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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune. Bennoune grew up in Algeria and is a professor of international law at the University of California Davis School of Law. Islamophobia is real and thriving around the world, but nowhere more than in the United States. Some Americans misunderstand the founding principles of Islam as well as the difference between fundamentalist extremists and moderate, peaceful followers. 

In fact, according to a 2011 Gallup poll, 52 percent of respondents said the U.S. does not respect Muslim societies. It should come as no surprise that this sentiment may very well be perpetrated by a loud group of conservatives who time and time again prove they have zero understanding of Islam. Some are turning this into a witch hunt, even accusing other Republicans of helping the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrate our government. And of course they even insist that President Obama himself is a Muslim conspiring to spread Islam here in the United States. 

Bennoune advocates for the fact that being Muslim is not a problem, but sacred like any other religion. She addresses the violence that peaceful Muslims face every day for rejecting extremism and even speaking out against it. Muslims across the world, and especially those here in the U.S., are a group we should understand and empathize with, rather than isolating as “others.”

You can purchase the book here.

Many groups in Muslim majority societies regularly denounce terrorism, even when doing so is dangerous and receives minimal international publicity. In the West, it is sometimes assumed that Muslims generally condone terrorism. 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 reflection 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 of terrorism than its perpetrators. Terrorism directed against Jews, Hindus, Christians, atheists, or anyone else is equally appalling, and Muslim fundamentalists have also killed many across these categories. But those most commonly on the receiving end in recent years have been people of Muslim heritage killed by Muslim fundamentalists. During Ramadan 2012 alone, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for 131 attacks in Iraq, killing four hundred. A 2009 study of Arabic media sources by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that only 15 percent of Al Qaeda’s casualties between 2004 and 2008 were Westerners. Between 2006 and 2008, fully 98 percent of Al Qaeda’s victims were of Muslim heritage.

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I think of the celebrated Arab American filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who made films about Libya’s independence struggle and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (as well as the moneymaking Halloween movies). He perished at a wedding along with his daughter and fifty-five others, including relatives of the bride and groom, during a 2005 bombing by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Pakistani religious scholar Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, of the Barelvi school, chaired a meeting of Islamic religious scholars that denounced suicide terror in 2009. “Those who commit suicide attacks for attaining paradise will go to hell, as they kill many innocent people,” he reportedly said. Later that year, on June 12, he was himself targeted by just such a paradise-seeking Taliban bomber and killed after Friday prayers.

My childhood neighbor in Algiers, Chadly Hamza, was one of those truly kind people you gravitate toward as a kid. A consultant for the UN Development Programme who also worked to create study-abroad programs for young Algerians, he was murdered by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with thirty-three others, in a December 2007 suicide bombing of a UN building in Algiers. The last time I heard from Hamza, as my dad called him, in 2005, he told me he had made a conscious choice to stay in Algeria to try to improve conditions, “rather than just being a consumer of development wherever I could have emigrated.”

All these people of Muslim heritage fell to the fundamentalists, an immeasurable loss to their families, their countries, and the world. That is why so many know that this jihad has got to stop.

However, the scale of such losses to terrorism in Muslim majority populations is not always well understood elsewhere. In the spring of 2010, I served on an Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) task force set up to consider what the organization could do to improve its work against terrorism. I spent frustrating hours trying to convince some other members that our task was vital to many people of Muslim heritage, not something they would oppose. Ultimately, we recommended that AIUSA hold an event about the human rights of victims of terrorism around the world, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The board of AIUSA rejected this, in large part because they believed such an event would contribute to discrimination against Muslims. They too seemed to assume that Muslims were mostly associated with perpetrators of terrorism, not with its targets, or at least this is what the public would think. It was easier to say nothing.

During the unhappy debate on the Amnesty task force, I thought a lot about my Algerian cousin Ahcene, a retired soldier from a peasant background who could not read. In 1994, he was killed by terrorists in front of his children on the eve of Eid el-Kebir, one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year. After riddling him with bullets, the fundamentalists attacked what remained of his body. His seven-year-old daughter, who threw herself on her father’s remains to protect him, was covered in his blood. Though she survived, I always thought they must have killed part of her too.

You do not have to be an international lawyer to know what terrorism is and that it includes such acts. Most people can agree it is violence intentionally directed against civilians for a political or ideological purpose, or for the purpose of spreading terror. The outstanding definitional debate about who can commit it—states, non-state armed groups, “freedom fighters”—masks a political debate about when to employ the label: only against those with whom we disagree, or whenever it applies.

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In any case, there is no denying that jihadist groups have purveyed widespread terrorism in recent decades, killing hundreds of thousands and provoking further bigotry against Muslims and counterterror abuses. It is an awful cycle I call “terror/torture.” It did not commence on September 11, 2001, but long before. Some will rush to say this is all justified by a range of grievances—lack of democracy, violations of human rights, military occupation. Many of those injustices are very real. However, the fundamentalist bombers often purvey equally grave injustices—or seek to—and their victims are in no way responsible for the underlying problems.

The legendary sardonic Algerian columnist Saïd Mekbel addressed a February 1994 open letter to the terrorists of Algeria, a letter that distills the rage of many people in Muslim majority societies against those who butcher in the name of Allah. “Tell me, partisan of terrorism . . . you who regularly . . . explain that terrorist acts are done . . . to—I quote—‘bring down the military junta in power,’ tell me how assassinating a schoolteacher in front of . . . the children in his class, when he only had a little piece of chalk in his hands, tell me . . . how this ignoble execution contributes to ‘bringing down the military junta.’ ” Ten months later, the man who asked this question was himself fatally shot by a partisan of the Armed Islamic Group while eating in a restaurant near his office.

There are, of course, Muslim fundamentalist groups that do not use violence, and some that do not even condone it. There are also many others who have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam—Jewish settlers in the West Bank, for example, or Christian fundamentalist opponents of abortion in the United States—who have employed terrorism. But the Salafi jihadi groups have perfected the practice. As someone I interviewed said, “They excel in the art of terror.” They have shredded rahma (mercy), a foundational principle of Islamic teachings. For example, Algerian fundamentalists claimed that the more the victims suffered, the wider the doors of paradise would open for their jihadi killers. In other words, the terrorism was an end, not just the means.

The suffering was part of the point.

Acting in total violation of both international and Islamic humanitarian law, Muslim fundamentalist armed groups have made it seem as though suicide bombing is associated with Islam. They have blown up cafés in Morocco, churches in Cairo, the offices of the Red Crescent in Baghdad. They have used chemicals to attack girls’ schools in Afghanistan. The struggle to stop this antihuman violence is one of the world’s major human rights challenges.

The fact that the lamentable George W. Bush declared war on terrorism does not make it a good thing. The reality that governments have grossly abused human rights in the name of fighting terrorism does not make that fight any less important. It simply means we have to combat several forms of suffering simultaneously, rather than tolerating either one in the name of the other. These truths were confirmed to me along the way in Algiers, in Kabul, in Moscow, and in Lahore.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Excerpted from Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune. Copyright © 2013 by Karima Bennoune. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Danziger Draws

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star.