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