Thursday, February 19, 2015

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here (1)

At the beginning of her moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, Algerian-American author and academic Karima Bennoune makes her identity as a woman of the Left very clear, almost ostentatiously so. I found this a little irritating, but as I read further it became much clearer why she did this; for a recurring theme in the book is how Western liberals, progressives and people of the Left have continually betrayed those who are threatened, have been victimised by or oppose Islamic fundamentalism within Muslim countries and communities. Early on, she writes:
One of the characteristics of left-of-centre Western responses to Muslim fundamentalism has often been to talk about something else whenever the topic comes up. The anniversary of September 11 is a time to criticise the U.S. government. An Afghan woman having her nose cut off by the Taliban becomes a platform for saying that there is violence against women everywhere. (p.24)
Nor will they allow women of Muslim heritage to tell them differently:
Yanar Mohammed [Iraqi women's right activist] tells me that because of her open criticism of fundamentalists, she has increasingly limited opportunities to speak to the media, and progressive groups in the West no longer invite her. There seems to be an unwritten rule on the Western left that women of Muslim heritage are only allowed to criticize the violence of Western men. (Pp249-50)
Being against, for example, the US invasion of Iraq is not enough. Algerian feminist historian Anissa Helie wrote an article (The U.S. Occupation and Rising Religious Extremism: the Double Threat to Women in Iraq) criticising simplistic rhetoric emanating from the Western Left:
Western mainstream media and human rights organizations tend to describe these militants' acts of violence using terms such as "insurgency." There is also a tendency within some leftist and feminist circles to label Muslim extremists - who kill, rape, kidnap women and girls and openly target civilians - as "the resistance." This is highly problematic in that the word "resistance" has a revolutionary, heroic connotation that leaves unchallenged the political agenda pursued by fundamentalist factions in Iraq. In the U.K., leading voices from the left further romanticize the Iraqi "armed resistance against imperialism," even comparing it to independence struggles in Vietnam and Algeria. It is worth remembering that there are plenty of unarmed civilians, as well as groups of every political affiliation, that reject the U.S. occupation yet do not engage in violence or human rights violations. Islamist fighters should not be confused with national liberation movements. 
The "resistance" label is politically misleading in the Iraqi context, at least as far as Muslim fundamentalist groups are concerned. It is inadequate because the emphasis is narrowly placed on a rejection of U.S. occupation. Despite the anti-imperialist claims made by the leaders of armed groups, it seems very unlikely that if or when U.S. troops withdraw, persecution of women or religious and sexual minorities will stop - because what is really at stake is a theocratic agenda. Referring to "resistance fighters" is also dangerous because it valorizes and glorifies Muslim right-wing militants. It renders invisible the authoritarian nature of extreme-right movements that use religion, culture and ethnicity to impose their project of society onto people. 
What we have in Iraq is violence. What we have is a struggle for power, with various forces using extremely violent means - and different discourses. Some use dialectics of "democracy" and "importing freedom," while others use the "resisting imperialism" rhetoric.The current situation in Iraq sadly illustrates the knee-jerk thoughtlessness with which some progressive constituencies in the West adopt a language that blurs complex political realities. Even more worrisome is the increasing tendency for left-identified individuals and groups to lend support to right-wing Muslims on the basis of their (alleged) anti-imperialist stand. Growing numbers of activists embrace short-sighted strategies, insisting for example that the Western "antiwar movement must not lose sight of the fact that its main enemy is at home-and any resistance to that enemy deserves our unconditional support."[ What is alarming about this statement is the immediate allegiance to unconditional support, without regard to the ideologies, practices, and acts of violence of those groups. 
In Muslim contexts, as elsewhere, there are progressive and reactionary voices. Somehow, these political standpoints become blurred as segments of the Western left seem to adopt the strategy of "the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend," even though Khomeini's post-revolutionary Iran should have taught us that it is indeed misguided to confuse anti-women, anti-minorities, anti-diversity voices with those of feminists or progressive advocates. This ideological confusion is not lost on Muslim fundamentalists - who are anything but politically naïve. In fact, their soft-spoken leaders actively take advantage of a misplaced white guilt to expand their hold on the West. The bloody hands threaten and the educated intellectuals charm: such is the division of labor for these extremists.
After quoting from the above passage, Karima Bennoune writes:
Sadly, someone on the left in the West can always be counted on to attack women of Muslim heritage who raise such concerns. Corinna Mullin, a lecturer in Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, accused Helie in an online response of Orientalism and "mimicking Bush." Meanwhile, Iraq's fundamentalist armed groups, whom Helie "dared" censure, were hunting gay men and blowing up the Iraqi Red Crescent, Iraqi Chaldean churches, and lines of young men waiting in line to get desperately needed jobs as policemen. How could the U.S. occupation ever justify these crimes?  (p249)
And using the accusation of "Orientalism" against an Algerian feminist talking about her own civilisation; really? But I suppose thoughtcrime is thoughtcrime.

