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Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism" by Karima Bennoune. Book Review

At first glance, Karima Bennoune's "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism" might look, to the naïve reader, like the statement all America has been waiting for since September 11, 2001. Finally, a "moderate Muslim" speaks out against Muslim terrorism.

Bennoune grew up in Algeria and the US. She identifies with Muslim culture, though she is an agnostic. She condemns Al Qaeda unequivocally: "I hate Al Qaeda" (267). She condemns Muslims for "whitewashing" their message by saying one thing in English and another in Arabic (17). She despises "left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid" who "tell us how great … Sharia really is or can be if you just reinterpret it a little" (19-20). She critiques CAIR (221). She sneers at Pakistani conspiracy theories that attribute Taliban atrocities to Americans, Hindus, and Jews (243). She insists that US drone attacks do not justify Taliban killings (247). She sniffs at invocations of Edward Said's concept of "orientalism" to muffle criticism of terrorism (249). She rejects the idea that Islamic supremacists should be invited to participate in national life on the basis of tolerance and diversity, since they reject tolerance and diversity, and their inclusion would result in "One man, one vote, one time" (294-5). "'Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible,'" she quotes, approvingly (341). She records in heart-wrenching detail the hideous, massive, and inexcusable suffering Muslim terror has wreaked on the lives of Muslims from North Africa to South Asia.

"Fatwa" is published by WW Norton, a respected academic and popular publisher. The book is endorsed by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson. What's not to like?

There are three problems with the book. Bennoune all too often identifies the US as the root cause of terrorism. She never refers to a single Koranic verse or Islamic historic precedent for terror. Finally, she engages in a downright silly, and morally reprehensible, cultural relativism that places Muslim terrorism in the same category with Christian fundamentalists and alleged American anti-Arab racists. Her book is valuable and should be read, but read thoughtfully.

"Fatwa" is the most devastating indictment of the suffering Muslim terrorism causes Muslims that most America readers are likely to access. Bennoune travels to Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, or visits with refugees from those countries who are now living in exile. Her interlocutors are activists for women's rights, journalists, artists, politicians, museum employees, or just average people caught up in terror. The book consists largely of two to five page vignettes of these visits. For that reason, the book is a bit of a disjointed read. There is no overall plot or trajectory. It sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate between one account and the next. Bennoune's pressing mission is to bear witness to horrendous injustice and heroic courage.

There are descriptions of terror in this book I won't soon forget. In one account, an Algerian mother is at home at night when armed men come and take her six children. She grabs a captor's leg and begs that her children be released. The man threatens her and she backs off. She later goes out to search for her children. She finds their bodies in a riverbed, their throats cut. They were killed because the woman's daughter was a teacher – or maybe for some other infraction against the terrorists' take on Islam.

A man from Mali talks about how demoralizing it is to watch public amputations. A museum director describes the methodical destruction of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Muslim peasants sleep with grease on their necks to deflect blades (168). Iran's penal code requires that punishments be delivered in the order of harm they do, so that a prisoner cannot be offered the release of death before a given sadistic punishment is complete – flogging must precede hanging, for example (213). There is a gut-churning description of gang rape (135).

Again and again, from North Africa to South Asia, this perverse motif recurs: terrorists announce that they are taking over in order to restore Islamic modesty and protection to women. They then strip, torture, and murder women in public, in floggings and stonings, and gang rape little girls. The descriptions in Bennoune's book are graphic, brutal, and depressing.

Bennoune focuses on heroic courage. She highlights the persistent and hopeful action of feminists, artists, journalists and activists who are struggling for open, secular societies, even as they receive death threats.

The reader witnesses, in Bennoune's pages, the same vile process described in "I Am Malala." People are living more or less peacefully. Muslim terrorists move in. In Islam's name, they begin to terrorize the population. Select targets are publicly murdered. Women are accosted. The populace is too frightened to respond. One survivor of this process describes hearing the screams of raped and tortured women, screams silenced only by gunshots. No one who heard those screams, or the women's families' calls for help, did anything to confront the terrorists. "'There was silence, darkness, fear, and nothing else'" (257). Before you know it, women cannot leave their homes; men cannot shave; music is banned.

This process is familiar to anyone who has watched many Western films like "Shane," or "On the Waterfront" about mob infiltration of dock workers. Violent thugs terrorize a population into submission.

