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Karima Bennoune: When people of Muslim heritage challenge fundamentalism

March 24, 2014

Karima Bennoune shares four powerful stories of real people fighting against fundamentalism in their own communities — refusing to allow the faith they love to become a tool for crime, attacks and murder. These personal stories humanize one of the most overlooked human-rights struggles in the world.

Karima Bennoune - Professor of international law
Karima Bennoune's new book introduces the world to people who speak out against fundamentalist terrorism. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Could I protect my father
00:12
from the Armed Islamic Group with a paring knife?
00:13
That was the question I faced
00:16
one Tuesday morning in June of 1993,
00:18
when I was a law student.
00:21
I woke up early that morning
00:23
in Dad's apartment
00:25
on the outskirts of Algiers, Algeria,
00:26
to an unrelenting pounding on the front door.
00:28
It was a season as described by a local paper
00:31
when every Tuesday a scholar fell
00:34
to the bullets of fundamentalist assassins.
00:37
My father's university teaching of Darwin
00:40
had already provoked a classroom visit
00:42
from the head of the so-called
Islamic Salvation Front,
00:44
who denounced Dad as an advocate of biologism
00:48
before Dad had ejected the man,
00:51
and now whoever was outside
00:54
would neither identify himself nor go away.
00:55
So my father tried to get the police on the phone,
00:58
but perhaps terrified by the rising tide
01:01
of armed extremism that had already claimed
01:03
the lives of so many Algerian officers,
01:06
they didn't even answer.
01:08
And that was when I went to the kitchen,
01:10
got out a paring knife,
01:13
and took up a position inside the entryway.
01:14
It was a ridiculous thing to do, really,
01:17
but I couldn't think of anything else,
01:19
and so there I stood.
01:20
When I look back now, I think
that that was the moment
01:23
that set me on the path was to writing a book
01:26
called "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here:
01:28
Untold Stories from the Fight
Against Muslim Fundamentalism."
01:31
The title comes from a Pakistani play.
01:35
I think it was actually that moment
01:38
that sent me on the journey
01:41
to interview 300 people of Muslim heritage
01:42
from nearly 30 countries,
01:45
from Afghanistan to Mali,
01:47
to find out how they fought fundamentalism
01:49
peacefully like my father did,
01:52
and how they coped with the attendant risks.
01:54
Luckily, back in June of 1993,
01:58
our unidentified visitor went away,
02:00
but other families were so much less lucky,
02:03
and that was the thought
that motivated my research.
02:06
In any case, someone would return
02:09
a few months later and leave a note
02:11
on Dad's kitchen table,
02:13
which simply said, "Consider yourself dead."
02:14
Subsequently, Algeria's
fundamentalist armed groups
02:18
would murder as many as 200,000 civilians
02:21
in what came to be known
02:24
as the dark decade of the 1990s,
02:26
including every single one
02:28
of the women that you see here.
02:30
In its harsh counterterrorist response,
02:34
the state resorted to torture
02:36
and to forced disappearances,
02:38
and as terrible as all of these events became,
02:40
the international community largely ignored them.
02:44
Finally, my father, an Algerian
peasant's son turned professor,
02:47
was forced to stop teaching at the university
02:51
and to flee his apartment,
02:53
but what I will never forget
02:55
about Mahfoud Bennoune, my dad,
02:57
was that like so many other Algerian intellectuals,
02:59
he refused to leave the country
03:01
and he continued to publish pointed criticisms,
03:03
both of the fundamentalists
03:06
and sometimes of the government they battled.
03:08
For example, in a November 1994 series
03:11
in the newspaper El Watan
03:14
entitled "How Fundamentalism
03:17
Produced a Terrorism without Precedent,"
03:18
he denounced what he called
03:22
the terrorists' radical break with the true Islam
03:23
as it was lived by our ancestors.
03:26
These were words that could get you killed.
03:29
My father's country taught me
03:32
in that dark decade of the 1990s that
03:33
the popular struggle against Muslim fundamentalism
03:36
is one of the most important
03:39
and overlooked human rights struggles
03:41
in the world.
03:43
This remains true today, nearly 20 years later.
03:45
You see, in every country
03:49
where you hear about armed jihadis
03:50
targeting civilians,
03:52
there are also unarmed people
03:54
defying those militants that you don't hear about,
03:56
and those people need our support to succeed.
03:59
In the West, it's often assumed
04:03
that Muslims generally condone terrorism.
04:05
Some on the right think this because they view
04:08
Muslim culture as inherently violent,
04:10
and some on the left imagine this
04:12
because they view Muslim violence,
04:14
fundamentalist violence,
04:16
solely as a product of legitimate grievances.
04:17
But both views are dead wrong.
04:21
In fact, many people of Muslim heritage
04:23
around the world are staunch opponents
04:25
both of fundamentalism and of terrorism,
04:28
and often for very good reason.
04:31
You see, they're much more likely to be victims
04:33
of this violence than its perpetrators.
