Algerian human-rights attorney Karima Bennoune has written a much-needed book on a tricky subject — defending secularism against political Islam, in spite of efforts by neoconservatives in the West to appropriate or co-opt that struggle. Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here offers firsthand reportage from several countries on indigenous forces actually waging this fight on the ground. Bennoune opens by making clear this is a personal issue for her, describing an attempt on the life of her activist father in Algiers by the Armed Islamic Group in 1993. She also immediately states the dilemma:
This tome in no way justifies discrimination against Muslims or unlawful violence against anyone, including those alleged to be Muslim fundamentalists or merely confused with them. 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 or George W. Bush, though undoubtedly some critics may claim it does. 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.
Bennoune writes in exasperation that "either the right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards ... decrying 'Sharia in America,' or left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid are there to tell us how great what they call Sharia really is...." The protesters against the Islamic cultural center planned for a site near Manhattan's Ground Zero "loathed not fundamentalism but seemingly all Muslims." The "soundtrack" of the Iraq War, the detentions, and the hate crimes has been "a diatribe from the Far Right in the West increasingly suggesting that all Muslims are members of one big sleeper cell and that there is something inherently wrong with this religion, and this religion only."
She takes an equally dim view of the Muslim protests against the 2012 provocateur YouTube "film" that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. "Given that fundamentalists themselves had some two weeks earlier desecrated several Muslim holy sites in Libya not in keeping with their own dogma, eliciting barely a whiff of protest, it was hard to take their sensitivities too seriously, however appalling the Innocence of Muslims was." Bennoune sees a "clash of right wings, not a clash of civilizations." She prefers to emphasize "clashes within civilizations, like those between fundamentalists and their opponents everywhere."
Bennoune does not take a pure anti-war stance: the "use of force is sometimes necessary to combat some manifestations of armed Salafi jihadism. Too many Western liberals and leftists do not recognize this." She decries that attacks such as the 2012 car-bomb assassination of Hanifa Safi, a regional head of Afghanistan's Women's Affairs Ministry, continue as "the peace movement endlessly lobbies for an end to international action against the Talbs" while "mouthing platitudes" about how Islam is a religion of peace. But the book focuses on those "engaged in peaceful resistance to extremism," whose "efforts constitute a far superior way of defeating it than the phenomenon formerly known as the 'War on Terror.'"
Bennoune writes: "Muslim fundamentalism is not essentially a security question for Westerners. At its very core, it is a basic question of human rights for hundreds of millions of people who live in Muslim-majority countries and populations around the world."
Bennoune calls out Amnesty International for betraying Gita Sahgal, head of the organization's gender unit, who stepped down in 2010 to protest Amnesty's partnership with CagePrisoners, a group that advocates for Guantánamo detainees and espouses a doctrine of "defensive jihad." Bennoune notes that this was protested in an open letter by Pakistani human-rights lawyer Hina Jilani and Egyptian feminist Nawal al Sawadi, among others.
She protests that the Center for Constitutional Rights (on whose board Bennoune sat) represented the interests of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011, in a case against the Obama White House. "I certainly oppose death lists," she writes. "The problem is that Awlaki had his own." In a list published in Inspire, the jihadist journal Awlaki edited, names appearing below the image of a gun included Salman Rushdie and the exiled Somali feminist Ayan Hirsi Ali.
One of the characteristics of Western left-of-center responses to Muslim fundamentalism has often been to talk about something else whenever the topic comes up. The anniversary of 9-11 is a time to criticize the U.S. government. An Afghan woman having her nose cut off by the Taliban becomes a platform for saying that there is violence against women everywhere. I think when we talk about Muslim fundamentalism, we have to actually talk about it.
She cites the example of
Tariq Ramadan, the telegenic grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who disapproves of homosexuality, feminism and secular Muslims, being celebrated at the World Social Forum and lionized on the influential left-wing radio show Democracy Now. This positioning by parts of the Western Left abandons the Left on the ground to its fate. Of course the reverse is also true, and a few radical secularists and anti-jihadists line up with the West's Far Right and its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam agenda.
