PERSPECTIVE: Supporting Muslims who combat terror

Author, lawyer and peace advocate Karima Bennoune is known to readers who follow the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, as her book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism” won the non-fiction award in 2014. Bennoune is a passionate teller of tales on behalf of people standing up to terrorism around the world, and has been back to Dayton since winning the peace prize — most recently early this fall, when she spoke to several hundred local high-school students about her work. We talked with her and today offer a condensed, edited version of the conversation. — Ron Rollins

Q: Judging from all the places you traveled for the book, it looks like you’re hard to pin down. Where is your home base?

Bennoune: I'm moving all the time. Probably a plane somewhere over the Atlantic at any given time. But I currently teach at the University of California-Davis School of Law. I'm on sabbatical now, and I have lots of things to keep me on the move. And after I won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, I was named a United Nations UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights – and human rights is my specialty and field, so it's very exciting to be asked to do this. It's an honorific, but I basically have two fulltime day jobs.

Q: Describe the book. The title says a lot.

Bennoune: I was tired of always hearing the question raised after any given terrorist atrocity of, "Where are the Muslims who speak out against the terrorists?" because I knew from my own personal experience in my family and my immediate circle how many Muslims and people of Muslim heritage were speaking out and working against Muslim extremism – and people in the West were not hearing about them.

So I wanted to change that by telling stories. I interviewed about 300 people from about 30 Muslim-majority countries, a diaspora population from Mali to Afghanistan, to hear their experiences of either being victims of Muslim extremism, or of standing up to it in all sorts of creative ways. It’s sort of a terrible shame everyone knows who Osama bin Laden is, but don’t know about all the extraordinary people standing up to bin Laden in his time, or those would-be bin Ladens in their own time.

Q: Americans also have this sense that Muslim fundamentalism starts at 9/11, or at least they don’t know much about it before then, it seems. In your book, you go back to things that happened during the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s; in your introduction, you recount events from 1993.

Bennoune: I think that's an important point. You have to look at the history of how this starts. The events I recount in the beginning of the book are in 1993, when my father was a professor at the University of Algiers, in Algeria, and had been very outspoken in the rising tides of fundamentalism in his nation at that time. And like many Algerian intellectuals, he had received death threats because of it. Pre-9/11, the world did not understand what was happening in Algeria, and didn't offer much sympathy. Much of the world seemed to say, "You should have just let these people take power, and then you wouldn't have these problems." In fact, at that time, in the context of the Cold War much of the Western world – not only the United States, but also Britain and other Western countries — thought that Muslim fundamentalism might actually be a convenient ally in the fight against Communism. And many intellectuals on the ground were saying, "You know, this is a very bad idea. These people are actually extremely dangerous, so be careful what you're doing in terms of supporting them." Unfortunately, nobody listened to those voices at the time. And you know, I don't like to overstate this, but my father said you wonder how things could have worked out later on, and the tragedies that could have been averted, if people in the West had paid attention to what was happening in Algeria and Afghanistan – but the body count was among the local people, and the international community didn't pay a great deal of attention.

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Q: Why do you think that is?

Bennoune: I think one can come up with different theories – the so-called Third World body count is one. You know, thousands can die in a flood in Southeast Asia, but you're lucky if you get a line in the paper, whereas much smaller numbers killed tragically somewhere else more familiar, you get the full human-interest story. And I think that's not a very balanced way of looking at the world. What I was trying to say was the human interest story deserves to be told elsewhere. Nobody is just a statistic.

Q: So, Algeria was undercovered at the time in the Western media and didn’t loom large in our consciousness here; compare that with the way that part of the world is covered today, since 9/11.

Bennoune: So, what was happening in Algeria was that the armed fundamentalists were fighting against the state, backed by the military. The statistics are controversial, but between 100,000 and 200,000 people died from 1993 till about 2004. Most were killed by the armed fundamentalists, but some were also killed by the state and its counter-terrorism responses, which unfortunately also resulted in such things as extrajudicial killings and torture. But the bulk of the violence was by the fundamentalists – sort of the Islamic State of that day, vs. the civilian population.

From outside looking in, people may not have understood what was happening in the country, and thought the fundamentalists should have been allowed to take power. But it’s a complicated history.

But then flip forward to the post-9/11 world, and by then many people rightly realized that these jihadist groups are not our allies, are not people who support values that are defensible. They are antithetical to human rights, they are out to kill large numbers of people – but unfortunately what gets lost is this is not a battle between the West and Islam. This is actually a battle going on within Muslim-majority societies between extremists and the rest of the population – specifically, the people brave enough to stand up to them.

What gets lost is that, A), lots of Muslims and people of Muslim heritage have stood up to these extremists and have often paid with their lives for doing so, and B), Muslims have been the largest number of victims of these movements. Somehow, that has not been widely understood in the West in the post-9/11 world.

I’m hoping that with the tragic violence caused by the Islamic State that people are starting to realize this, but you still have terror attacks elsewhere around the world getting more attention. I don’t mean to say that all lives aren’t important; attacks are important wherever they happen. But the vast majority of victims of violence by Muslim fundamentalists – the thousands dying in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – are not getting the attention they deserve, and we really need to change that if we want to understand what really is going on, and if we want to be effective in the response.

