Does Not Apply Here:
from the Fight Against
In Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, Karima Bennoune walks a tightrope between, on the one hand, the tragic
consequences of Islamist fundamentalism and, on the other, the West’s inability to imagine Muslims as anything more
than terrorists or passive victims. Her solution is to tell us the stories that disturb both of these stereotypes,
vividly presenting us the experiences of individuals from a vast array of identities and social positions — as women,
as journalists, as educators, as makers of and keepers of cultural tradition. She conjures what those of us living
inside the Western media bubble have never seen before: a dizzingly diverse Muslim culture (that is no more cohesive
than, say, that global cohort labeled “Christians”) represented by a bevy of activists from across the globe determined
to realize their personal and communal desire beyond fundamentalist strictures.
This is a book that bears out the famous feminist dictum that the “personal is political.” For years a human rights
lawyer and today a professor of international law at UC Davis, Bennoune begins by telling of the night at her family’s
home in Algiers when a loud pounding on the door announced the arrival of a very real threat to the life of her
father, a scholar and an outspoken critic of both the government and religious fundamentalists who opposed it. The
year was 1993 and intellectuals were regular targets of deadly violence, including a colleague of Bennoune’s father.
She ran to the kitchen, armed herself with a paring knife, and stood next to her father in the entryway. They refused
to open the door and the would-be assailants eventually went away.
“That moment,” writes Bennoune, “set me on the path to write this book.”
At first glance it would seem that we’re all quite familiar with the topic at hand. We routinely hear the term “Muslim
fundamentalist,” the terms continuously conjoined, connoting cause and effect. But Bennoune’s subject is actually a
largely invisible one. If we go by popular Western media, it would seem that the fight against Muslim fundamentalism
is the lonely cause of the West, a war of Civilization over Terror. But the portraits in Your Fatwa Does Not Apply
Here find Muslims on the front lines against the fundamentalists. A theater company in Pakistan puts on performances
even after a bombing sent glass flying into the audience. Afghanistan’s first female chief prosecutor, protected by
23 bodyguards, investigates Taliban violence against women after an attack that nearly killed her children. And though
she does not claim to be a protagonist herself, by writing this book Bennoune does indeed join the brave company of
those she writes about.
A secular Arab alienated by fundamentalism who, through the process of researching this book achieves a kind of
reconcilation with many aspects of her cultural heritage, Bennoune undertakes a project of epic scope. She conducts
interviews in France, Algeria, Niger, Paksitan, Turkey, several destinations in Russia, Palestine/Israel, Egypt,
Tunisia, Senegal, Afghanistan, Canada, and Mali. In addition, she writes, “I met with Somali and Iranian refugees
in the United States and in Europe. I skyped women acdtivists in Saudi Arabia and Sudan and csonulted vistors from
Iraq, Turkey and Malaysia.”
Throughout, Bennoune displays a first rate literary sensibility, with finely detailed profiles that cast the reader
deep into the point of view of her subjects. We receive necessary historical context, nuanced political analysis,
brisk narrative, and just the right balance between the author’s subjectivity and writerly distance. Bennoune is
acutely aware of the ethical problems inherent in literary representations and the particular ramifications of
rendering her subjects in the midst of a global conflict where all sides employ stereotype for the sake of advancing
their agendas. At all costs, she wants to avoid victimizing those who’ve already been victimized.
Born and raised in Algeria and the United States, Karima Bennoune bridges cultures, languages, histories and is in
a perfect position to reveal what she calls “one of the most overlooked human rights struggles in the world.”
Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a timely and eloquent call to support those who fight against Muslim
fundamentalism — and for the West to recognize its complicity in its rise, to recognize its own brand of fundamentalism
in the way it reduces the Muslim other. It is not an easy path towards peace, but quite possibly the only one.
- Rubén Martínez
2014 finalist judge