This positioning is all the more ironic, given that "Muslim fundamentalists often seek to defeat the movements most likely to be able to tackle social injustice — social democrats, the humanist Left, trade unions, human-rights advocates, women's rights defenders."
In her wide-ranging travels, Bennoune profiles many who have stood up to threats and actual attacks by fundamentalists to advance elementary freedoms: a theater troupe in Lahore; radio producers who promote indigenous pop music in Algeria; promoters of indigenous-language preservation in Somalia (the Shabab insurgents seek the hegemony of Arabic); Afghan scholars who sought to preserve priceless pre-Islamic artifacts from being destroyed by the Taliban; the "liberal mullah" of Herat, Syed Ahmad Hosaini, who preaches gender equality; Maria Bashir, Herat's provincial prosecutor and the only woman to hold such a position in Afghanistan; defenders of women in Nigeria sentenced to stoning for such "crimes" as "adultery"; women's-rights advocates in Sudan, where women can receive 40 lashes for not wearing "Islamic dress"; a Chechen newspaper editor in Moscow who opposes both fundamentalist terror and the Russian chauvinism that stigmatizes the Muslims of the Caucasus; displaced Malians in Bamako who had fled the brutal rule by Islamist militias in the north of the country and spoke out about their abuses at great risk.
Bennoune did not go to Iran for fear of putting her contacts at risk, but she spoke to Iranian exiles in Europe who protest ongoing abuses back home — such as the infuriating case of a 13-year-old girl hanged for "crimes against chastity" after she was repeatedly raped by a family member.
Many of the cases Bennoune offers are from her native Algeria: journalists who were targeted for death, and even had their offices blown up, for daring to criticize the jihadists; educators who continued to teach girls in spite of death threats during the insurgency of the 1990s; the survivors' group Djazairouna, which has demanded justice for their lost kin in defiance of ongoing threats; and feminists who in this dangerous era founded the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women (RAFD, Arabic for "refuse"). Many paid with their lives for such refusals of fundamentalist rule.
One of Bennoune's most compelling entries concerns community organizers in the Somali community in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis–St. Paul) who tried to counter the clandestine recruiting drive among their youth by the Shabab, who in their areas of control in Somalia are carrying out amputations and desecrating the tombs of Sufi saints. Exemplifying the dilemma, one such organizer, Abdirizak Bihi, agreed to testify before House Homeland Security chair Rep. Peter King's hearings on "Radicalization in the American Muslim Community." Bennoune writes that this "risked playing into the hands of both the anti-Islamic fringe of the Republican Party and Muslim fundamentalists who try to convince Muslims that Americans vilify them. On the other hand, King's liberal and Muslim American critics seemed to act as if there was no problem at all. Islamic radicalization? What Islamic radicalization?" She has to state what should be painfully obvious: "The fact that the lamentable George W. Bush declared war on terrorism does not make it a good thing."
Bennoune's most instructive discussion concerns Palestine. She portrays the deteriorating status of women in Gaza under Hamas rule — for instance, the Hamas pledge of payments to men who will marry war widows, fueling a rise in polygamy. "The group's violent acts against Israelis have gained the most press; its coercion of Palestinians is much less discussed." One activist Bennoune spoke to in Gaza cycled up the Strip's coast in an act of disobedience against the absurd Hamas ban on women's riding bicycles.
But Bennoune is sensitive to how these abuses are exploited for propaganda purposes. A penultimate chapter on the West Bank, "A Baby Cries at Qalandia Checkpoint: Opposing Injustice in the Struggle against Muslim Fundamentalism," details humiliations suffered by Palestinians at the maze of Israeli security checkpoints they must endure to travel through their own homeland. Bennoune notes that many treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, "explicitly prohibit the misuse of their guarantees for the purpose of threatening human rights themselves." She interviews George Giacaman of the Palestinian pro-democracy think-tank Muwatin, who states that the "stigma of terrorism" is useful for Israel: "Any form of resistance is described as terrorism, not just targeting civilians." On the other hand, "When Israel targets civilians, this is not called terrorism."
On leaving the West Bank, Bennoune writes in her journal: "Nothing I write should ever be used to justify what I have seen here."