Whenever a terrorist attack happens in the West, one of the standard responses in some media circles is to denounce Muslims for not doing enough to speak out against extremism. In “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” University of California at Davis law professor and human rights activist Karima Bennoune shows that in fact, thousands of Muslims fight extremist violence every day.

Those who look under every rock for evidence of creeping sharia in the United States might be surprised to learn that most fundamentalist violence disproportionately affects people in Muslim-majority societies. Bennoune leverages surprising statistics, such as a 2009 study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that found that only 15 percent of al-Qaeda casualties between 2004 and 2008 were Westerners. And between 2006 and 2008, 98 percent of al-Qaeda’s victims were Muslim.

Bennoune offers a compelling, meticulously researched account of the legions of Muslims whose struggles against fundamentalist violence are almost never reported in our media. She cites her father, Mahfoud Bennoune, as her inspiration for writing this book. An outspoken Algerian social science professor and critic of extremists, he was placed on a death list during that country’s civil war in the 1990s, a conflict in which more than 150,000 people were killed. “My father’s country,” she writes, “showed me . . . that the struggle waged in Muslim majority societies against extremism is one of the most important — and overlooked — human rights struggles in the world.”

In countries as ethnically and linguistically diverse as Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan and Tunisia, Bennoune interviewed activists, artists and human rights defenders who have continued their work even in the face of threats against their lives. Some have lost nearly everything to violence; they include Cherifa Kheddar, founder of Djazairouna, an activist group that supports the survivors of violence from the Algerian civil war. During the 1990s, Kheddar’s mother and sister were shot to death and her brother tortured, while Kheddar escaped by running out the back door. Other people Bennoune interviews have narrowly dodged suicide bombs, threats and assassination attempts for acts as seemingly innocuous as putting on children’s theater, as in the case of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop of Pakistan.

The resilience of people in the face of devastating threats is staggering. Yet many of Bennoune’s subjects receive little support within their societies, where citizens either blame terrorism on Western conspiracies or are too fearful of being targeted to speak out. Bennoune also criticizes international human rights organizations and academics for their relativist stances. She offers several examples of Muslims seeking recognition of human rights violations from international organizations, which all too often dismiss their claims or tell them that concepts such as women’s equality do not represent the views of the majority.

‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism’ by Karima Bennoune (W. W. Norton)

Similarly, Bennoune feels that academics are overly sympathetic to the notion that “Islamists represent ordinary people, and their opponents are simply elite.” Throughout the book, she describes numerous occasions when Western liberals have championed Islamists as the democratic choice of the masses, even when there has been documented evidence of the same Islamist groups violating human rights or ignoring democratic principles once elected.

Although much of the book documents actual acts or threats of fundamentalist violence, Bennoune takes issue with political Islam itself. Islamists, she asserts, mask a totalitarian agenda behind double talk: presenting one face to the West and another to Muslims. She cites multiple examples, such as when Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi announced on British TV that Islam does not “require a war against . . . homosexuals” while telling Al Jazeera that gays are “sexual perverts” who should face punishments that range from stoning to “being thrown from a high place.”

Nor do Western governments and their allies escape Bennoune’s scrutiny. While covering Arab Spring political winners (such as the “moderate” Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda) with a skeptical eye, she denounces those on the right who use “the spectre of a fundamentalist ascent to justify opposition to Arab democracy.” Nor does she shy away from presenting evidence of atrocities committed by governments in the name of combating fundamentalist violence. Bennoune notes that in her own country of origin, Algeria, at least 6,000 people disappeared at the hands of the government during the 1990s.

This is a well-written if grim book, impressive for the amount of evidence Bennoune compiles and her poignant interviews with diverse subjects. The author’s complex stance will be challenging to those who insist on seeing extremist violence in Muslim-majority societies in black-and-white terms. It also takes provocative yet justified stabs at human rights groups and academics, who will no doubt be surprised to learn they are not necessarily the good guys in this account.

Yet Bennoune insists that opposing fundamentalism should not entail supporting the autocratic regimes favored in the past by American foreign policy. Rather, she suggests that the fight against fundamentalist violence must involve empowering civil society in Muslim-majority countries, promoting education and refusing alliances of convenience with so-called moderate fundamentalists, whose moderation Bennoune emphatically rejects.

“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” should be required reading, not only for those of us who are professionally involved with Muslim-majority societies, but also for anyone who mistakenly believes that Muslims are doing nothing to end fundamentalist violence.

Rachel Newcomb teaches anthropology at Rollins College and is the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco” and a novel, “The Gift.”


Untold Stories From
the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism

By Karima Bennoune

Norton. 402 pp. $27.95