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Professor Karima Bennoune – Giving Voice to International Human Rights Advocates

Writing for the UK’s Guardian newspaper from Algeria, where she spent 10 days in February observing that North African country’s pro-democracy protests, Karima Bennoune hailed the bravery of demonstrators who risked arrest and beatings by riot police 10 times their number. The impetus to engage, understand, and give voice to the ordinary citizens as well as organized activists who struggle against government repression and religious extremism is what motivates Bennoune in her legal scholarship and advocacy.

It is no mystery as to one of the most important sources of her human rights focus. As a young man, her late father was imprisoned and tortured by the French army during Algeria’s war of independence. Years later, a prominent professor at the University of Algiers, Dr. Mahfoud Bennoune received death threats from religious fundamentalists for his vocal opposition to their attacks on basic rights. “From him,” she has said, “I learned the imperative of engaging with what is happening to others in the society and world around you.”

Bennoune at Distinguished Lecture   
Professor Karima Bennoune (right) at her Distinguished Research Lecture with former student and fellow Algerian-American Chehrazade C. ’06.   

Since graduating from a joint program in law and Middle Eastern and North African studies at the University of Michigan, earning a J.D. from the law school and an M.A. from the Rackham Graduate School, as well as a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, Bennoune has devoted her career to advancing legal and institutional systems for protecting human rights and women’s rights. She is a highly respected author, lecturer, teacher, and scholar whose research and human rights field missions have included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Fiji, Lebanon, Pakistan, Niger, South Korea, southern Thailand, and Tunisia. In 2007 she became the first Arab-American to be honored with the Derrick Bell Award from the Section on Minority Groups of the Association of American Law Schools.

Most recently, Bennoune, who is Professor of Law and Arthur L. Dickson Scholar at Rutgers School of Law–Newark, was selected as the 2010/2011 Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Scholar at Rutgers–Newark. She received the award, which she characterized as a tribute to the people she writes about, from Chancellor Steven Diner on March 3 following her Distinguished Research Lecture titled “A More Courageous Politics: Muslims Confront Fundamentalism . . . and Demand Democracy.” Her book of the same title is forthcoming in 2012 from W.W. Norton & Company.

The phrase “a more courageous politics” comes from one of Bennoune’s heroes. Cherifa Kheddar is the president of Djazairouna, an organization Kheddar founded for victims of terrorism during Algeria’s “dark decade” of civil war. As many as 200,000 people were killed in the 1990s when armed fundamentalists battled the military-backed government and regularly targeted civilians. “Kheddar’s own brother Redha and sister Leila were murdered,” said Bennoune, “yet she managed very courageously to come through the horror of that experience and become one of Algeria’s leading human rights defenders.”

In a 2007 speech in Paris on the anniversary of September 11th, Bennoune recalled, “Kheddar said that without the adoption of a more ‘courageous politics’, human rights advocates could not successfully challenge fundamentalism.” Asked whether she has seen evidence of the new bold approach to religious fundamentalism called for by Kheddar, Bennoune said that “in the international human rights community I don’t think we’ve made a good deal of improvement yet in how we tackle these issues. In fact, there has been a lot of silence on these issues.”

Very much involved in the current pro-democracy protests in Algeria, Kheddar herself exemplifies “a more courageous politics,” added Bennoune. “What’s happening now in terms of the pro-democracy protest movements sweeping North Africa and the Middle East is another form of a ‘courageous politics’, with the aim of targeting dictatorships, repression, and lack of human rights.”


 Struggles for democracy and struggles against fundamentalism go together. In fact each is the sine qua non for the other. Struggle for real democracy is the best way to enable a struggle against fundamentalism and the ongoing battle against the forces of the religious right. And success in the struggle against fundamentalism is essential for the creation of real democracies that respect women’s rights.


One of the challenges Bennoune sees in the region is that “a faulty paradigm” has been created in which people have to choose between either dictatorship on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other. “What people are saying through these pro-democracy movements is that we reject both of these options and what we want is real democracy and social justice.” The pro-democracy movements have also shown the fundamentalists to be irrelevant in many ways. As one example, she noted that when Ali Belhadj, formerly the number two leader in the Islamic Salvation Front, appeared at the February 12 Algiers protest, he was denounced by some demonstrators as an assassin and ignored by many young people who had never heard of him.

“Fundamentalists are not leading these revolts,” Bennoune said. Rather, they are social justice demonstrations organized by youth groups, trade unionists, civil society groups, opposition political parties, and long-time human rights activists. “My view,” she offered, “is that struggles for democracy and struggles against fundamentalism go together. In fact each is the sine qua non for the other. Struggle for real democracy is the best way to enable a struggle against fundamentalism and the ongoing battle against the forces of the religious right. And success in the struggle against fundamentalism is essential for the creation of real democracies that respect women’s rights.”

Bennoune would like to see greater attention paid to the full range of human rights issues, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly as well as underlying economic and social rights issues. In Algeria, a 2001 decree banning demonstrations in the capital is still on the books. And in the Algiers working class neighborhood of Bab El Oued, Bennoune found families living in a parking garage. Meanwhile, a young unemployed activist told her: “We need democracy to fight exploitation.”

In observing the Algiers’ protests, what Bennoune found most moving was the strong involvement of women’s rights groups. “Chanting in favor of democracy, waving flags, singing the national anthem, and holding signs protesting the country’s discriminatory Family Code and calling for social justice, they held their ground until attacked by policewomen – women whose careers were made possible only by the hard work of women’s rights activists they were now attacking.”

The way in which women were engaged in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and beyond “is inspiring and gives me reason to be optimistic,” said Bennoune. “On the other hand, it is absolutely clear that their work is really just beginning. They will have to work very hard to make sure that any new governments and new constitutions are beneficial to women and women’s rights, are protective of past gains in women’s rights in places like Tunisia, and that are maximizing the feminist potential of these revolutions.”

For example, abrogation of the Family Code, which discriminates against women, “is an absolutely core part of calling for change in Algeria.” Yet when Cherifa Kheddar took part in the February 19 Algiers’ protest with a sign calling for an end to the code, some male protestors told her she was being divisive. “Women’s rights activists not only have to take on governments but also sometimes have to take on the opposition itself to make sure that they are paying attention to the women’s rights agenda.” Bennoune said. “They need and deserve support and solidarity.”

In her forthcoming book, A More Courageous Politics: Muslims Confront Fundamentalism . . . and Demand Democracy, Bennoune will challenge some of the stereotypical notions in this country that depict all or most Muslims as fundamentalists – “ideas not found exclusively on the right but ones that tend to be held especially by those among the ‘new right’, such as those who opposed the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan.” But she’ll also take on some ideas found among some on the left – “that one shouldn’t criticize Muslim fundamentalism or even that one should almost support Muslim fundamentalists because they are seen as the legitimate representatives of the downtrodden in these countries. Recent events,” she added, “have shown this to be completely untrue.”

On a field trip to Lahore last fall, she met Diep Saeeda – “a living, breathing example of courageous politics,” whose multidirectional critique of Muslim fundamentalism and U.S. policy resembles the construct that Bennoune has been developing in her scholarship. A peace activist who leaflets at intersections against both the Taliban and the U.S. military, Saeeda persisted in organizing a demonstration against the blasphemy law despite having received several threats that suicide bombers would target the demonstrators.

“There are many incredibly brave people who are carrying on the struggle against fundamentalism in many different Muslim-majority countries who deserve our attention and support,” said Bennoune. “Their work is also very much related to struggles for democracy. My goal is to make sure these people are heard. Fundamentalists get a lot of airtime. If your position is ‘Be reasonable’, you don’t often end up on television.”