The problem is, these violent thugs are empowered by the religion the population says they adhere to. Both Malala and Bennoune describe victims reporting that members of their own families support this or that aspect of extremism. In Egypt, an anti-Muslim Brotherhood activist must confess that her family members like the idea of eliminating the Christian presence from Egypt (293). Pious Muslims find it hard to refute extremist messages like this one, "'Democracy is an impious concept because its principles include the right not to believe in God, which is punishable by death in Islam…How can we think an unbeliever can be the equal of a Muslim, or that a woman can be the equal of a man?'" (294)

In both Malala's and Bennoune's accounts, Muslim victims of Muslim terrorism report, paraphrase, "We approved of Islamization at first because we thought the religious people would clean up this or that problem of irreligion, crime, or the infiltration of aspects of Western culture that we don't like. As time went by, we realized that we were the next target, because we smoke, or read, or worship at the tomb of Sufi saints, or send our daughters to school. By then it was too late to resist. In any case, we can't criticize anything that is labeled 'Islam.'"

"Madame you cannot argue with God" (88) one Muslim tells Bennoune, when she attempts to argue inheritance rules that shortchange female heirs and reward male ones. "I am a Muslim, I cannot criticize" is a general attitude (94). Journalists fear "crossing their profession's red line" by criticizing religion (144).

The case studies of terrorism's victims that Bennoune presents are priceless and should be read. Bennoune's interpretation of her extensive data presents problems. For example, Bennoune never speaks of Muslim terrorism. For her, the problem is "fundamentalism." For Bennoune, "fundamentalism" is as much a Christian problem as a Muslim one.

Bennoune announces herself as being concerned about American "fundamentalism and increasing discrimination against Muslims" (3). She rejects any "so-called clash of civilizations" (3). Because of American anti-Arab racism, "writing about Muslim fundamentalism in this era for an American audience feels like dancing on a minefield" (3). "Places such as Oklahoma" reveal their anti-Arab racism by voting against application of Sharia in the US (4). Pam Geller is dismissed as a "right wing anti-Muslim demagogue" (5). Congressman Peter King's motivations for investigating terror are "unfortunate" and "right-wing" (219).

The "clash" between the Muslim and non-Muslim world "is a clash of right wings … [Americans] call their congressman demanding to know when we were going to invade somewhere" (6). "The two Far Rights – the Western one and the Muslims one – play off each other" (21). "Right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards…decrying Sharia in America" (19). Those who protested the Ground Zero mosque "loathe … all Muslims" and "froth" against a Muslim "monkey god" (20). Americans are united in "a love of torture" of terrorists (20). "This open embrace of hate" this "anti-Arab racism in the United States" "make me want to build the [Ground Zero] mosque with my bare hands" Bennoune vows (20).

"Islam and Islamism are not the same thing. The three extra letters make a huge difference" (9) Bennoune insists. Islam's greatest values are "mercy, compassion, peace, tolerance, study, creativity, openness" (9) "Muslim fundamentalism is not essentially a security question for Westerners. At its very core, it is a basic question of human rights for" Muslims (13).

Bennoune believes that Christianity is just as likely to produce dangerous "fundamentalists" as Islam (14). Muslim fundamentalists are comparable to Christian activist Anita Bryant (15). Muslim terror is just like the Christian radicals depicted in the documentary "Jesus Camp" (232). "Far Right" Americans deliver a "diatribe" insisting that "there is something wrong with this religion and this religion only. Such views contravene basic tenets of humanism and decency" (21).

What causes Muslim terror? According to Bennoune, the causes include "past colonialism and current military occupation" (25). America supported terrorists in order to defeat Communism (e.g. 26). Western debt restructuring is responsible for Islamic extremism in Nigeria (92). Other causes: George Bush and Christian influence on American politics (105), terrorists who take Koran verses "out of context" (137), and, of course, the Jews (e.g. 26). In some cases, all of the above are responsible (108).

America is blamed so often, and in so many guises, that it would be tedious to supply each mention of blame. Just one example: America is to blame for terrorism in Afghanistan and "Americans must 'pressure their government to pay its debt to the Afghan people, to help Afghans get rid of the fundamentalist groups'" (264).

There are many important realities reported in Bennoune's book to which she appears to be oblivious. Perhaps all of the activists she talks to are rooted more in the West, in Western ideals, languages, and sources of funding, than in the Muslim worlds that surround them. Women's equality, a free press, art that does not serve religion, freedom of conscience, separation of church and state – these are all Western concepts from the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or the Enlightenment. Bennoune's activists pursue these ideals in capital cities formed by Western colonialism and exposure to Western cultural products, while their countries' heartlands and villages are very different places.

