“Who will be Muslim after they have killed everyone?” asks Malian women’s rights activist Djingarey Maiga rhetorically, referring to the Islamic extremists who seized control of the northern half of Mali for nearly a year and carried out a reign of terror. Maiga is one of nearly 300 antifundamentalist “people of Muslim heritage” from 26 countries interviewed by Karima Bennoune for her stirring and urgent book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here.”
The author, a University of California at Davis law professor, grew up in Algeria. The paroxysm of violence that gripped her country following the military’s scrapping of an election fundamentalists stood poised to win in 1992 changed her life, and led her to write this book.
Her moving ode to otherwise unsung heroes of the resistance to Muslim fundamentalism in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and even the United States derives its title from a line in the Punjabi historical drama “Bulha.” When zealots accost the disciples of Sufi mystic Bulha Shah and inform them that their devotional music and singing is un-Islamic, one of the accused retorts: “Your fatwas do not apply here.”
For all their differences, Muslim fundamentalists seek to curtail women’s rights. Fittingly, Bennoune, who arranges her material in a haphazard manner, focuses on women and men — rights activists, artists, intellectuals, and journalists — battling the misogyny poisoning their societies. Organizations such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws span the globe and are rather well known. Other groups — such as Djazairouna in Algeria, BAOBAB in Nigeria, and the Research Group on Women and the Law in Senegal — operate locally and languish in obscurity, despite performing work critical for the protection of women.
Bennoune’s important book may change this. “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” could hearten those at the forefront of the struggle against fundamentalism, and even link such like-minded but often isolated people, creating a network to rival that of their tormentors.
Take note of Bennoune’s choice of interviewees. Though of Muslim origin, many are non-observant. This contrasts with the Western media’s general preference for devout Muslims who oppose fundamentalism out of religious conviction; such people are often considered more authentic representatives of their countries than their secular compatriots. This selective and sometimes self-defeating approach even extends to politics. Bennoune laments that Western countries often end up “treating fundamentalists not engaged in terrorism against Westerners as allies against those who are. This is disastrous for [ordinary Muslims] on the ground forced to contend with both cohorts.”
Bennoune also directs forthright and much-needed criticism at Western human rights organizations (including Amnesty International, her former employer) for repeatedly ignoring victims of Islamic terrorism. Such organizations readily condemn state violence but become reticent when the perpetrators are non-state actors. She laments that sometimes they go so far as to attribute violence by fundamentalists to unknown elements rather than their true authors.
If Bennoune were to write about Muslims who have capitalized on the possibilities afforded by the Internet to cultivate freethinking, she would likely devote some space to Amir Ahmad Nasr. A 27-year-old Sudanese who grew up in Qatar and Malaysia — where he still lives — Nasr gained recognition for his blog The Sudanese Thinker.
He has now written a memoir, “My Isl@m,” chronicling the Internet’s role in facilitating his escape from the mental shackles of the rigid brand of Islam Koran teachers and others inculcated in him.
On the whole, Nasr’s journey proves unremarkable. This is almost invariably the case with fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) who recount their long and tortuous path to moderation and intellectual inquiry. After all, their story is one of catching up with the more-or-less reasonable people all around them, and their discoveries will not strike the already independent-minded as profound or even especially insightful.
Nevertheless, Nasr throws up a surprise every now and then. For example, unlike Bennoune, he tackles Koranic passages, bravely conceding that some are problematic insofar as women’s equality is concerned. He also registers the point that “interpreting verses metaphorically and freely without some proper objective methodology would constitute wishful thinking and personalized cherry-picking.”
Nasr uses the analogy of arranged marriage to frame his relationship with Islam. After a period of happiness followed by much acrimony, he divorced the religion. Eventually, with the help of the writings of Ken Wilber, who seeks to harmonize science and spirituality, he reconciled with it — but on his own terms. This resembles the journey of Bennoune, an agnostic who says of her experience researching this book: “Fundamentalism had pushed me away from Islam, but these antifundamentalists gave my own version of that heritage back to me in all its beauty and contradiction.”
My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind — and Doubt Freed My Soul
By Amir Ahmad Nasr
St. Martin’s, 322 pp., $26.99Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at email@example.com.