04:35
Let me just give you one example.
04:39
According to a 2009 survey
04:41
of Arabic language media resources,
04:43
between 2004 and 2008,
04:46
no more than 15 percent of al Qaeda's victims
04:49
were Westerners.
04:52
That's a terrible toll, but the vast majority
04:54
were people of Muslim heritage,
04:57
killed by Muslim fundamentalists.
04:58
Now I've been talking for the last five minutes
05:01
about fundamentalism, and you have a right to know
05:04
exactly what I mean.
05:07
I cite the definition given by the Algerian sociologist
05:08
Marieme Helie Lucas,
05:12
and she says that fundamentalisms,
05:14
note the "s," so within all of the world's
05:17
great religious traditions,
05:19
"fundamentalisms are political
movements of the extreme right
05:21
which in a context of globalization
05:25
manipulate religion in order to achieve
05:27
their political aims."
05:30
Sadia Abbas has called this the radical politicization
05:31
of theology.
05:35
Now I want to avoid projecting the notion
05:36
that there's sort of a monolith out there
05:39
called Muslim fundamentalism
that is the same everywhere,
05:41
because these movements
also have their diversities.
05:44
Some use and advocate violence.
05:47
Some do not, though they're often interrelated.
05:49
They take different forms.
05:52
Some may be non-governmental organizations,
05:53
even here in Britain like Cageprisoners.
05:56
Some may become political parties,
05:58
like the Muslim Brotherhood,
06:00
and some may be openly armed groups
06:02
like the Taliban.
06:04
But in any case, these are all radical projects.
06:06
They're not conservative or traditional approaches.
06:09
They're most often about changing
people's relationship with Islam
06:12
rather than preserving it.
06:15
What I am talking about is the Muslim extreme right,
06:17
and the fact that its adherents are
06:20
or purport to be Muslim
06:22
makes them no less offensive
06:24
than the extreme right anywhere else.
06:25
So in my view, if we consider ourselves
06:28
liberal or left-wing,
06:30
human rights-loving or feminist,
06:32
we must oppose these movements
06:34
and support their grassroots opponents.
06:36
Now let me be clear
06:39
that I support an effective struggle
06:41
against fundamentalism,
06:43
but also a struggle that must itself
06:45
respect international law,
06:47
so nothing I am saying should be taken
06:49
as a justification for refusals
06:51
to democratize,
06:53
and here I send out a shout-out of support
06:55
to the pro-democracy movement
in Algeria today, Barakat.
06:57
Nor should anything I say be taken
07:01
as a justification of violations of human rights,
07:04
like the mass death sentences
07:06
handed out in Egypt earlier this week.
07:08
But what I am saying
07:11
is that we must challenge these
Muslim fundamentalist movements
07:12
because they threaten human rights
07:16
across Muslim-majority contexts,
07:17
and they do this in a range of ways,
07:20
most obviously with the direct attacks on civilians
07:22
by the armed groups that carry those out.
07:25
But that violence is just the tip of the iceberg.
07:28
These movements as a whole purvey discrimination
07:31
against religious minorities and sexual minorities.
07:33
They seek to curtail the freedom of religion
07:37
of everyone who either practices in a different way
07:39
or chooses not to practice.
07:42
And most definingly, they lead an all-out war
07:44
on the rights of women.
07:47
Now, faced with these movements
07:49
in recent years, Western discourse
07:51
has most often offered
07:53
two flawed responses.
07:54
The first that one sometimes finds on the right
07:56
suggests that most Muslims are fundamentalist
07:59
or something about Islam is
inherently fundamentalist,
08:02
and this is just offensive and wrong,
08:05
but unfortunately on the left
one sometimes encounters
08:08
a discourse that is too politically correct
08:11
to acknowledge the problem of
Muslim fundamentalism at all
08:13
or, even worse, apologizes for it,
08:17
and this is unacceptable as well.
08:19
So what I'm seeking is a new way
08:22
of talking about this all together,
08:24
which is grounded in the lived experiences
08:26
and the hope of the people on the front lines.
08:28
I'm painfully aware that there has been
08:31
an increase in discrimination
against Muslims in recent years
08:33
in countries like the U.K. and the U.S.,
08:37
and that too is a matter of grave concern,
08:39
but I firmly believe
08:42
that telling these counter-stereotypical stories
08:43
of people of Muslim heritage
08:46
who have confronted the fundamentalists
08:47
and been their primary victims
08:50
is also a great way of countering that discrimination.
08:52
So now let me introduce you
08:56
to four people whose stories
08:58
I had the great honor of telling.
09:00
Faizan Peerzada and the Rafi Peer Theatre
09:03
workshop named for his father
09:05
have for years promoted the performing arts
09:07
in Pakistan.
09:09
With the rise of jihadist violence,
09:11
they began to receive threats
09:12
to call off their events, which they refused to heed.
09:14
And so a bomber struck their 2008
09:17
eighth world performing arts festival in Lahore,
09:21
producing rain of glass
09:23
that fell into the venue
09:25
injuring nine people,
09:27
and later that same night,
09:29
the Peerzadas made a very difficult decision:
09:30