It is not as if the aims of the Muslim fundamentalists are in any way mysterious. Karima Bennoune quotes a statement by Tunisian Salafists:
Democracy is an impious concept...because its principles are based on liberties that include the right not to believe in God, which is punishable by death in Islam...How can we think that an unbeliever can be the equal of a Muslim, or that a woman can be the equal of a man? (p.294)
Muslim fundamentalism is a movement that even sanctifies sadism:
Algerian fundamentalists claimed that the more the victims suffered, the wider the doors of paradise would open for their jihadi killers. In other words, terrorism was an end, not just a means (p.239).
Algerian war correspondent Selima Tlemcani clarifies this embracing of terrorism as an end in itself when she explains how fundamentalists (mis)use the writings of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328):
The awful genius of the fundamentalists was to use religion as the justification for the most sacrilegious behaviour. "They always found verses to take out of context to justify what they did. They said in communiques: 'We will protect the children we kill from growing up an living in an impious society of apostates.'" (p.137)
As for so-called "lone wolves" (which we have recently seen Brooklyn, Sydney and Copenhagen),  comments by "Shirin", a Pakistani queer activist, are surely apposite (and extends well beyond the specific context of violence against sexual and gender minorities):
In the current environment, Shirin worries not only by the Taliban but also fundamentalist lone wolves, "some righteously indignant observant-in-his-own-head, very faithful Muslim person who says, 'Who are these bad women?' That is all it would take." Extremism has magnified the risk of such responses, she suggests by putting forward "the legitimacy of violence as an honorable thing". In the light of putatively "honourable" violence, almost no one faces more risk from fundamentalists that LGBT/queer people of Muslim heritage. (p.104)
Such preaching about "honourable violence" is, for example, part of the background to the Danish attack. This is not just a matter of what is going on in Islamic countries, but also within Muslim communities in the West.

The struggle within Islam
What is very clear from this enlightening study is not only that most of the victims of Muslim fundamentalism are fellow Muslims (that has always been obvious if one paid any attention at all) but that most of their opponents are also Muslims; both Muslims in the sense of followers of Islam and Muslim in the sense of being of Muslim heritage (remembering that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation). People who fight for values worth supporting; those who:
do this not by mouthing platitudes about "Islam-religion-of-peace" but in many cases by putting their lives on the line to fight fundamentalism (p.9).
Karima Bennoune is trying to break through Western framings--both those which see Islam per se as the problem and those focused on battling anti-Muslim discrimination, searching for "legitimate grievances" to "explain" the violence, or even valorising the violence as "anti-imperialist". She explains the need to break through such framings clearly in this Ted talk (summary transcript here).

Both framings make the real struggle within Islamic societies and communities invisible. A struggle whose death toll is in the hundreds of thousands and whose victims number many millions. As Karima Bennoune writes:
Muslim fundamentalism is the kind of unifying topic that often reduces large part of the American political spectrum to proceeding by parody. Either the right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards on 1-75 south of Detroit decrying "Sharia in America," or the left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid are there to tell us what they call Sharia really is, or can be if you just reinterpret it a little. One of my favourite examples of this, posted on the website of the Center for American Progress on International Women's Day 2011 and called "Setting the Record Straight on Sharia," is a glowing interview with a veiled American Muslim law professor who reassures us that Sharia is simply about "ideals of justice, fairness and the good life." She advocates its use in the United States. The piece does not say a word about the purported application of Sharia has meant for the lives of women (and men) around the world.
Such floggings and amputations in Iran or the litany of executions from a memorial website for the multitude of victims of the Iranian Revolution and the theocratic state it gave birth to.

Karima Bennoune is haunted by the deaths, sorrows and the stories of the victims and opponents of fundamentalism in danger. As she says, people may ask:
"Why don't the Muslims speak out?" But almost no one was listening to those who did (p.6).
In interviewing 300 people across four continents (North America, Europe, Africa, Asia) and almost 30 countries, she spent years being, in her words, "the woman who made people cry" as they related their stories and their losses; dead fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives: violence seen, violence suffered, violence lived in fear of, in expectation of: the lives lost, restricted, haunted, blighted. But also ennobled by striking heroism.  

