not have had the same opportunities in life had I lived in a country with patriarchal norms, age-old customs, and traditions, most of which deny girls and women their basic rights in Islam. Culture trumps religion in Pakistan. But it's not true in America, where I can practice faith openly or privately. Because I am free in America, I chose a male-dominated field - in the 1990s, counter-terrorism work was dominated and dictated by men mostly. Often, I was the only female speaker at international conferences and addressed why Muslims kill in the name of my religion. Now, there are more women in the CT field, but at the time, I was not only female, American, but also Muslim - the combination of the three made me stand alone, which is a blessing in disguise. I welcome the opportunity (and attention) for speaking on a subject that I understood. And that's how my father raised me: to be a bridge between the East and the West. To learn from both worlds, both cultures and to close the gap of misunderstanding.

ARE: Was having that freedom part of what has guided you in your work?

FQ: Yes, my unique cultural and linguistic background made me marketable for the intelligence community. There were no female Muslims in the Counter-Terrorism Center. I believe I was hired to help the Center understand the extremists' narrative, rhetoric, and recruitment patterns. Later, upon leaving the Center, I joined the RAND Corp as a policy analyst-researcher and traveled to the Muslim world to engage local communities. Because I understand both cultures, I have been able to speak to women who might have not been accessible to other American men or women. When I trained the U.S. forces as a senior instructor, I received the highest honor - the 21st Century Leader Award from The National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) in 2012 for my service as an American Muslim woman - when I was presented with the award, I was told that because I knew how to serve the U.S. government as a woman and Muslim is the reason why I was chosen for the award.

ARE: You in fact began working in the area of counterterrorism and issues surrounding the lives of Muslim women very early in your career. What motivated this?

FQ: My mother is a war hero to me. She joined the Pakistani Army when she was barely 20 years old to fight for Kashmir. In the 1960s, Pakistan was at war with India for the second time to fight for the valley of Kashmir. My mama, barely five feet tall and a petite frame, volunteered for the Army and trained at Qaddafi stadium in Lahore, holding a British .303 rifle which was taller than she was. She often told me, "I wanted to prove to my country that women can fight, too." She was raised in a country at a time when women and girls had few career choices and were often bound by familial responsibilities. But not my mother, who dreamed of being a politician had she not married my father and then settled in the U.S.

ARE: Mostly, you've focused your work on women.

FQ: I'd say my work focuses on understanding radical Islam and the divisions in the Muslim world today - a broken mass of billions blinded by age-old customs, traditions, and patriarchal norms steeped in ancient cultures. I'm trying to understand the way that Islam has been destroyed by splinter groups, religious fanatics, and hardline conservatives, issuing fatwas that oppose women's rights. I've come to learn has that while terrorists claim to empower women, the reality is that women are cannon fodder or a 'riding wave of terrorists' success.' In the end, women don't matter, which begs the question: why do they join?

ARE: Then for many years you worked at Rand. What did you do there?

FQ: Research on Al Qaeda networks and the female suicide trend that began to capture headlines in the conflict in Iraq. I was the first to predict that there would be a series of bombings by women - I wrote my first op-ed on the subject in The Baltimore Sun, predicting more attacks. Women were an anomaly so no one paid attention, until females strapped on the bomb. And then a Newsweek piece caught the attention of multi-national forces in Iraq and the U.S. embassy. Suddenly, we began to pay attention to a trend that would continue to this day, though I have been saying this for the past 17 years: women are deadly, too.

ARE: And the Counter-Terrorism Center.

FQ: I was the first American Muslim girl to be hired. I was 25 years old.

ARE: How serious is the problem of Muslim women extremists right now? Is it a threat that is growing?

FQ: This is an ongoing threat that is shielded by men. We don't hear of attacks by women because it is unreported. For example, I know from my U.S. military contacts that there were a number of Afghan women strapping on the bomb and I am writing about this in a chapter for my next book on female terrorists, but that phenomenon was not reported. Because we don't hear of it in the news doesn't mean it's not happening. The real concern is women who support extremist men - women have done this since the Afghan jihad. Women write in jihadi magazines. Women raise their children to be terrorists. And women stand by their radical men. This is nothing new.

ARE: Are Muslim women in the West generally more or less likely to radicalize than their counterparts in the Islamic world?

FQ: Western women have different challenges; the main concern for a Muslim girl or woman in the West has to do with identity. Often, girls who join ISIS are trapped between two opposing cultures and societies - the life at home and their life outside the home (at school, for example).

One of my chapters in my new book is called "The Denver Girls" - I remember visiting with the community that was affected by the three East African girls who boarded a plane to join ISIS but were brought back home (the father of one of the girls reported his daughter missing). A Sudanese woman I interviewed told me that ISIS empowers our girls, and I can see why. Because many Muslim girls living in the West are still bound by cultural (read controlled) rules and have little freedom outside of their home environment; they aren't allowed to 'hang out' with Western friends and these girls certainly don't have the same opportunities as their brothers or male cousins. In these cases, girls look for alternatives, which terrorism provides.

Further, I believe the teachings of Islam (which I live by: peace, compassion and mercy) are not preached or taught at home. When Muslims have spiritual pride and believe that God's love is only for the select few, then this teaching restricts children in many ways: they are unable to cope in a Western society and compelled to stay within their own communities, which makes girls more vulnerable to extremist recruitment and makes them feel they do not belong.

ARE: What are some of the major reasons you've found that explain the phenomenon of female Muslim terrorists?

FQ: No two Muslim female terrorists are alike. And while the motives will vary, I do believe that patterns don't lie. Contextual clues are important indicators for violence, and by context, this would include a girl's home (private) and public life; her exposure to violence or trauma or abuse; her access to violent messaging online and the time she spends reading and engaging with violent individuals in the digital space; a personal tragedy (did she lose someone to violence?); and much more. I've learned that there is no "aha" moment or trigger point but a sequence of triggers and "aha" moments that lead to the path of violence.

ARE: Based on your expertise, what do you think of Trump's "Muslim ban" or travel ban?

FQ: The travel ban may have the adverse effect. I believe in protecting our country from external threats. What worries me is that the threat is already here. If we look back at attacks or attempted attacks over the past decade, radical Muslims have been living in our midst. [Orlando shooter] Omar Mateen, [San Bernardino killers] Syed and Tashfeen Farook, [Chattanooga shooter] Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, [Fort Hood shooter] Nidal M. Hassan, and more. Many of these terrorists were not from the countries listed in the travel ban. What we need is greater civic involvement and community policing.

ARE: Have you experienced threats of any kind in relation to your work?

FQ: I have been warned to change careers and not talk about Muslim terrorists. But to do that would be to ignore the realities of our time. As a devout Muslim woman, who still believes in Islam's core message of peace, I have to acknowledge that there are Muslims who kill in the name of Islam, manipulating the faith for political or personal reasons. And these individuals, male or female, need to be stopped and countered by Muslims, too.

ARE: In the now-infamous words of Mitch McConnell, "she persisted." Why do you persist?

FQ: My father taught me the word "persistence' when I was a young girl in Texas. He often said, "every challenge is an opportunity," which made the word "persist' a positive term in my mind. To persist is to succeed and to succeed is to make a difference. I live by the maxim: lead a life of service - and the only way to do that is to persist.

Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.


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