they announced that their festival
09:33
would continue as planned the next day.
09:35
As Faizan said at the time,
09:38
if we bow down to the Islamists,
09:40
we'll just be sitting in a dark corner.
09:42
But they didn't know what would happen.
09:45
Would anyone come?
09:46
In fact, thousands of people came out the next day
09:49
to support the performing arts in Lahore,
09:52
and this simultaneously thrilled
09:54
and terrified Faizan,
09:56
and he ran up to a woman
09:58
who had come in with her two small children,
09:59
and he said, "You do know there
was a bomb here yesterday,
10:02
and you do know there's a threat here today."
10:05
And she said, "I know that,
10:07
but I came to your festival
10:09
with my mother when I was their age,
10:11
and I still have those images in my mind.
10:13
We have to be here."
10:16
With stalwart audiences like this,
10:18
the Peerzadas were able to conclude
10:20
their festival on schedule.
10:22
And then the next year,
10:24
they lost all of their sponsors
10:25
due to the security risk.
10:27
So when I met them in 2010,
10:30
they were in the middle of the first subsequent event
10:32
that they were able to have in the same venue,
10:34
and this was the ninth youth performing arts festival
10:37
held in Lahore in a year when that city
10:40
had already experienced 44 terror attacks.
10:43
This was a time when the Pakistani Taliban
10:48
had commenced their systematic targeting
10:50
of girls' schools that would culminate
10:51
in the attack on Malala Yousafzai.
10:54
What did the Peerzadas do in that environment?
10:56
They staged girls' school theater.
11:01
So I had the privilege of watching "Naang Wal,"
11:04
which was a musical in the Punjabi language,
11:07
and the girls of Lahore Grammar School
11:09
played all the parts.
11:11
They sang and danced,
11:13
they played the mice and the water buffalo,
11:14
and I held my breath, wondering,
11:17
would we get to the end
11:19
of this amazing show?
11:21
And when we did, the whole audience
11:23
collectively exhaled,
11:25
and a few people actually wept,
11:27
and then they filled the auditorium
11:29
with the peaceful boom of their applause.
11:32
And I remember thinking in that moment
11:35
that the bombers made headlines here
11:38
two years before
11:40
but this night and these people
11:42
are as important a story.
11:44
Maria Bashir is the first and only
11:50
woman chief prosecutor in Afghanistan.
11:52
She's been in the post since 2008
11:55
and actually opened an office to investigate
11:58
cases of violence against women,
12:00
which she says is the most important area
12:02
in her mandate.
12:04
When I meet her in her office in Herat,
12:06
she enters surrounded by
12:09
four large men with four huge guns.
12:10
In fact, she now has 23 bodyguards,
12:14
because she has weathered bomb attacks
12:17
that nearly killed her kids,
12:18
and it took the leg off of one of her guards.
12:20
Why does she continue?
12:23
She says with a smile that that is the question
12:25
that everyone asks—
12:28
as she puts it, "Why you risk not living?"
12:30
And it is simply that for her,
12:34
a better future for all the Maria Bashirs to come
12:35
is worth the risk,
12:39
and she knows that if people like her
12:40
do not take the risk,
12:42
there will be no better future.
12:44
Later on in our interview,
12:46
Prosecutor Bashir tells me how worried she is
12:48
about the possible outcome
12:50
of government negotiations with the Taliban,
12:52
the people who have been trying to kill her.
12:54
"If we give them a place in the government,"
12:57
she asks, "Who will protect women's rights?"
12:59
And she urges the international community
13:02
not to forget its promise about women
13:04
because now they want peace with Taliban.
13:07
A few weeks after I leave Afghanistan,
13:11
I see a headline on the Internet.
13:13
An Afghan prosecutor has been assassinated.
13:16
I google desperately,
13:19
and thankfully that day I find out
13:21
that Maria was not the victim,
13:23
though sadly, another Afghan prosecutor
13:25
was gunned down on his way to work.
13:27
And when I hear headlines like that now,
13:30
I think that as international troops
13:32
leave Afghanistan this year and beyond,
13:35
we must continue to care
13:38
about what happens to people there,
13:40
to all of the Maria Bashirs.
13:41
Sometimes I still hear her voice in my head
13:44
saying, with no bravado whatsoever,
13:47
"The situation of the women of Afghanistan
13:50
will be better someday.
13:53
We should prepare the ground for this,
13:54
even if we are killed."
13:57
There are no words adequate
14:01
to denounce the al Shabaab terrorists
14:03
who attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi
14:05
on the same day as a children's cooking competition
14:07
in September of 2013.
14:11
They killed 67, including poets and pregnant women.
14:13
Far away in the American Midwest,
14:17
I had the good fortune of meeting Somali-Americans
14:20
who were working to counter
the efforts of al Shabaab
14:22
to recruit a small number of young people
14:25
from their city of Minneapolis
14:27
to take part in atrocities like Westgate.
14:29
Abdirizak Bihi's studious
14:33
17-year-old nephew Burhan Hassan
14:35
was recruited here in 2008,
14:37
spirited to Somalia,
14:40
and then killed when he tried to come home.
14:42
Since that time, Mr. Bihi,