The failure of people on the Western Right to see the Muslim opponents of Muslim fundamentalism Karima Bennoune perhaps expects. It is the failure of "her" people--Western liberals, progressives, leftists--to do so which grieves and frustrates her far more. After all, the dead, the blighted and the openly opposing are so often people exactly like them--academics, unionists, journalists, women's activists. By not seeing what a personal, moral and social disaster Islamic fundamentalism both threatens and imposes, they are betraying Muslim liberals, progressives, leftists, secularists: and, of course ordinary Muslims. Particularly so when allowing fundamentalists to parade as manifestations of what is "authentically" Muslim or Islamic.

Including in very perverse ways:
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. (p.236)
Yet Muslims are the most likely targets of such violence.  Consider the case of 22 year old Amel Zenoune-Zouani, taken off a bus and murdered on January 26, 1997 on the outskirts of Sidi Moussa in Algeria. Her killers, from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) told the passengers after they had killed here:
If you go to school, if you go to university, the day will come when we will kill of all of you like this.
"Western" education, particularly education of women, is one of their "grievances". As the Taliban have since demonstrated with murder and violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Boko Haram has demonstrated with murder and violence in Nigeria, as the Islamic State has demonstrated with murder and violence in Syria and Iraq.

The perspective from Algeria
That Karima Bennoune was born and raised in Algeria, living during the horrors of the Algerian Civil  War (1991-2002), when her own father was threatened with death for teaching Darwin, gives her both  personal experience, and a very revealing perspective, for understanding Muslim fundamentalism. For here was a brutal and violent program of terror and assassination in a country which had not been place of Cold War struggles, nor subject to Western intervention, nor in anyway seriously touched by the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Muslim country, which had had a secular (notionally socialist) government for decades. (Though one whose President had fostered fundamentalist movements to help stay in power: playing footsie with the fundamentalists always comes back and bites you.) Yet all the horrors we have come to associate with jihadi violence were played out there. Including gang rapes which are recurring feature of jihadi violence (p.308) and killing of journalists, cartoonists, commentators. In a struggle largely ignored then and even more so since:
Algerian psychologist and women's rights advocate Charifa Bouatta says there is still tremendous anger at those internationally--the Left, human rights advocates--who could have been the allies of progressive antifundamentalists but were not. "No one said, 'We are with you.' " (p.4)
There were lots of dead Muslim journalist precursors to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Which make the claims about offended "Muslim" sensibilities all the more otiose. As British anti-fundamentalist Muslim Maajid Nawaz has tweeted:
So, if the appeasers of jihadism ask people not to offend terrorists by drawing cartoons, what should Jews do not to offend? Cease to exist?
A recurring refrain from those interviewed, in country after country, is that they no longer see or recognise the Islam of their youth; laments about how much what one can do has been narrowed. The Charlie Hebdo killings, like so any before, were part of a continuing, violent and brutal war to redefine, and hugely narrow, what it means to be Muslim.

Defining fundamentalism
Events elsewhere were not completely separate to the Algerian struggle: as Karima Bennoune points out, veterans of the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan provided some of the Islamist cadre (p.250). While Saudi and Gulf money helped fund fundamentalism, as it has across the globe. But they were hardly enough to create the violence, the networks or the ambitions of the Muslim fundamentalists. Especially as Islamism, al-Islāmīyah, political Islam, goes back decades, to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, whose slogan:
Allah is our objective; the Qur'an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.
is a succinct statement of Islamist belief.

Karima Bennoune uses Algerian sociologist Marienne Helen-Lucas's definition of fundamentalisms:
political movements of the extreme right, which in a context of globalisation...manipulate order to achieve their political aims (p.14).
So holds events to be:
a clash of right wings, not a clash of civilisations (p.6).
The terms "Left" and "Right" have far more rhetorical power than analytical utility, but as persuasion is precisely what Karima Bennoune seeks, that works for her. As she writes:
In the face of much of the politically correct Western rhetoric in recent years, Cherifa [Kheddar, Algerian human rights activist] insists that, "instead of just battling terrorism, you must fight fundamentalism. Fundamentalism makes the bed of terrorism." This is not just an ideological point, but a very practical one. "They will not lack recruits, these groups, as long as there are young people indoctrinated in the universities, in their communities". (p.175)
Karima Bennoune is horrified by any attempt to portray what the fundamentalists push as "authentic Islam". After citing the above definition she writes:
This way of understanding the phenomenon underlies the fact that these movements are primarily political rather than spiritual. Similarly, Chahla Chafiq [Iranian sociologist] told me that she uses the term Islamism to describe an Islam that ideologizes religion to create a totalitarian political platform. This is not an inherently Muslim approach, or one which Muslim majority societies naturally tend. There are many other Islams, as this book indicates (p14).
As Karima Bennoune points out, the fundamentalists want to radically change people's relationship with their religion.

