Review: Defying Fundamentalism

Against the Current, No. 169, March/April 2014

Haideh Moghissi

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here
Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism
By Karima Bennoune
New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 402 pages,
$27.95 hardcover.

THE POST-9/11 “war on terror,” and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have provoked more interest in Islam. To some people Islam has come to represent the ideology of liberation from the yoke of Western imperialism; to others it is a backward and inherently violent faith targeting innocent individuals indiscriminately.

Many questions are also raised as to what is distinctive about Islam that so powerfully define the life choices of so many people within and outside the Muslim-majority countries: Is Islam a religion or a political ideology? Does Islam promote violence? And what are the regional and global implications of the rise of Islamist militancy?

Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here does not try to respond to these questions by discussing the philosophical, moralist or the legalist tenets of Islam, the debates and divisions within Islamic civilization, or the root causes of the growing fundamentalist power and influence.

The book has a different goal. Concerned with the rising Jihadist fundamentalism on one hand, and increasing discrimination against Muslims following 9/11 on the other, and having in mind the question repeated by many commentators — “Why don’t Muslims speak out?” — Bennoune documents the voices of Muslims in various ways victimized by Islamic fundamentalists, and who have indeed spoken out.

These individuals, whether devout believers, agnostics or non-believers, have been engaged in peaceful resistance to fundamentalism. Many have put their lives on the line, and lost loved ones and/or been forced to leave their homelands to escape the Islamists’ violence.

Karima Bennoune is a professor of law at the University of California-Davis. She spent two years traveling and gathering the personal stories that comprise the heart of this passionate work. As a human rights lawyer and former legal advisor for Amnesty International, Bennoune is experienced in getting people to tell their stories in order to document what had happened to them.

Her introduction, “Everything Looks Different Once You Have Seen ‘Death to’ Before Your Name,” begins with the author’s own harrowing account of an attempted break-in by a fundamentalist death squad at the apartment of her father, the Algerian intellectual and activist Mahfoud Bennoune, while Karima was visiting him in 1993.

She goes on to present a vivid albeit disturbing map of the zones of operation of Islamists, where people are afflicted by rising Islamic fundamentalist violence, from Afghanistan to Iran, Pakistan, the Maghreb, Egypt and other parts of the region. Bennoune also lists the dozen diverse countries she travelled during 2010-12 collecting the first-hand statements of individuals from all walks of life.

These include ordinary people and human rights activists with diverse professional, ideological and national backgrounds, including some members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda (whose acclaimed “moderate” status she sharply questions). Some of the statements by the activists in countries to which Bennoune could not travel were obtained using Skype.

This is a very important book as more often than not the voices of reason by self-critical Muslims are neither transmitted, nor heard. Bennoune also clarifies for the reader her own position as a secular woman of Muslim heritage, who can still be moved by the sound of ithan (public call to prayer). But she affirms the lament of an Egyptian professor who told Bennoune that the fundamentalists “have taken the beautiful, aesthetic religion of my youth and transformed it into a series of bodily functions.” (16)

Recognizing Diversity

Yet Bennoune takes care to illuminate two points that needs clarification, particularly for the novice reader of a book on fundamentalism. The first is the often overlooked diversity of Muslims worldwide and their internal divisions and differences.

Obviously, the politics of oil and geopolitical colonial interests in the Middle East deliberately occludes the diversity of people in and from Muslim-majority countries, in particular the existence of a large number of secular and laic, even atheist persons.

The Western imagination has invented a “Muslim community” presumed to hold unified cultural values, religious affiliation and fixed mind-set different from “us,” the West. This presumption is, ironically, similar to the fundamentalists’ imagination of Muslims as a unified and homogeneous Umma.

Muslims’ diversity is very well reflected in the geographic, linguistic and political differences of the people with whom Bennoune spoke. Their testimonies are a clear manifestation of differing approaches to social and political life in any given time, although they share the common experience of having fallen victim to the blind, brutal terror at the hands of other Muslims, and having fought back.

