“Fatwa Does Not Apply”: Bennoune urges democracy, equality in Arab Spring region

photo CHAUTAUQUA, New York – People in many countries have glimpsed the Arab Spring – and endured the Arab Autumn, and the Arab Winter, California-Davis Law Professor Karima Bennoune told an after-dinner audience here on Monday, the same day that W.W. Norton & Co. published her book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism. Karima, a longtime colleague and a contributor to IntLawGrrls blog (among many online and print media), delivered the Katherine B. Fite Lecture, which honors the U.S. State Department lawyer who helped establish the post-World War II International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The lecture was a highlight of the just-concluded 7th Annual International Humanitarian Law Dialogs.

Karima began by relating what she called “a genealogy of impunity” – the story of her father and other relatives who, like many others in Algeria, had suffered harms that never have been addressed by truth commission or any other accountability mechanism. Then she surveyed developments across swaths of the Middle East and Africa, recounting stories of rights activists, dissident journalists, and artists whom she met and KarimaBennoune_wrinterviewed over the course of years of field research. Not to mention ordinary persons, like the man she called The Chickpea Vendor of Tahrir Square. Such people, Karima said, are caught between two unacceptable poles: at one end, autocratic despots; at the other, repressive fundamentalists. She insisted:

‘The only solution is to build an alternative, a democracy that respects all voices.’

Bennoune’s impassioned prescription bore echo with the dispassionate comments Dialogs participants had heard earlier in the day from Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. As I already have posted, in his Monday morning keynote lecture, Zeid indicated that stability in the region depended on the emergence of an “authentic,” indigenous “liberal philosophy.” And later in the day, the noted Egyptian-American who is Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Chicago’s DePaul University, M. Cherif Bassiouni, likewise cited the need for a democratic ideology based on traditions of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The repetitions of this exposure of a troubling void, delivered as they were against the backdrop of reports of repression and human rights violations in many Arab Spring countries, no doubt stirred bleakness among the audience. Yet Karima, whose book sits on my desk awaiting a close read, offered glimmers of a brighter future:

‘I do believe there is still hope, because of the courage of the people on the ground … the extraordinary resistance of the people.’

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