A Risky Middle Road

Karima Bennoune, author of “Your Fatwa Doesn’t Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism,” came to LMU’s Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts in September to amplify voices. She told stories of moderate, secular and democratic Muslims in countries from Algeria to Pakistan and Syria whose lives are endangered by religious fundamentalism and whose voices rarely break through the clutter of Western media.

Bennoune’s book is the result of almost 300 interviews with Muslims who live with threats and violence, including family members of those murdered by extremists. One interview subject was Maria Bashir, the only female chief prosecutor in Afghanistan. She “appeared at the interview with 23 bodyguards,” Bennoune said.

Part of Bennoune’s presentation was a slideshow featuring artists, activists, educators and others working for democratic rights despite the risks. Among her images were women murdered by armed fundamentalists, including Amel Zenoune-Zouani, a law student at the University of Algiers. As a warning to others, she was murdered in daylight, her throat cut, after being taken off a public bus.

Bennoune defined fundamentalism as political movements of the extreme right that manipulate religions to further their political aims. “We need a principled, human rights-based critique of Muslim fundamentalism,” the Algerian-American law professor said. Her purpose in writing the book and speaking at LMU, she said, was to support the “people on the ground who are doing the human rights work.”

But the author’s critique extended to simplistic analyses of Western political commentators on the right and left ends of the political spectrum. Those fighting for human rights, she said, “want to see the world break out of false dichotomies of believing that only two alternatives exist: secular state authoritarianism vs. fundamentalist [Islam]. The challenge is to find a way to support an alternative to those two choices, as difficult as it may seem.”

Those remarks were seconded by Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate and President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence at LMU, who was a member of a faculty panel that responded after the presentation. Soyinka castigated both political views, the “right and its knee-jerk discrimination of every-thing Muslim, and the left, which explains terrorism as little more than the fruit of Western imperialism and its colonial history.”