The second point that Karima Bennoune has found necessary to remind the Western reader is that criticizing fundamentalism should not be read as support for the policies of the likes of Israeli government or the U.S. administration and their military adventures in the Middle East:

“This tome in no way justifies discrimination against Muslims or anyone else, including those alleged to be Muslim fundamentalists…It is not an apology for the Iraq war or waterboarding. It offers no comfort to right-wing anti-Muslim demagogues (the Pamela Gellers of the world) or the supporters of the policies of the Israeli government…Criticizing Muslim fundamentalists is mistakenly equated with support for the actions of Western governments that claim to be their opponents.” (5)

In fact, contrary to the claims of designers of the idea and the practice of  the “War on Terror,” she rightly argues that Jihadist fundamentalism is not an essential security threat for Westerners. It is, however, a deadly danger to millions of people who live in Muslim majority countries.

It is particularly threatening to women, whose rights to hope, choice and humanity are violated daily, by the fundamentalists’ imposition of non-negotiable “’God’s law,’ something called the Sharia — their version of it rather than others’.” Limiting women and their rights, “sometimes couched in the soothing language of protection and respect and difference,” Bennoune writes, constitutes the fundamentalists’ most significant commonality. (15)

Against Apologetics

The author draws attention also to another unfortunate dynamic developed in the West with regard to Islamic fundamentalism. That is an attempt by some politicians and media to promote as “moderates” those fundamentalist groups who do not engage in terrorist activities against Western targets.

She offers examples of how representatives of these groups are sponsored for trips to the West, and provided various forums to say what the Westerners would imagine Muslims should say. That is, they conveniently “say what Muslims are supposed to say, but with the roughest edges worn off.”

They refrain from asking “embarrassing question about the global economy as their secular nationalist and leftist opponents might. Instead, they talk about God and ‘tradition.’ It is all very convenient and reassuring.” (18)

This skillful manipulation of West­erners’ naivete or political interests, Bennoune contends, also fools the Western left, even some human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Center for Constitutional Rights and others.

In her words, there’s a dual parody of  “right-wing hysterics” whose freeway billboards shriek of “Sharia in America,” and  “left-wingers…drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid (who) are there to tell us how great what they call Sharia really is, or can be if you just reinterpret it a little.” (19-20)

Amnesty International, in her view, crossed the line from properly defending the human rights of an Islamist Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, to promoting him as a human rights defender despite his “nasty track record” of jihadi activities, and then firing AI’s Gender Unit director Gita Sahgal for criticizing this practice.

Listening to the horrors that Bennoune’s witnesses endured has obviously been a daunting and painful professional and personal task.

She recounts the story of the Algerian Malika paralyzed for life; the narratives of family members of the assassinated activists, such as those of Goussem the widow of Abdelaker Hamdani; the mother of the murdered Algerian law student Amel Zenoune-Zouani whose throat was slit by the Armed Islamic Group as she got off a bus (“Growing Roses in the Triangle of Death, 156-182).

The lead researcher of Amnesty in Afghanistan, Horia Mosadiq, tells her story, including the deaths of brothers torn to pieces by indiscriminate rocket fire. (256-60). It is “excruciating,” as are the accounts of the Pakistani journalists working under constant threat by Lashkar-e Taiba, aware of other fellow journalists beaten to death. (140-47)

But we also read the stories of courage, defiance and dedication of anti-fundamentalism activists such as the Algerian Merieme Heli-Lucas, the founder of Women Living Under the Muslim Law (88-91); the Nigerian Ayesha Imam of Women’s Human Rights (91-95); and Noor Jahan’s Young Women for Change in Afghanistan. (98-101)

Bennoune tells us that she took up this project believing that exposing the atrocities Muslim fundamentalists commit against their own people is often the only hope the survivors have for a much needed change. This is true. But one hopes that the testimonial statements in this book may get the Western reader to also rethink the idea that such values as human rights, justice and democracy are treasured only in the West.

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here — the book takes its title from a defiant line spoken in a play mocking fundamentalist zealotry in Pakistan — manifestly shows what enormous price activists and free thinkers in Muslim majority countries are prepared to pay for preserving, achieving and institutionalizing these values, and bringing change to their societies.

This book is a must read. As Karima Bennoune says in her concluding sentence, “The time to raise our voices is now.”

March/April 2014, ATC 169