Karima Bennoune is a professor of international law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California–Davis School of Law. She grew up in Algeria and the United States and now lives in California.
In 2015, she was appointed United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. During her first year in post, she focused on the issue which will be the subject of her 2017 TEDxExeter talk – the intentional destruction of cultural heritage as a violation of human rights. She authored two reports, including one for the General Assembly that was endorsed by Maestro Placido Domingo. She also carried out related country missions to Cyprus, Serbia and Kosovo. As special rapporteur, she has worked hard to promote the recognition of cultural heritage as a human rights issue, taking this message to diverse gatherings organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNESCO, the Smithsonian Institution, NATO, and others and ultimately seeing this view endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council. During the second year of her term, her priority will be the impact of diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism on cultural rights.
In her personal capacity, she is the author of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, inspired by her father’s experiences in his native Algeria, and based on interviews with more than 300 people of Muslim heritage from more than 30 countries – including artists, museum directors, and cultural arts promoters – working against extremism and terror. The book won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2014, and was labelled one of the “books we should all be reading” by The Guardian.
She has appeared frequently on television and radio to discuss related issues, including on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox Business News, as well BBC Radio and National Public Radio, and has published widely in many leading academic journals, as well as in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian: Comment is Free, with Reuters and on the websites of the Huffington Post, Open Democracy and Al Jazeera English.
In 2016, she was honored by the International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law with its Rights and Leadership Award..
Biography Updated 2017
In her talk Karima Bennoune seeks to give a voice to people who are living under Islamist fundamentalist repression.
One day, when she was a student and staying with her father in Algiers, she woke up to pounding on the front door. She found herself wondering whether she could protect him – a teacher of evolution – with a paring knife. Luckily, the potential attacker went away. Her father refused to leave the country, and continued to write.
Her book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” contains many untold stories from the peaceful fight against Muslim fundamentalism, based on interviews with 300 people.
The dark decade of the 1990s showed that the popular struggle against fundamentalism is one of the most important but overlooked struggles in the world today, and that these local people need our support.
Many people of Muslim heritage are staunch opponents of fundamentalism and terrorism, for good reason… they are much more likely to be the targets. Only 15% of Al Qaeda’s victims in 2004-08 were westerners.
Karima uses the definition: Fundamentalisms (note the plural) are political movements on the extreme right, which in the context of globalisation manipulate religion to achieve their political aims.
These fundamentalist movements have their diversities – some are more violent, some are NGOs, some form political parties. She’s talking about the extreme right, offensive wherever they occur. They are movements which seek to curtail the rights of minority groups and rights to practise religion, and conduct an all-out war against women.
There has been an increase in discrimination against Muslims recently. Telling the stories of individual Muslims struggling against fundamentalism will help to challenge this discrimination. She has four stories: of Peerzada, a theatre group in Pakistan staging girls school theatre; Maria Bashir, the first female prosecutor in Afghanistan; Burhan Hassan and his uncle Abdirizak Bihi, trying to counter Al Shabaab’s recruitment in Minneapolis to carry out atrocities like the Westgate bombing in Nairobi; Amel Zenoune-Zouani, a woman law student in Algiers, who refused to give up her studies, and was taken off a bus and killed in the street.
Amel’s name means hope, the hope of telling stories and carrying on their lives despite the terrorism. It is not enough just to battle terrorism. We must also challenge fundamentalism, which makes the bed for terrorism. Karima wants us to commit to support people like Amel, who peacefully challenge terrorism and fundamentalism in their own communities.