Bennoune's heroes seek funding from Western agencies, agencies that receive the bulk of their cash, ultimately, from the very United States Bennoune blames. When things become dangerous, these activists decamp to the United States, as the Algerian Bennoune herself has done. There they are funded by more Western agencies and universities. They often speak in English or French, not Arabic. They wear baseball caps and short skirts. Bennoune's extensive travels were funded by the academia that employs her and the publisher who funds her – the West she disparages (9). Bennoune reports all these realities in a parenthetical manner. She never connects the dots and has an Aha moment where she thanks the West for giving her worthy ideals to fight for, and the financial means to conduct that fight. She certainly never acknowledges that American soldiers sacrificed for the geographic safety zones she inhabits.

Bennoune doesn't just refuse to acknowledge the debt she and other Muslims who reject jihad owe to the West. She demonizes and caricatures Americans as racist yokels and relativizes them – Anita Bryant is just like Osama bin Laden.

Bennoune's willful blindness does not speak well for the success of her project. The chances of a blind runner reaching a goal he half envies and half hates are very low.

Bennoune works hard to wish into being an Islam that is tolerant, diverse, respectful, and good for women. She never cites any scripture or precedent for this Islam. Bennoune perhaps inadvertently reveals a frightening reality. Once one declares someone a non-Muslim, that person becomes "an acceptable target" (161). Even Bennoune, champion of a moderate Islam, describes it as a religion that renders non-Muslims "targets."

Again, oblivious – reporting facts without any apparent awareness of what the facts she reports imply – she describes her informants as not only culturally not representational of their societies, but also not numerically representational. She mentions that one counter jihad café in Pakistan has twenty patrons (69). She mentions Islamic movements that can muster "ominously huge" street demonstrations (45). She reports how even those not involved in violent jihad cover up for, and give aid and shelter to, Muslim terrorists. One reason the victims she mourns never find justice, and the activists she celebrates never find success, is that the Muslim societies that surround them deny them both.

Bennoune insists repeatedly that the countries that currently suffer under Muslim terrorists were tolerant and peaceful in the past. America, Israel, the Cold War, and colonialism affected these countries negatively and Muslim terror was unleashed. Saudi Arabia, for example, before American meddling, was "liberal" (106). It became "Wahhabist" after the American lead Gulf War (107). This is bizarre whitewashing of history. In obedience to Mohammed, the territory of Saudi Arabia exiled its Christians and Jews 1400 years ago and they've never been able to return. This is hardly tolerant. And slavery was legal in Saudi Arabia until 1962. "We have not seen" veiling in Iraq before the US invasion, one of her informants claims (123). This would surprise anthropologist Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, who wrote of veiling in Iraq in the 1950s. Muslims and Christians used to live in peace in Africa, she reports. In fact the Muslim slave trade was a huge source of conflict for centuries.

Bennoune whines that Western critics of Islam make demands of Islam that they make of no other faith. In fact Islam is inoculated against criticism by Politically Correct guardians of speech codes. One can criticize Christianity and Judaism; one is rewarded for doing so with academic awards and appointments. Bennoune demonstrates what happens to critics of Islam – they are demonized and trivialized. Nowhere in her text does Bennoune take on the critique of Islam presented by thinkers like Robert Spencer. Bennoune owes that to her readers, and to her heroes. Do Koranic verses calling for jihad and terror contribute to terrorism or not? If not, why not? Bennoune excuses herself from ever addressing that argument. It's a cowardly omission for a woman who is otherwise genuinely brave. 


  1. "It became "Wahhabist" after the American lead Gulf War (107). This is bizarre whitewashing of history."

    It's worse than that, actually. It's an outright lie, and Bennoune, who has an MA in
    Middle Eastern Studies, knows that it's an outright lie. 

    1. Liron I wonder if you have read Martin Kramer's book "Ivory Towers on Sand." he argues that Middle Eastern Studies departments don't adequate train their students, and, rather, present politicized versions of reality. Shocking, I know.

    2. I could tell you stories.

      Next time I get drunk, perhaps I'll send you a paper I wrote as an MA student, in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, on Samuel Huntington. I was quite the Edward Said wannabe.

    3. Well, Liron, I hope you won't be getting drunk any time soon. :-)

      As for Edward Said -- he was quite the snappy dresser. I can say that for him.

  2. Hello Dr Goska,
    I've noticed, that whenever You write about islam, there are few or no comments. And it's a little weird and disturbing. Don't You think?

    1. Lukasz most of my posts don't receive many replies.