Courage in the Face of Terror

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim FundamentalismYour Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is a strain in American popular thought and foreign policy which can perhaps best be paraphrased by a t-shirt I remember from the seventies. Purporting to quote the Airborne, it said, "Kill them all: let God sort them out." This is the same attitude that has justified successive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone killings, and the infamous use of torture by U.S. intelligence services. Not only is such an approach morally repellent, but even the most hardened advocate of Realpolitik should be able to see by now that it is ineffective. Thinking that we have removed the cancer of Saddam Hussein, we have created the constantly metastasising Islamic State. Our cynical reflex is either to prop up brutal dictators like Abdel Fatteh El Sisi or the brutal Saudi regime when they serve us, or to obliterate their countries when they don't.

Karima Bennoune's insightful book suggests that there is a third approach, superficially less attractive and certainly more difficult, but morally appropriate and more conducive to long-term success. Bennoune is the daughter of an Algerian university professor and intellectual who survived the nineties in Algeria under constant threat from fundamentalist death squads and yet maintained a principled support for civil society. Inspired in part by her father's example, Bennoune has woven together the stories of courageous dissidents in the Muslim (mostly Arab) world who despite the neglect of Western media and human rights organizations, have continued to attempt to navigate the Scylla and Charibdys (her metaphor) of fundamentalist terror and state oppression.

Bennoune boldly, and I think correctly, asserts that the first bulwark and the last refuge against these twin evils is assertion of the rights of women in civil society. Women's rights are consistently among the first targets of fundamentalist violence, and state sponsorship of religion quickly curtails the rights of everyone who does not conform to the ethos of the prevailing regime. Thus it is no surprise that many of Bennoune's heroes are women who have opposed fundamentalist terror, both those who have risked or lost their lives and those who bear witness to the slaughter of their family and friends. In this sense, this is not an easy book to read, in light of the scale of suffering and the gruesome tactics employed against anyone who dares stand for simple human values.

One more point that Bennoune makes quite tellingly, however, is that however neglected they may be, the courageous champions of civil society, democracy, women's rights, and the rule of law whose struggles she memorializes are largely Muslims or at least citizens of Muslim states. Bennoune is at pains to shatter the perception that the Muslim world is no more than a seething cauldron of radical Islamism, and she issues a cri de coeur on behalf of the people in Muslim societies seeking to build — and rebuild — civil society.

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