When one examines the phenomena of jihadism, of what the jihadis are about, it is clear that they are not traditionalists; they are radically atavistic, but also modernist, seeking to wipe away tradition. As purifying reformers, they represent a recurring pattern in Islamic history. As activists who prove themselves adept at adapting technology to their ends, they are as modern as any political movement.

As Karima Bennoune sets out in detail, theirs is a very political program to take over Muslim identity and to (re)define what is "authentically" Muslim: a program prosecuted by violence, indoctrination, advocacy, and playing on Western sensitivities and delusions: particularly those of "progressive" Western opinion.

The battle over women
Many of the people she interviews are women, as survivors, witnesses and because of the centrality of women to the struggle against Muslim fundamentalism. As Thoraya Obeid--Saudi, PhD holder, retired UN director--notes:
fundamentalisms across the spectrum are always "related to women", especially to women's reproductive rights and sexuality. "This is where they feel their power. Women went out to work, they couldn't control it. It is the last stronghold of men over women." (Pp108-9)
When it comes to Muslim fundamentalists, some are violent, some are not; all seek to narrow society and religion and restrict rights, particularly those of women (Pp17-8). Women are the first victims, the frontline and often those most important in the fight against fundamentalism (Pp81-2). All of this being justified by the invocation of God. When Karima Bennoune tried to settle her father's estate and protested about the very discriminatory inheritance laws, the legal official just pointed skywards and said:
Madam, you cannot argue with God. (p.88).

The struggle to restrict and control women is all about enforcing very particular view of what is "authentically" Islamic. Thus, women's rights in Hamas-controlled Gaza are going backwards (Pp114-5).

With the veil, and often very restrictive versions of the veil, being pushed as "authentic Islam". As Karima Bennoune writes, putting the issue of veiling (particularly niqab and burqa) in terms of "choice":
does not change the meaning of covering, and such "choices" increasingly happen in contexts infused with fundamentalist teachings about purity and shamefulness of women's bodies. (p.119)
The context is key:
To me, this justification of "choice" misses the point about the overwhelming politics of the presentation of the human form. (p.119)
Where not being veiled is being a "bad" Muslim or a "loose" woman.
This has been a process of radical change, not the preservation of tradition. The assumption made too often in the debate in the West about this is that protecting the veiled is protecting some sort of cultural status quo, when in most contexts the veil itself, and the more restrictive veils in particular, are themselves assaults on the preexisting cultural status quo. (p.120)
Karima Bennoune is seriously unimpressed with Western feminists "falling in love" with the veil (p.121). Mahnaz Afkhami--the first (and only) Iranian Minister for Women's Affairs, Iran being (under the Shah) the second country in the world to have such a Minister--urges people to look past language to deeds. She remembers:
the double-talk of the fundamentalists in Iran in 1977-78. They spoke the language of women's rights in highly sophisticated ways, which she thinks was dazzling to some Western feminists. When the mullahs railed against the use of women as sexual objects, they actually meant that "women should be veiled from head to toe." This, she finds, is a lesson to be drawn from what happened in Iran--that you have to evaluate fundamentalist groups based on deeds, not just words. (p.207).
In a 1963 fatwa, Ayatollah Khomeini had liked women's participation in politics to prostitution; revolutionary expedience led him to change the fatwa (p.207). But women's rights still went backwards in the Islamic Republic.

The centrality of Iran
Like many observers, Karima Bennuone regards the Iranian Islamic Revolution as a crucial moment in the evolution of Muslim fundamentalism (p.199). It created a Muslim fundamentalism with the logistical capabilities of a modern state (p.191), reflected in such things as the systematic killing of Iranian governments foes in exile (p.190).