14:45
who directs the no-budget Somali
Education and Advocacy Center,
14:47
has been vocally denouncing the recruitment
14:51
and the failures of government
14:54
and Somali-American institutions
14:55
like the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center
14:58
where he believes his nephew was radicalized
15:01
during a youth program.
15:03
But he doesn't just criticize the mosque.
15:05
He also takes on the government
15:07
for its failure to do more
15:09
to prevent poverty in his community.
15:10
Given his own lack of financial resources,
15:13
Mr. Bihi has had to be creative.
15:15
To counter the efforts of al Shabaab
15:18
to sway more disaffected youth,
15:19
in the wake of the group's 2010 attack
15:22
on World Cup viewers in Uganda,
15:24
he organized a Ramadan basketball tournament
15:27
in Minneapolis in response.
15:30
Scores of Somali-American kids came out
15:33
to embrace sport
15:35
despite the fatwa against it.
15:37
They played basketball
15:39
as Burhan Hassan never would again.
15:41
For his efforts, Mr. Bihi has been ostracized
15:45
by the leadership of the Abubakar
As-Saddique Islamic Center,
15:48
with which he used to have good relations.
15:51
He told me, "One day we saw the imam on TV
15:53
calling us infidels and saying,
15:56
'These families are trying to destroy the mosque.'"
15:58
This is at complete odds
16:01
with how Abdirizak Bihi understands
16:03
what he is trying to do
16:05
by exposing al Shabaab recruitment,
16:07
which is to save the religion I love
16:09
from a small number of extremists.
16:12
Now I want to tell one last story,
16:16
that of a 22-year-old law student in Algeria
16:19
named Amel Zenoune-Zouani
16:22
who had the same dreams of a legal career
16:24
that I did back in the '90s.
16:26
She refused to give up her studies,
16:28
despite the fact that the fundamentalists
16:30
battling the Algerian state back then
16:32
threatened all who continued their education.
16:35
On January 26, 1997, Amel boarded the bus
16:38
in Algiers where she was studying
16:43
to go home and spend a Ramadan evening
16:44
with her family,
16:47
and would never finish law school.
16:48
When the bus reached the outskirts
16:51
of her hometown, it was stopped
16:52
at a checkpoint manned by men
16:54
from the Armed Islamic Group.
16:56
Carrying her schoolbag,
16:58
Amel was taken off the bus
17:00
and killed in the street.
17:02
The men who cut her throat
17:05
then told everyone else,
17:06
"If you go to university,
17:08
the day will come when we will kill all of you
17:10
just like this."
17:12
Amel died at exactly 5:17 p.m.,
17:15
which we know because when she fell in the street,
17:18
her watch broke.
17:21
Her mother showed me the watch
17:23
with the second hand still aimed
17:24
optimistically upward
17:26
towards a 5:18 that would never come.
17:27
Shortly before her death,
17:31
Amel had said to her mother of herself
17:32
and her sisters,
17:34
"Nothing will happen to us, Inshallah, God willing,
17:36
but if something happens,
17:39
you must know that we are dead for knowledge.
17:41
You and father must keep your heads held high."
17:44
The loss of such a young woman is unfathomable,
17:48
and so as I did my research
17:52
I found myself searching for Amel's hope again
17:54
and her name even means "hope" in Arabic.
17:57
I think I found it in two places.
18:00
The first is in the strength of her family
18:03
and all the other families to
continue telling their stories
18:06
and to go on with their lives despite the terrorism.
18:09
In fact, Amel's sister Lamia overcame her grief,
18:12
went to law school,
18:15
and practices as a lawyer in Algiers today,
18:17
something which is only possible
18:19
because the armed fundamentalists
18:21
were largely defeated in the country.
18:22
And the second place I found Amel's hope
18:25
was everywhere that women and men
18:28
continue to defy the jihadis.
18:30
We must support all of those in honor of Amel
18:33
who continue this human rights struggle today,
18:36
like the Network of Women
Living Under Muslim Laws.
18:39
It is not enough, as the victims rights advocate
18:43
Cherifa Kheddar told me in Algiers,
18:46
it is not enough just to battle terrorism.
18:47
We must also challenge fundamentalism,
18:50
because fundamentalism is the ideology
18:53
that makes the bed of this terrorism.
18:55
Why is it that people like her, like all of them
18:58
are not more well known?
19:01
Why is it that everyone knows
who Osama bin Laden was
19:03
and so few know of all of those
19:06
standing up to the bin Ladens in their own contexts.
19:08
We must change that, and so I ask you
19:12
to please help share these stories
19:15
through your networks.
19:16
Look again at Amel Zenoune's watch,
19:18
forever frozen,
19:20
and now please look at your own watch
19:22
and decide this is the moment that you commit
19:24
to supporting people like Amel.
19:27
We don't have the right to be silent about them
19:29
because it is easier
19:32
or because Western policy is flawed as well,
19:33
because 5:17 is still coming
19:36
to too many Amel Zenounes
19:38
in places like northern Nigeria,
19:40
where jihadis still kill students.
19:42
The time to speak up in support of all of those
19:45
who peacefully challenge fundamentalism
19:48
and terrorism in their own communities
19:50
is now.
19:53
Thank you.
19:55
(Applause)
19:57

