Q & A with author Karima Bennoune

Karima Bennoune’s book, “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here,” won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction in 2014. Additionally, the American Library Association’s Booklist selected it as the best social science book of 2013. And recently, Bennoune was named United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; her appointment began Nov. 1.

Bennoune, who is a professor of international law at the University of California-Davis School of Law, grew up in Algeria and the United States and now lives in northern California. Her book gathers the true stories of people speaking out against fundamentalism and terrorism, even while living in areas where doing so directly puts them and sometimes their families in harm’s way — even, possibly, facing death.

Learn more about Bennoune’s work, her achievements, and her book at www.karimabennoune.com.

Bennoune recently returned to Dayton to attend the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize (www.daytonliterarypeaceprize.org) event.

Here, she shares her insights into her book and its subject as well as the experience of writing it.

Q. Was it a surprise to you when you realized you wanted to write a book, or have you always wanted to write?

A. I have been writing off and on since I was a kid. I went through what I like to call a “sincere college phase” during which I wrote various pieces. “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” was more than me just wanting to tell the stories of people facing incredibly frightening situations in order to stand up against fundamentalism and terrorism. I felt I had no other choice but to tell these stories and to capture the overall story of the bravery of Muslims standing up to Islamist groups in many countries — France, Senegal, Mali, Egypt, and more.

Telling these stories is the best way I knew to honor these intelligent, brave people using their wits to fight oppression and terror. It is a great honor to have done so, and to have had this book published.

Q. The stories in the book are incredibly moving and stunning. What inspired you to gather these stories, conduct interviews, and undertake such a monumental book project?

A. Essentially, my dad, Mahfoud Bennoune. He was a professor at the University of Algiers. He spoke out bravely and openly against intolerance in Algeria in the 1990s — a challenging, difficult time there — and as a result, faced death threats. I wanted to find out about others like him, doing the same brave work of speaking out against intolerance, and understand what inspires brave people like him.

Q. I can only imagine the challenge of your research and in organizing your material. Tell me more about that, if you would.

A. I spent three years on the research portion of the work. Again, my father was a big influence. He was an academic and thought that instead of creating a paradigm and finding support for it, one really ought to be in the world, see as much as one can, and then figure out a paradigm about what one believes about how the world operates.

My process of research and writing really was a reaffirmation of that approach. I gathered stories, information, facts, and from that discovered the overarching themes of bravery and intelligence in the face of terror and fundamentalism.

The stories I gathered will always be with me. Now, I’m more driven than ever to continue shedding light on brave people who, at great personal risk and cost, speak out against intolerance and oppression.

Q. Congratulations on your appointment as Special Rapporteur with the United Nations! What do you anticipate in this role?

A. First, I must reiterate that I wrote my book in my own personal capacity. The role is unpaid, and I will continue to be a university professor. My appointment means that I will report on what is happening in various regions and countries in terms of artistic, social, and scientific freedom. I will also go on missions in this capacity to countries that invite me. The goal is to advance the concept of cultural rights and support those people who defend it. The appointment is for three years, with a possible three year renewal. My first official day is Nov. 1, 2015, although I will be in Dayton that day for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Q. And speaking of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize… what did it mean to you to win the 2014 award in nonfiction?

A. Winning the prize meant so much to me because doing so affirms that my goal for the book was understood.

But more important is what the prize meant to the people documented in my book. I frankly wasn’t prepared for just how much it would mean to them. I heard from the subjects of the oral histories I gathered… in Tunisia, Algeria, other places… about how much it meant to know that their work was being recognized on the other side of the world in this way. The prize represented — for me and for the people I wrote about — reaffirmation of the importance of doing human rights work.

Q. Why do you want people to read “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here?”

A. We live in a globalized world. What happens in one region can’t be contained there. Though I believe that the current problem we face is Muslim fundamentalism and the intolerance and terror that can generate, fundamentalism is also not contained within boundaries of one particular world view or religion. It can rise up in any religion, and the challenge is always a humanist interpretation versus a strict, fundamental view that can, ultimately and if unchecked, lead to terror.

But for every terrorist we hear about, there is someone standing up against terror and oppression that we don’t hear about. Those stories are important to remind us of another aspect of human nature that also isn’t bound to one religion or world view — bravery, tolerance, speaking up for human rights. It’s important to hear those stories, to be moved and inspired by them.

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