UC Davis law professor tells stories of Muslims resisting terror

Karima Bennoune
Karima Bennoune

As a girl in Algeria, Karima Bennoune watched her father, a professor, speak out against Islamic fundamentalism and terror in the face of death threats. Now the UC Davis international law professor travels the world to counter extremism. More than 1.3 million people have viewed her TED talk. Her book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Bennoune, 48, interviewed more than 300 activists working against terror in 30 countries when writing her book. She is a United Nations special reporter in the field of cultural rights, and in March she asked the U.N. Human Rights Council to combat the intentional destruction of cultural heritage sites such as the temples in Palmyra, Syria, that were badly damaged by the Islamic State.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Bennoune said the stories of Muslims resisting fundamentalism provide valuable context, particularly following terror attacks in San Bernardino, Paris and Brussels. She noted that the vast majority of terror victims worldwide are Muslim.

Q: What is fundamentalism and how has the West responded?

A: Fundamentalisms are political movements of the extreme right which manipulate religion in order to achieve their political aims. Some use and advocate violence; some do not. We must oppose these movements and support their grass-roots opponents. Western discourse has offered two flawed responses. Some on the right say most Muslims are fundamentalists, and Islam is inherently fundamentalist, which is offensive and wrong. But the left is too politically correct, and either denies the existence of Muslim fundamentalism or apologizes for it.

I’m painfully aware there’s been an increase. It’s not really helpful to start muttering platitudes that Islam is a religion of peace. Every major religion in the world has ideas that promote humanism, tolerance and compassion, and also the opposite. The Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam has been rejected by a huge number of Muslim scholars.

Along with acknowledging the heinousness of the attacks, we need to think about appropriate responses and inappropriate responses based on discrimination and lumping people in with the culprits on the basis of identity and religion. Fear is an understandable reaction.

Q: What can the world do to stop the so-called Islamic State?

A: Just as in any religion, we have to confront how a movement like this emerged and how we’ve been teaching young people about religion ... You have to go after the idea of the Islamic State, some sort of caliphate where all Muslims are going to live in a theocracy united through violence. Its recruitment is based on a series of very simple messages: the superiority of Muslims over other people, a very narrow definition of what it means to be a Muslim and a very rigorous code of behavior. There is this desperate human longing to belong, and they’re offering a sense of belonging to Muslim young people who feel lost.

We have a responsibility to do everything we can to make clear to these young people what these organizations have done and the crimes against Muslims, who are the majority of their victims, particularly Muslim women and religious minorities. We could offer a tour of international Muslim victims talking to young people who might be at risk.

People have different relationships with religion. There are people who get up to pray in the middle of an interview, others who toasted with wine the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. There does need to be at least in part a military response to groups killing thousands of persons, but mass popular mobilization against terrorism is also critical.

Most of the civilian population in Algeria turned on the armed groups, helping to end the mass casualties in the 1990s. You meet Pakistanis who go out and demonstrate against terrorism, even if they’re told suicide bombers will come. Sabeen Mahmud, who ran a cultural arts space and discussion group in Karachi, was assassinated last April 24. But her T2F cafe is still running and there’s a cultural arts festival going on in her memory. She said no cause is worth dying for, but you do have to take risks.

The more people who speak out, the safer the people are who do. Supporting these smaller civil society initiatives is incredibly important. This is a political, military and cultural struggle. In Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq you need a political settlement that requires the will of the international community.

Q: Tell us about your work with the United Nations.

A: My U.N. work is distinct from my personal research. I have been working on the intentional destruction of cultural heritage around the world by armed groups – and in some instances by states. I talk about the destruction at Palmyra, at Sufi sites in Libya and a number of other examples, including Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and Islamic manuscripts in Mali.

Our first report in March was welcomed by 145 states who made a commitment to really tackle the problem. One convention – or treaty – requires the prosecution of people who have taken part in the destruction. Accountability is critical. And educating young people about the importance of cultural heritage is a really critical thing the U.N. can do. We live in a time when a 20-year-old can destroy a 2,000-year old temple in the blink of an eye and distribute videos of the destruction worldwide.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMaga gnini