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Karima Bennoune - Professor of international law
Karima Bennoune's new book introduces the world to people who speak out against fundamentalist terrorism.

Why you should listen

Karima Bennoune is a professor of international law at the University of California–Davis School of Law. She grew up in Algeria and the United States and now lives in northern California.

She has published widely in many leading academic journals, as well as in the Guardian, The New York Times, Comment is Free, the website of Al Jazeera English, The Nation. The topic of her most recent publication ‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here’ is a very personal one for her. Her father Mahfoud Bennoune was an outspoken professor at the University of Algiers, and faced death threats during the 1990s, but continued speaking out against fundamentalism and terrorism. In writing this book, Karima set out to meet people who are today doing what her father did back then, to try to garner for them greater international support than Algerian democrats received during the 1990s.

She has served as a member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law and on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA. Currently, she sits on the Board of the Network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws. She has also been a consultant on human rights issues for the International Council on Human Rights Policy, the Soros Foundation, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Her human rights field missions have included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Fiji, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Korea, southern Thailand, and Tunisia.

She traveled to Algeria in February 2011 to serve as an observer at pro-democracy protests with the support of the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, writing a series of articles about these events for the Guardian. In October 2011, she volunteered as an election observer during the Tunisian constituent assembly elections with Gender Concerns International.

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