Karima Bennoune grew up in Algeria in the 1990s, a dark period when the country was riven by Muslim fundamentalist violence and a repressive military dictatorship that responded to the fundamentalist threat with its own campaign of terror.
Her father, Mahfoud Bennoune, an intellectual and outspoken critic of both the authorities and the fundamentalists who sought to topple them, was often threatened, regularly appearing on “kill lists” posted in Algiers mosques.
Extremists were murdering intellectuals, and Karima at one point stood at her front door, clutching a paring knife she had grabbed to defend her father as a band of armed fundamentalists threatened to break in and take him away.
Mahfoud Bennoune, a Muslim, was spared that time but ultimately had to flee the family home and give up his university teaching post. Karima went on to become a professor at the University of California at Davis School of Law, where she began a personal search for better weapons against fundamentalism.
What she found — in interviews with 286 people of Muslim heritage from 26 countries ranging from Egypt to Pakistan to Senegal to Minnesota in the United States — has been gathered in her new book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.”
The book is meant as both a warning about the abuses of religious extremism and a helpful guide for groups and individuals hoping to fend off extremist abuses. Above all, it’s a big wet kiss to the courageous people she found around the world who put their lives on the line to fight Islamism and defend human rights, especially women’s rights.
The people she writes about, she says, are the true heroes. “They sing and dance and write and joke and bare their heads and speak their minds and claim equality and the right to be themselves when all these things are forbidden by fundamentalists, sometimes on pain of death.”
Bennoune takes us with her to the frontiers of the fundamentalist fight in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Senegal, Mali, Gaza, Russia, Egypt, Tunisia and even Minneapolis, where young Somali immigrants struggle with the Shabaab movement’s attempts to reach out to them in the US. Among the heroes we meet are the women of the Baobab organization for Women’s Human Rights who offer legal help to women in Niger trapped in the country’s confusing justice system; and Muqtada Mansoor, a Pakistani economics professor threatened with death after criticizing his country’s blasphemy law in a newspaper column.
You will also read about Doass Kassem, a 26-year-old Egyptian who takes the cause of young women’s rights into Cairo’s streets, despite her family’s fears for her safety. You will meet Zuhur Ahmed, a young Somali woman who uses a Minneapolis radio show to help Somali immigrants resist the appeals of Al Shabaab militants to return home and fight.
Bennoune took up her challenging — and dangerous — work even while acknowledging that writing about Muslim fundamentalism for an American audience these days is like “dancing on a minefield.” She did so, she insists, because of the international silence that greets most abuses and because of the urgent need to be principled.
At the same time, she warns readers that the book is not meant to justify discrimination against Muslims or unlawful violence against anyone. Nor should the book be viewed as offering comfort to anti-Muslim zealots. And nothing in the book should be perceived as offering support to the tactics or policies of the Israeli government against Palestinians or of former American President George W. Bush against terrorism.
“Criticizing Muslim fundamentalists is mistakenly equated with support for the actions of Western governments that claim to be their opponents. This is just wrong, and it entirely overlooks the fact that not everything is about the West,” she writes.
In the book, she defines Muslim fundamentalism as an Islam that transforms religion into a totalitarian political platform. Its danger is great because it is found in many countries and is “notable for the ubiquity of its adherents and the sophistication and reach of its vicious armed groups,” she writes. Its greatest tragedy, she adds, is that most of its victims are Muslim or of Muslim heritage.
“Acting in total violation of both international and Islamic humanitarian law, Muslim fundamentalist armed groups have made it seem as though suicide bombing is associated with Islam,” she writes. “They have blown up cafes in Morocco, churches in Cairo, the offices of the Red Crescent in Baghdad. They have used chemicals to attack girls’ schools in Afghanistan. The struggle to stop this antihuman violence is one of the world’s major human rights challenges.”
And the worst abuses are against women, she laments. Depending on the location, fundamentalist goals can include universal female genital cutting; the wearing at all times in public of head scarves, veils, burqas or other restrictive garments; and prohibitions on driving, riding a bike, swimming, playing sports, smoking, drinking alcohol, expressing a political opinion, dating (and even being in the company of men), having unmarried sex, going out in public alone and pursuing an education or practicing a profession.
Women’s rights must be made the nonnegotiable centerpiece of the struggle against fundamentalism, she writes. They are not an acceptable bargaining chip to be negotiated away in a “war on terror” or an attempt to contain jihadism.
“To unpack the heart of that ideology, one must be absolutely committed to women’s full equality and not tolerant of an exemption for ‘Muslim women’ from the human category that includes everyone else,” she insists.
One must not go soft on fundamentalism even when the fundamentalists are the party in charge of the government, which occurred in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood won control of the parliament and the presidency in legitimate elections, she warns.
Fundamentalist movements that find themselves in charge should be held to the same standards as any other government, she insists: It must protect the rights of all, ensure collective and individual freedoms and come up with real political solutions to actual problems rather than stricter policies on headscarves.
“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” by Karima Bennoune; 978-0-393-08158-9
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.