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Australian Muslim MP Anne Aly plans to bridge religious divide

Incoming Labor MP Dr Aly is known in Australia and internationally as an expert on deradicalisation. The Edith Cowan University professor was the only Australian civil-society representative who was invited to speak at United States President Barack
Incoming Labor MP Dr Aly is known in Australia and internationally as an expert on deradicalisation. The Edith Cowan University professor was the only Australian civil-society representative who was invited to speak at United States President Barack Obama's summit on combating violent extremism last year.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANNE ALY

Egypt-born Australian wants to improve ties between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country

Appearing on a TV panel show last year, Dr Anne Aly, an expert on combating Muslim extremism, said part of a politician's job was learning how to "lie".

But the Australian academic, who was born in Egypt, will soon be trying to prove herself wrong.

Dr Aly, 49, will be sworn in this week in Parliament House in Canberra after winning a seat in Perth to become the country's first federal Muslim woman MP.

Asked about her earlier comments after her victory at the general election on July 2, she said: "I'm hoping that I'm not going to be one of those politicians."

"If you had said to me back then, that I was going to have a career in politics, I would have said 'no way, not touching it with a 10-foot pole'," she told ABC Radio.

"But it did get to a situation in the work that I do where it got to the point where I just thought, 'I need to make change from the inside, something needs to change.'"

Dr Aly, a Labor candidate, narrowly won a marginal seat that was held by the ruling Liberal party. The victory came despite a nasty smear campaign by the Liberals.

DUAL IDENTITIES POSSIBLE

You need to show that being Australian doesn't mean you can't be Muslim - there is strong freedom of religion and freedom of belief in Australia - and that being Muslim doesn't mean you can't be Australian.

DR ANNE ALY, who will be sworn in this week in Parliament to become the country's first federal Muslim woman MP.

Asked about the media's focus on her Muslim identity during the campaign, she told ABC's Radio National: "That's part of who I am."

"I am also so much more than that. I'm a mother, I'm a sister, I'm a daughter, I'm a wife. I'm a coffee drinker, I'm an average cook, I'm an avid gardener," she added.

Dr Aly's gardening skills are yet to receive national acclaim.

She is, however, known in Australia and internationally as an expert on deradicalisation.

A professor at Edith Cowan University, Dr Aly was the only Australian civil-society representative who was invited to speak at United States President Barack Obama's summit on combating violent extremism last year.

 She has also worked with victims of terrorism attacks, including Ms Louisa Hope, a survivor of the deadly siege at a cafe in Sydney in December 2014.

Ms Hope later backed Dr Aly's shift to politics, saying she believed Dr Aly "will make Australia safer".

The shift to Canberra marks yet another achievement in the academic's somewhat tumultuous life. The mother of two sons who are now in their 20s, Dr Aly moved to Australia as a two-year-old and grew up in Queensland and suburban western Sydney.

Her mother was a nurse and her father was an engineer and they both worked in factories after migrating, before her father started work as a bus driver.

A self-described secular Muslim, she attended a private Anglican girls' school and has talked about experiencing racism as a child because other children thought she was an Aborigine due to her dark skin. "That made me realise that Aboriginal people have it 10 times worse than Muslims," she said.

Dr Aly said she became interested in counter-radicalisation partly because of her own experience as a single mother bringing up two boys.

Her first husband is an Egyptian, whom she met while she was completing her first degree at the American University in Cairo. They moved to Perth and got divorced when the boys were aged three and one.

As a mother struggling to make ends meet, Dr Aly became concerned that the boys could fall prey to radical groups. "We struggled… in their early years," she said.

"That is, in particular, the kind of people that these radical and extremist groups prey on. It is very personal for me," she added.

Dr Aly was briefly married for a second time before she got married to her current husband, Mr David Allen, a former police officer.

She has tended to make enemies among both right-wing extremists - who claim she is "soft" on security - and among Muslim hardliners - who oppose her calls for Muslims to be "introspective" about why some in the community are attracted to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and violent extremism.

"There is a desire to start asking questions about 'why us'," she told The Australian last year. "What is it about us that has made us so vulnerable to this? What is it about our societies and what is it about our religious structures or religious organisations that has made us vulnerable?"

Dr Aly was the founder of People against Violent Extremism, a non-government organisation that runs programmes to combat violent extremism.

She spoke to The Straits Times early last year about the group, and discussed her efforts to involve former leaders of radical groups to work with young vulnerable people.

She said she encouraged young Muslim Australians to understand that their Muslim and Australian identities could co-exist. "You need to show that being Australian doesn't mean you can't be Muslim - there is strong freedom of religion and freedom of belief in Australia - and that being Muslim doesn't mean you can't be Australian," she said.

"We form our identity as both Muslim and Australian and find a space where we can be both."

As an incoming MP, she has signalled that she has plans to work on multiculturalism policy and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. However, she has said she does not want to be a single-issue politician. She is likely to also focus on welfare, health and economic policy.

Describing her trip to the White House, she said earlier this year: "People were like, 'Wow you must be so excited to meet Obama' and I was like, meh. To me it's more the stories of everyday people that are more inspiring, like the single parents who managed to raise their kids."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'Muslim MP plans to bridge religious divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe