‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here’ examines resisting fundamentalism

The cover of "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here" by author Karima Bennoune.
(W.W. Norton)

When a relentless pounding shook her family’s apartment door in Algiers, Karima Bennoune recalls grabbing a paring knife from the kitchen and hiding. “My father looked at me and rolled his eyes,” she writes in the introduction to “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here.” “But I could not come up with anything else to do. So there I stood.”

Her reaction was not all that absurd. She was, after all, the daughter of a marked man. Her secular Muslim father was a professor during the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in 1990s Algeria, and his teachings of Darwinism at the university as well as his criticism of growing religious militias made him a prime target.

Though the visit turned out to be nothing more than a warning, it ignited something in Karima. Twenty years later she’s still fighting back against those who oppress and terrorize in the name of religion, except these days she’s not hiding.

“The struggle waged in Muslim majority societies against extremism is one of the most important — and overlooked — human rights struggles in the world,” writes Bennoune, who is now a professor herself at the UC Davis School of Law and has spent the last two decades advocating for human rights. Her latest attempt, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” aims to give voice to those who are most at risk from Islamic fundamentalism: Muslims.


From 2010 to 2012, Bennoune traveled the globe, conducting 286 interviews with “people of Muslim heritage.” She spoke with housewives, Muslim Brotherhood members, former hostages, actors, feminists and schoolchildren from 26 countries, gathering stories about their often risky pursuit of education, creative freedom and choice in the face of extremism.

They were “people who prayed in the middle of the interview and others who drank wine when I met them on the prophet Muhammad’s birthday,” she writes, and Bennoune spoke to them in places such as Kabul, Lahore, Minneapolis, Cairo and the Gaza Strip.

Bennoune weaves their stories with her own extensive research and connects the countless narratives with plenty of her own opinions (there’s a chapter titled “Why I Hate Al Qaeda”).

But it’s the people who make this book a fascinating and often heartbreaking read.


“In his tight turban and long white beard, Syed Ahmad Hosaini does not look anything like what some might think a women’s rights advocate should look like,” she writes of a mullah and former mujahid who, after working with refugee families in Iran, now travels Afghanistan teaching the basics of women’s rights. "[A]s I sit with the mullah, [the wind] nearly carries away the headscarf I have to wear here time and again, leaving chunks of my curls blowing in the breeze. Syed Hosaini looks as though he could care less.”

When introducing a Pakistani who’s come up against more than just adversity, she wastes no time getting at how much he’s risking just to be heard: “Six months after I met Ahmed, his fellow journalist Saleen Shahzad was horribly beaten to death and dumped in a canal.” And there are those activists whose families now speak for them, like law student Amel Zenoune-Zouani, a young Algerian woman whose throat was cut for defying militants by attending college.

Bennoune’s writing is crisp and conversational, and she possesses a deft sense of how to clearly deconstruct the most ingrained American arguments about violence in the name of Islam.

“In the West, it is sometimes assumed that Muslims generally condone terrorism,” writes Bennoune. “The Right often presumes this because it views Muslim culture as inherently violent. The Left at times imagines this because it interprets fundamentalist terrorism as simply a reaction of legitimate grievances. In fact, many people of Muslim heritage — though not yet enough — are ardent opponents of fundamentalist violence, and for very good reason. Statistically, they are much more likely to be victims.”


The author does have her own blind spots, though. Her defiantly secular outlook makes it difficult for her to understand the mere concept of faith at times, and she’s unable to accept how a woman would actually choose to cover her hair with niqab. Bennoune also loses her balance when railing too often against Americans — Muslim or not — who’ve defended the religion post-9/11, claiming that these attempts to combat Islamaphobia in fact gloss over the inherent problem of fundamentalism.

But as an American writer of Muslim descent, she walks a shaky tightrope here: Criticize anything Islam and become a poster gal for right-wing Islamophobes. Defend it and become an apologist for radicals. Stay in between and chances are you’ll still be co-opted — willing or not — by at least one of these dueling forces.

Still, the risk is worth it. Cable news pundits and agenda-driven activists may dictate the ways in which we discuss and think about issues surrounding religious fundamentalism here in the U.S., but it’s the experiences of the people on the ground — argues Bennoune — that we should be listening to. And now, thanks to the girl with the paring knife, we are.


Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here
Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism

Karima Bennoune
W.W. Norton & Company: 416 pp., $27.95