Q: Do you think ISIS is a predictable culmination of these forces? Where do you think it fits in history?

Bennoune: You could surely say the so-called Islamic State is certainly similar in ideology to the armed Islamic group that was the big culprit in Algeria in the 1990s, but today it's greatly enhanced by social media which did not exist back then, and by all kinds of modern communications technology that has allowed them to recruit from around the world – so the Islamic State can work transnationally in ways that the earlier movements could not.

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Also, now there is an international military coalition against these movements that you did have in the past, and that is a very big difference. I’m hoping that and the involvement of the U.N. can make a big difference; it’s absolutely critical for human rights that the so-called Islamic State is really destroyed – not only that, but we must challenge the idea behind it because if we don’t, it will just keep resurrecting itself elsewhere.

Q: How do we do that?

Bennoune: That's a very important question. It's much harder. Everywhere I went I asked this – how do you defeat fundamentalism? How do you defeat this ideology? From everyone, the first word out out of their mouths: Education. Education, education, education. I think that's absolutely critical. We are seeing Muslim-majority areas around the world having a real discussion around what values we are teaching; there is a lot of controversy lately around the content of Saudi textbooks, some very worrying content. Education is critical, culture is critical – the creation of alternative spaces for young people that gives them the possibility of having a vigorous counter-course that is challenging the fundamentalists, and for that you need freedom of expression. You need people to be able to express themselves without fear. All those things are absolutely vital.

Q: Your book makes the point that this is happening in many places.

Bennoune: It is, but my book focuses largely on civil-society initiatives – what people are doing with their organizations, as individuals, and how we need to see much more in this regard. Also in terms of governments not impinging on these peoples' ability to do their work. Sometimes, governments that claim to be fighting fundamentalism are actually more afraid of their civil-society opponents than they are of the fundamentalists, who they think they can use to their own purposes. And that sometimes gets dangerously out of hand. We need to support the initiatives of the people fighting the fundamentalists.

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Q: Where to women’s rights fit into this discussion? Usually, it seems a marker of where society is making strides and gaining ground.

Bennoune: One of the women I interviewed is an amazing sociologist from Niger who said, "Every step in the struggle for women's rights is a step in the struggle against Muslim fundamentalism." I think it's an absolutely critical linkage. Women's rights are not something you can set aside while you're fighting – this goes right to the heart of many forms of extremism in the world, and certainly this one, because the Muslim fundamentalists have really targeted women's rights, women's equality and women who advocate those things. It's no accident the longest chapter in my book is the chapter on women's-rights defenders, and there are some women doing amazing things around the world – campaigning against female genital mutilation, against sexual harassment of women.

There are some truly positive things happening in parts of the world – for example, in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, there continue to be difficulties – but women there are so well organized that when the fundamentalists have tried to take advantage of openings created by the Arab Spring, and have tried to push various negative developments in the law for women’s rights, women’s groups have been able to defeat many of those efforts. They feel pressure, for example, about ways they dress in ways they have not felt before. So I don’t want to overstate the case, but there are many positive examples like that in a region that often has this sense of going backwards.

But also, these are very difficult times in which to do this work. I would say that when you have the views that we have heard at times from President Trump about Islam and the Muslim population in general, the climate becomes more difficult to do it. But I think those discriminatory attitudes and words much be challenged everywhere, across the board. But it worries me to also see some of the response on the left to downplay all these things, as if Muslim fundamentalism is not really a problem.

Q: You do not let the left off the hook in your book.

Bennoune: No, there is a section in the book called how left and right both get this wrong … I mean, not the whole left and the whole right, all the time, but in the book I talk about how the right increasingly here and in Europe are engaging in a discourse that sort of smears all Muslims, or talks about Islam as if it's the only religion that has ever had a problem with fundamentalism – while if you look at Hindusim right now in India, or what is happening with Christian fundamentalism in Latin America or many regions here at home, you realize it's a broader problem. But you get this sweeping discourse from some, and I have to repeat some, on the right.

Then on the left, you get this almost apologetic discourse that is really the cultural relativist response – again, not from all on the left, but some – the claim that you really have to understand that this is just their culture, and so it’s not at all a problem. I completely reject that. It’s not a helpful response to the right-wing discrimination. The helpful response is to recognize the reality of the problem, recognize those who are tackling it, and try to find non-discriminatory ways to understand the complexity of the situation and support those who are trying to do something about it. But unfortunately, we’re living in an era of insults and invective, and not an era of thinking and analysis – and that really has to change.

Q: Parting thoughts? What can people here do?

Bennoune: One thing is to share some of these stories – my publisher would love it, certainly. But also there is a website that shares some of them – – and you can find many others, and there's a TED Talk that I gave on this. You can share. But here in Dayton, I would ask that people also support the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I can't tell you how much it meant to me that me and my book won this particular prize, which values and espouses universal human rights and dignity – which is so essential, especially in these times. I think the Dayton Literary Peace Prize is really giving voice to many people we have not been hearing from, and so I hope that people here will continue to support it.

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