International law and the response to jihadist terrorism in 2015.

Author:Bennoune, Karima
Position:Proceedings of the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: Adapting to a Rapidly Changing World

This panel was convened at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, April 9, by its moderator Stephanie Farrior of Vermont Law School, who introduced the panelists: Karima Bennoune of the University of California, Davis School of Law; Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space; and Stephen I. Vladeck of American University Washington College of Law. *


By Karima Bennoune *

Thank you very much for making the time to come to this panel whose topic is so tragically timely in a year which has seen a wave of jihadist terror attacks around the world from Afghanistan to Australia, from Iraq to France. I have been conducting research on Muslim fundamentalist terrorism for about twenty-one years, since my father's home country of Algeria was afflicted by mass jihadist atrocities committed by the country's version of the "Islamic State," known as the Armed Islamic Group. (1) That violence may have killed as many as 200,000 civilians in what was known to Algerians as "the dark decade," events that were both overlooked and misunderstood internationally in the pre-9/11 context. (2) I am sorry twenty-one years later to still be working on the same topic as a similar violence now ravages other countries and civilian populations from Pakistan to Nigeria to the latest victim, Kenya.

As a university professor, I am especially saddened by the recent attack on Kenya's Garissa University, killing 170 students. The Algerian newspaper El Watan carried a political cartoon just afterwards featuring a lone Kenyan protestor standing by himself under the slogan "We are all Kenya." The figure asked "Who exactly are--'we all'?" (3) As the Algerian journalists whose paper published the cartoon knew from experience, it depicts what is all too often the situation of victims of terror in the global south. World leaders do not show up to march in their capital cities in the tragic aftermath. I hope that U.S. academics will find a way to support the faculty of Garissa University who are, in the wake of the attack and the failures to heed earlier warnings, demanding security, as well as fearing that they may lose their jobs as students are relocated elsewhere for security reasons. (4) I hope we will be inspired by the decision of Moi University in Western Kenya to take in 642 students from Garissa in the middle of the year (5)--and find concrete ways to stand with victims of terror. Talk is cheap in the battle against extremism. Solidarity is critical.

Thinking of Garissa, the first principle to reaffirm is the equal importance of all the victims of jihadism, whether in the global south or the global north. The international community must find solutions to this grave problem in all its localities--it is a transnational challenge requiring transnational response. Time is also of the essence. I do not want to be approaching retirement in twenty years and still be speaking about this issue.

One of the critical strategies should be supporting civil society opposition to fundamentalism in Muslim majority contexts and diaspora populations around the world. This peaceful, internal struggle is the topic of my recent book "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism," (6) For more information on this research which is still ongoing, please visit (7)

What often gets lost in the current media coverage of terrorism around the world claimed to be perpetrated in the name of Islam is that thousands of people of Muslim heritage are standing up to defy this violence and to contest the fundamentalist ideology that underpins it. (8) In fact, they have been the first to do so. Just to take one example which also explains how I came to this work, Mahfoud Bennoune, my father, was an Algerian anthropologist who spoke out throughout the 1990s jihadist violence in his country. (9) Though later forced to flee his apartment, Mahfoud Bennoune remained in his country despite death threats. He went on to repeatedly denounce terror and the extremist ideas that underlie it in print, signing his name in the local press.

For example, in an article he published inside Algeria in 1994, called "How Fundamentalism Produced a Terrorism Without Precedent," he wrote:

We are in the presence of a radical break with the true Islam as it was lived by our ancestors.... the fundamentalist terrorism that ravages and brings grief to the country on a daily basis is driven by new and foreign values that have been manufactured by fundamentalist gurus and have nothing to do with the claimed cultural continuity ... (10) One of my tasks has been archival, trying to collect and preserve pieces like this that have been written in affected countries like Algeria. For some reason, the international community pays little heed to the analysis of those living on the frontlines of this issue. This must change.

I think, for example, of Salah Chouaki, an Algerian education reformer. Shortly before his 1994 assassination by the Armed Islamic Group, as jihadist violence was accelerating in Algeria, he wrote something that contemporary world leaders who want to defeat similar terrorism should take to heart two decades later:

Compromise with fundamentalism and all political Islamism is absolutely impossible.... It paves the way for fundamentalism to seize absolute and undivided power. This thesis is no longer simply theoretical. It has been proven in practice, at the cost of hundreds of victims. Every effort to build bridges with fundamentalism, every effort to draw away from the forces that strive for progress, results in emboldened fundamentalist forces, and a resumption of their initiatives. (1) In other words, to succeed in fighting jihadist terrorism, you also have to fight the ideology that underlies it, rather than seeking, as some western governments do, to employ what they perceive to be non-violent extremism as a tool to combat violent extremism.

So, to try to support the ideological part of the struggle against jihadist terrorism, I set out to meet as many people as I could who today are doing the work my father was doing back in the 1990s to try to learn from their analysis. I interviewed about three hundred people from nearly thirty countries--from Afghanistan to Mali--and from many different sectors of society to try to understand their opposition to fundamentalism and their experience of being targeted by extremists. Just to give a few examples from amongst the lawyers, I interviewed Maria Bashir, the first and only woman chief prosecutor in Afghanistan, who has to have twenty-three bodyguards and calls on the international community not to forget about women's rights in her country because now they want peace with the Taliban. I also interviewed human rights lawyer Hina Jilani in her office in Lahore, Pakistan, which also has armed guards. She said that in her country

the human rights community has had to come to grips with this phenomenon of fundamentalism. This is not an anti-religious agenda. It is essential for us to understand that the right to freedom of religion is that of somebody who wants to believe, and not for somebody who wants to impose beliefs. What we are challenging is anybody's right to impose belief. (12) I also interviewed the Libyan human rights lawyer Salwa Bugaghis. Tragically, she was killed inside her home in Benghazi on June 25, 2014, most likely by the Islamist thugs she was defying. (13) In 2011 when I met her, she was optimistic for Libya, but was not naive about the perils of the post-"Arab Spring" environment, and was already warning of the long road ahead for her home country. In this regard, I feel I should write a paper about Libya called "Apparently, the responsibility to protect only lasts for five minutes," as the international community in general, as well those who advocated for and engaged in international intervention in Libya in 2011, seem now to have forgotten not only Bugaghis, but the Libya she died for as well.

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