Interview with Karima Bennoune, author of 'Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here'

Democratic and secular voices in Muslim majority countries have too often been sacrificed by the left in the west in the name of anti-imperialism and identity politics. The authoritarian movements of the far right, which democrats of the South oppose, must be recognized for what they are, Karima Bennoune tells Deniz Kandiyoti.

Photos of 44 women
Women killed by Algeria's fundamentalist armed groups 
during the 1990s. Image courtesy of Djazairouna
Deniz Kandiyoti: Your new book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism [18] gives a voice to the victims of fundamentalist violence in Muslim majority countries. What led you to this project?

Karima Bennoune: The book was inspired by my father’s experiences in Algeria in the 1990s when, as a progressive intellectual of Muslim heritage, he spoke out against rising Muslim fundamentalism [19] in his own country and faced grave threats as a result. He and Algerian democrats generally received little international solidarity, including from the left, during this terrible time. So I set out to meet people doing similar work today, to try to understand their analysis of the challenges they face, to try to give them more exposure and win them more support than their Algerian  counterparts received in the 90s.

I interviewed nearly 300 people from almost 30 countries – from Afghanistan to Mali. They include teachers in northern Mali who risked everything to keep their co-educational schools open under Jihadist domination, women lawyers in Afghanistan who dared prosecute in cases of violence against women despite Taliban threats and U.S. attempts to “reconcile” with the Taliban, feminists in Egypt and Tunisia who participated in revolutions against autocrats and then fought [22] to stop those revolutions being hijacked by Islamists, or journalists in Chechnya who braved both Russian bombardment and the crimes of foreign fighters but continued to speak out [23].  By portraying these lives in struggle and conveying these voices of conviction, I also hope to challenge stereotypical notions – whether on the left or on the right in the West - about the people we now simply call “Muslims”.

DK: Your arguments clearly shift the focus of analysis from “a clash of civilizations” to a clash within civilizations, or as you put it, “a clash of right wings, not civilizations”. How does this dynamic play out?

KB: I have been inspired in my thinking about these issues by the work of the anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada. She wrote the best book about the Danish cartoons controversy, called Comment Produire une crise mondiale avec douze petit dessins [24] (How to produce a global crisis with twelve little drawings). In it, she speaks critically both about the politics of the Danish far right and the Muslim far right. She is able to look at the problem through multiple lenses – that of discrimination against people of Muslim heritage, and that of Muslim fundamentalism  simultaneously,  thus better grasping the whole picture. That is what I am also trying to do.  Reacting to the conflagration over the offensive pseudo-film The Innocence of Muslims [25], Favret-Saada wrote [26] “On the one side we have cowardly networks of so-called defenders of the West who manufacture a provocation… and make terroristic use of freedom of expression, and on the other side Muslim fundamentalist commandoes… eagerly welcome this provocation… [E]ach needs the other to produce the desired effect… Together these militant groups cause considerable damage.” 

DK: As a secular feminist of Algerian origin, you convey a sense of betrayal on the part of the liberal left in the West who, in their eagerness to denounce imperialism, armed interventions and the abuses unleashed by the so-called war on terror, have endorsed some Islamist tendencies with little discernment about their policies or record. How did we get here?

KB: There are many examples of this stance – whether it is the uncritical attitude [27] of parts of the left and the human rights movement in Britain toward Moazzam Begg and Cage Prisoners that has been so strongly criticized by prominent South Asian feminists and others, or the pro bono representation of the interests of the late Anwar Awlaki and his family by the U.S. civil liberties group the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), with no effort to recognize Awlaki’s own record and his culpability in issuing threats of assassination (calling him simply “a Muslim cleric”), that has been opposed [28] by Algerian survivors of terrorism – and by myself when I sat on CCR’s Board How did we get here? There are a number of answers. The first has to do with the increasing hegemony of identity politics [30] and the assumption that this always represents a “progressive” stance. Yet identity politics covers over the fact that peoples of the Global South are as diverse as the rest of humanity, and are situated all across the political spectrum just like everyone else. Supporting the Muslim far right because they are Muslims still represents support for the far right. I was reminded again during the interviews for this book [18] that one has to be uncompromising in challenging the far right wherever one lives – whether one is Muslim, Christian, Jewish or atheist. 

Another irony is the reliance of some “post-colonial” scholars on a very colonial worldview –whereby there is one largely homogenous group of colonizers and a similarly homogenized group of colonized – and the only power dynamic that matters is that  between those two  groups. This is an oversimplification of today’s world where the dynamics are more complex, and in which there are multiple axes [31] along which power is exerted and dominance is asserted – multiple processes of subordination that resemble colonial domination. For example, women’s rights advocates I interviewed in Niger talked about Muslim fundamentalists’ attempts to “de-Africanize” their lived Islams, by imposing garments like the djilbab which are not indigenous to West Africa ,a quasi-colonial intrusion.  If we are committed to human rights and to equality, we have to take all these dynamics seriously. I refuse to be forced to choose between opposing colonialism and the burqa which are in fact about the same idea – subordination.

DK: Can you clarify your reluctance to accept at face value the distinctions the West has tried so hard to establish between so-called “moderate Islamists” (of the Ennahda and Muslim Brotherhood variety) and the jihadi manifestations of Islam? Where and how do you draw the lines?

KB: I do recognize distinctions among Islamist tendencies but have misgivings about the implications that have been ascribed to these distinctions in the West, and especially the way in which movements like Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have often been whitewashed in the process. At the end of the day, they are all right wing movements that uphold theocratic agendas of varying stripes which they promote by diverse means. 
What is fascinating to me is the attachment to the notion of “moderate Islamists” in the West, when, in many Muslim majority societies today, this is a highly contested notion.  For example, after the recent assassination of Mohamed Brahmi in Tunisia, many of the articles reporting this event in the Western media used the phrase “moderate party” to describe Tunisia’s ruling party Ennahda, even though many on the ground were blaming Ennahda for the assassination, either directly or at least indirectly by fostering the climate [32] that led to the killing. One leading Ennahda deputy made an inflammatory speech saying that anyone who supported the removal of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt  was a legitimate target – and Brahmi did praise what happened in Egypt before being felled [33] by 14 bullets. And yet this embrace of the “moderate Islamist” notion appeared in Western press articles on that same day... read more

See also
Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism

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