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Pushing back against extremism: insights from the Iraqi frontline

26-year-old Iraqi Dr Al-Nasiry Bellah Al-Nasiry isn’t your average doctor. Dr Al-Nasiry operates from the very heart of terror, working on the ground in ISIS-controlled towns within Iraq.

After being shot in the leg at the age of 17 during an attack outside his Baghdad home, Dr Al-Nasiry could easily have headed down the all too typical path of revenge.

Instead, Al-Nasiry chose a different path. He is desperately working to help the youth of his time shape a peaceful future for Iraq, a country crippled by violence.

In an exclusive Q&A with The Point Magazine, Dr Al-Nasiry tells his story.

"There’s a big difference in countering violent extremism in a Western country compared with countering violent extremism in a literal war zone, and so we have to be very vigilant and mindful. Throughout my life as a youth activist and the work that I do now, I have had my life put at risk a number of times."

– Dr Al-Nasiry

Can you please tells us what do you do?

I’m a senior resident doctor in Sulaimaniyah Teaching Hospital and program officer in the Pre-emptive Love Coalition, or PLC, an American non-profit organisation. I also hold many positions in various local and international bodies, including blogging team coordinator at TEDxBaghdad, and as a member of the World Learning International Advisory Panel, among others. I am also a member of the Iraqi Youth Parliament.

What kind of work do you do in countering violent extremism?

Pushing back against extremism, as I prefer to call our work, has become the sole goal of my work over the course of more than a year or so. Being the officer of programs in an American non-profit that deals mainly with people who are displaced by ISIS - whether directly or indirectly - is an office that puts me in a place where I can see - and tackle - the tactics and methods used by the Islamic State extremist hardliners who are operating in Iraq.

It gives me the opportunity to gain a perspective on what is really going on, on the ground and help draft ideas/projects of how to respond to their radical behaviour.

My work through PLC does not only encompass providing immediate refugee relief and support, including shelter and food, but also implementing programs that help push back against extremism in the longer term. For example, we have a program that actively encourages young people to go back to school after being internally displaced, either living outside their home cities or in refugee camps within Iraq.

We also undertake work in building and renovating schools that provide an alternative non-violent choice to teenagers and youth who are living in conflict zones such as Anbar and Kirkuk provinces.

Apart from my work as PLC's programs officer, I work separately with an Iraqi group of youth activists to tackle the spread of extremist groups over various media outlets, particularly social media, where we operate mostly in countering ISIS narratives on Twitter.

We also televise programs. Currently we’re developing a cartoon that counters extremism, targeting children aged between six and 15, the ages deemed "most susceptible” to be affected by violent extremism. 

At a Global Youth Summit on Countering Violent Extremism held in New York in September , you presented on something called The Burka Avenger. What is this and what does it aim to do? 

The Burka Avenger, as some of you will already know, is a cartoon series developed originally in Pakistan by a young musician named Haroon, featuring a young woman whose alter ego is a heroine teacher wearing a burka, an Islamic full-face covering.

The Burka Avenger tries to break the norms of living in a society filled by extremists, criminals and corrupt politicians. This animated TV series has been airing for more than two years now and has gathered many great reviews. It’s also beloved by children all over the globe. Inspired by the idea, we are trying to arrange a similar concept by developing a cartoon series to counter the ideology spread by Islamic State. We are also weaving in other media platforms such as social media. The aim is to offer a barrage of counter-propaganda messages pumped out on a daily basis by ISIS and offer alternative narratives to young people who may be susceptible to their false and dangerous ideas.

 What do Iraqis think of countering violent extremism?

Countering violent extremism is a term coined lately by the United States government. Generally speaking, it is a new concept to the globe, particularly to Iraqis. However, a lot of Iraqi youth are already working in a similar space of ‘pushing back against extremism’ but without naming it as CVE. The main problem and challenges that Iraqis face with countering violent extremism is the safety of people working in promoting it. It’s a very dangerous space to work in.

There’s a big difference in countering violent extremism in a Western country compared with countering violent extremism in a literal war zone, and so we have to be very vigilant and mindful. Throughout my life as a youth activist and the work that I do now, I have had my life put at risk a number of times.

I have been shot. I discovered a bomb left at the front door of my house. I survived a failed kidnapping attempt and received death threats several times from ISIS and Al-Qaeda and militias in Iraq, both before and after working directly in promoting countering violent extremism. So certainly the work we do is not for the faint-hearted and is a real big challenge, considering the fact that the violence you are opposing is unfolding right in your own backyard, right before your eyes. 

Does countering violent extremism work?

As I mentioned previously, countering violent extremism is a global term. Because it’s so vast and can cover many areas, such as social, political and socio-economic, we focus our work on educating people in conflict zones and giving support and shelter for people fleeing from ISIS areas.

For us, working in a war zone makes our work a little bit more unique. We stress the importance of supporting the physical needs of internally displaced people or people still trapped in ISIS-controlled areas.

That’s because we often find that a considerable percentage of people trying to flee such conflict zones later embrace extremist ideologies. Islamic State hardliners target such people, whether by fear and coercion, so we try to support people and help remove them from controlled areas to prevent this happening. So yes, in this respect, countering violent extremism works.

CVE works by pushing back against global terror as it solves the problem at its very roots- the extremist ideologies, because "boots on the ground" is a way to treat the symptoms of radicalism rather than the cause, but CVE aims at cutting the stem of extremism by proper education and successful experiences targeting susceptible individuals within communities.

 What is life like in Sulaimaniyah?

Sulaimaniyah is one of the safest cities in Iraq, relatively speaking,  but unfortunately the overall conditions of the country, particularly ISIS and corrupt local and national governments, do effect the everyday lives of people. Coupled with the latest stalemate in the political scene in the region of Kurdistan, it has cast its shadows on the socioeconomic condition of the city, being Kurdistan's largest city population-wise.

For the past 4 months, employees of the government, including any doctor/engineer/lawyer ... etc who are paid by the government have not received their salaries because of the economic situation within the region and the decrease of oil prices globally. This by itself creates a lot of tensions across the various communities of the city.

These issues eventually pushed thousands of people in protests that ended in clashes left several tens of people killed/wounded. So right now it’s not the best place to be and I’m in and out of this safe area and usually am in very dangerous towns, which can be very confronting. You see all sorts of things but you have to remind yourself why you’re there and that you’ve got a job to do. 

The Point

26-year-old Iraqi Dr Al-Nasiry Bellah Al-Nasiry isn’t your average doctor. Dr Al-Nasiry operates from the very heart of terror, working on the ground in ISIS-controlled towns within Iraq.

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