“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.’

Jordanian diplomat on Arab world & international justice & accountability

zeidCHAUTAUQUA, New York – Without the emergence of a genuine, contemporary Arab philosophy, a top Jordanian diplomat predicted today, stops and starts likely will remain the present and near future in the Middle East. To be precise, the diplomat, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told participants in the 7th International Humanitarian Law Dialogs here in upstate New York:

‘When we look at the Arab world, there is no authentic Arab liberal philosophy, and no authentic Arab liberal philosopher, at this moment.’

Citing developments in Iraq since 1968, Zeid said that an earlier such philosophy, the Baath movement, “a strong socialist Arab tradition,” fell apart. The “absence of a genuine drive to articulate something from within” has left a void:

‘If you don’t have an authentic Arab liberal philosophy … what you have in default is the Islamic ideologies which are authentic to the region.’

A new tradition rooted in Arab tradition is essential to “escape” from “mimicking” Western liberal philosophy, he said, noting that citations to documents like Rousseau’s Social Contract invite “the charge that these are important Western ideas. And so he urged liberals to “start writing,” to theorize liberal traditions “in Arab terms” and “grammar.” Until that happens, he predicted:

‘For a long time we are going to see this rather jerky movement backward and forward. … That will be the narrative for sometime to come.’

Zeid’s comments formed the opening lecture for a conference ostensibly devoted to accountability; after all, the centerpiece of the Dialogs is the coming-together of chief prosecutors from each of the international criminal tribunals and courts. Yet Zeid – who helped draft founding documents of the International Criminal Court and served as the 1st President of the ICC Assembly of States Parties – stopped far short of recommending a rush to judgment. Citing history in post-World War II Germany as his example, Zeid called for creating post-conflict “space” within which fighters might come to terms with the conflict, before the onset and investigation of trials. Having spoken of events in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, he said:

‘Many of us have been very passionate supporters of inserting courts into events where a tremendous amount of blood has been spilled. I really think we have to revisit this – not reduce support for the ICC, but we need to develop a more nuanced field.’

Given Zeid’s role in the establishment of the ICC, the comments seem to herald a new moment in the field accountability and transitional justice. Should that be, one hopes for a comprehensive, effective, and well-resourced mix of responses – not confusion that amounts to a retreat from the field.