WLUML Board Member Karima Bennoune Wins Dayton Literature Peace Prize

Dayton Literature Peace Prize

WLUML Board member, Karima Bennoune has been announced as the 2014 Dayton Literature Peace Prize Nonfiction winner, for her book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.

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"Winning the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction for Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism is deeply meaningful - especially now - because the prize recognizes the unfathomable courage shown by so many people of Muslim heritage around the world - from Iraq to my father's home country Algeria and beyond - in their often life-threatening struggles against extremism. These are the stories told in the book, and in our turbulent times such critical voices of tolerance and hope from Muslim majority societies must be heard internationally, but often are not. The DLPP is making an invaluable contribution to changing that. Given the mission of the prize, there is no other award that would mean more to me or to so many of those in the book - victims of terror who organized against its perpetrators, women who filled bomb craters with flowers, journalists who defied machine guns armed only with pens, artists who could not be censored by death threats (or worse), feminists who demanded the right to have human rights, secularists who spoke out, mullahs who risked their lives to revive the enlightened Islam of our grandparents. I share the prize with all of them. For me, the award is ultimately a much-needed recognition that fundamentalism is a threat to peace, and that those who challenge extremism and jihadist violence in their own communities are waging a battle for true peace, and deserve global recognition and support. That is the message I tried to get across in Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here. I am sincerely grateful to the selection committee and to the organizers of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for helping to share this message by selecting the book, and I am honored to receive this very special prize."

— Karima Bennoune    

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 consulted 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