Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here by Karima Bennoune

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here by Karima Bennoune.

New York and London: WW Norton and Company, 2013.


In Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, human rights lawyer and professor of international law, Karima Bennoune, tells the stories of people of Muslim heritage who, at no small risk to their safety, have taken a stand against Muslim fundamentalism.

The title of the book is relevant to a point first raised in the introduction, that Muslim fundamentalists believe that Sharia should prevail, but a Sharia only as they interpret it.   Unlike religions which have an ultimate decider, in Islam there exist multiple interpretations of the Sharia.  The notion of a monolithic Islamic law, Bennoune says, is simply erroneous.

Recognizing that fundamentalism is not one idea but embraces a variety of ideologies, movements and politics with some commonalities, Bennoune works toward a definition of fundamentalism.  Along with this approach to Sharia, Muslim fundamentalists seek the creation of Islamic states, and wish to see politicized religion throughout all spheres of life.

Some fundamentalist interpretations are wholly removed from their cultural settings.  In a curious detail of Islamic globalization, despite the traditional dress of Nigerien Muslim women being the colorful boubou, local fundamentalists demand that the Muslim women of Niger wear the Arab veil, deemphasizing their African background.

As examples of Muslim fundamentalists, Bennoune points to political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, as well as extreme Salafi armed movements, such as the Taliban and al Shabaab – the latter much in the news after last week’s killing of 67 and injuring of 167 in Nairobi, Kenya’s Westgate Mall.

Subtitled Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism , the book is the result of a year spent traveling across the Maghreb, the Middle East, and South Asia. After interviewing 286 people in 26 countries, Prof. Bennoune settled on a book of a dozen chapters.  The mere recitation of the several chapter titles provides a taste of the book’s expansive coverage: “Karachi Open Mic,” “the Imam’s Liberated Daughter,” “Reading Spinoza in Tehran,” and “the Ramadan Basketball Tournament.”

The author writes from a lonely position, but one shared with heroes of this book, that of a secular person of Muslim heritage seeking justice while straddling a world with both rising Muslim fundamentalism and increased discrimination against Muslims.  This proves to be a complex equipoise.  By her own admission not everyone agrees with her views.

The author describes our ironic world.  A world where, as a counter to more extreme groups, the West defends “moderate” fundamentalist groups – some of whom deceive employ “double discourse,” providing a toned down ideology for consumption in the West, while pushing a radical message for consumption at home.  A world where the Liberal West has defended far right Muslims while ignoring their victims.  A world  where “The Left has often downplayed the threat of extremism and dazzled by the golden words of Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan in the International Herald Tribune, assuring them that there is no risk.”

Professor Bennoune has performed a valuable service, documenting a variety of horrors and some hopes, educating those of us who need substantial assistance to understand these complex issues. Hers is a personal journey, with the reader as her companion. Her writing is far from dry or clinical, although she recognizes that some interviewees, relating their oral histories, considered her “the woman who makes people weep.”  She writes not without a sense of humor, suggesting early on that she could have named the book, Eat, Pray, Hate.

In the face of the extremism of both fundamental Muslims and Christians—and the book provides a plethora of examples—some ask, why don’t Muslims speak out?  “But almost no one was listening to those who did,” is her reply.

This afternoon Thursday, October 3, in Oakes Hall room 012 we have an opportunity to listen to Professor Bennoune, who’s visit is sponsored by Vermont Law School’s International and Comparative Law program

Carl A. Yirka