Roya Boroumand, daughter of Abdorrhman Boroumand, a founder of the pro-democracy opposition killed in his apartment in Paris in April 1991, notes that Muslims opposed the fundamentalists long before the Twin Towers fell:
"We did try, and we got killed. People got killed. Clerics got killed. The bulk of the victims of the early years were people who were fighting fundamentalism." She desperately wants non-Iranians to understand this. (p.194)
She and her sister Ladan started the Omid website, documenting the victims of the regime, and a human rights advocacy group, the Abdorrhman Boroumand Foundation (ABF). As Roya Boroumand says of the Iranian regime:
It wants to be a theocracy but it is a totalitarian ideology that has been smart enough to take the cover of religion so it couldn't be attacked. It's the smartest totalitarian ideology. (p.198)
Khomeini declared that one of the roles of the Revolutionary Guards was to "familiarise people with the traditions". As Roya Boroumand asks:
What kind of traditions are these that people are not familiar with? (p.200)
Muslim fundamentalism is very much about creating a notion of "authentic Islam". One that rather too many folk in the West buy into. There are plenty of very religious Muslims who virulently oppose this attempted capture of their religion, such as Kourosh Sehati, a periodically imprisoned activist for a secular state (Pp 204-5). Karia Bennoune also provides insight into the struggles and dilemmas of queer Iranians, living under a regime which continues to execute them (Pp 202-3).

Mahnaz Afkhami, who has been a exile for decades, active in international human rights organisations, argues that Leftist academics have to accept responsibility for making fundamentalists palatable for Western perspectives (p.209).

Intimidation within Western societies
Fundamentalist advocacy and intimidation reaches within Muslim diasporas in the West (Pp58-60). Such as the Somali emigre community in Minnesota. Those who wish to speak out against fundamentalist advocacy and recruitment come under pressure from the mosques against doing so (p.218). Fighting this of type of reputational war is gruelling, but to tackle extremism, one must first acknowledge it (p.221).

When Western political leaders do notice, public "debate" remains trapped within Western political framings disconnected from realities within Islam and Muslim communities. So, Karima Bennoune dissects a March 2011 Congressional inquiry (entitled "The Extent of Radicalisation in the American Muslim Community and the Community's Response") which suffered from the classic gets-in-the-way framing: the Right playing into the hands of both anti-Islam activists and Muslim fundamentalists who claim that the kafir vilify them, while the Left talked as if Muslim fundamentalism was a non-problem (p.219-220). What is not acknowledged cannot be opposed.

As a result of activism within the Somali community, Somali elders did end up issuing a blunt statement against the jihadis (Pp223-4). Zuhur Ahmed, who broadcast her own radio show while studying to be a doctor, argues that Muslim fundamentalism appeals to disoriented and vulnerable, while it changes their religion. She is another who points out how different this is from the Islam of her childhood (p.232).

Which and whose human rights
A human rights activist herself, one of the themes of the book is Karima Bennoune's frustration with many human rights organisations. As she notes, many international human rights organisations ignore the victims of fundamentalists (p.163.). Being the victims of "non-state actors" seems to confuse them. Thus Amnesty International finds it easier to say nothing about terrorism (p.237). She criticises Human Rights Watch (HRW) for being clueless about what Islamism actually implies (p.296).

Activism by people of Muslim heritage is too often ignored or mocked. On March 8, 1995, for International Women's Day, the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women (RAFD--it also means refuse in Arabic--staged a mock trial of the Algerian fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its leaders (Pp186-7). An attempt to dramatise assassination, massacre and terror, the mock trial did not receive the media support one might have expected:
The left-leaning French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur put sarcastic quotation marks around the words "testimony of the dead" in describing the account of fundamentalist killings offered at the 1995 tribunal, lampooned the event's "theatrical" tone and even criticized the presence of police outside to protect the participants, not withstanding the terrible threat to them. So much for international solidarity. (p.187)
Karima Bennoune herself found that people, possibly especially women, of Muslim heritage speaking up against terrorism was too "off-message" when she tried to get her "Why I Hate Al-Qaeda" manifesto published on the tenth anniversary of 9/11--one left-wing paper telling her it was irrelevant because of the Arab Spring (Pp265-6). As she says:
I want to stand with those who refuse to equivocate (p.266).
But equivocation is the refuge of those whose framings cannot cope with too much reality:
Often when people mouth platitudes about Islam-religion-of-peace, my eyes glaze over. Have they slept through the last few decades? ... The best way to defend Islam is to display the peaceful practice, and to defend those who do. This requires unabashed challenge of fundamentalism. (p.331)
There is more than one Islam: but too many Westerners find accepting the opposition of people of Muslim heritage to Muslim fundamentalism, and the nature of Muslim fundamentalism, far too confronting to their preferred framings of events.

(Which is discussed further in part 2 of this review.)