Book Review: ‘Your fatwa does not apply here’ by Karima Bennoune

My monthly review of a wonderful book for those of us navigating the space between faith and doubt.

Algerian Karima Bennoune has made a familiar enough tour of the Muslim world but in search of unusual specimens: vocal Muslim-heritage opponents of radical Islam.

It’s the being vocal that  gets them into trouble. Like cyclists in London these people are too often steering themselves into a non-existent gap between the juggernaut of short-tempered men in beards and the unyielding concrete kerb of political repression.

Intimidated, bombed, bloodied but not giving up, they are contemporary heroes: the Pakistani theatre director trying to put on a children’s arts festival.  The Algerian journalists, bombed almost out of existence by Islamists and at the same time fighting censorship and intimidation from the government.

The requests these kind of people make are so small: wouldn’t it be nice to have a youth centre somewhere in Lahore, where children can learn to paint or play music. There are none. If you want a madrassa, however, they’re on every street.

This is the frontline of the struggle for human rights. Prof Bennoune’s book simmers with a rage that it is hard not to share: the teenaged Iranian girl, swimming in her own garden, in a bathing costume, reported by a neighbour for ‘inciting male lust’. She is arrested, then sentenced to 60 lashes. The terrified teen only received 30 lashes because, by then, she was dead.

Prof Bennoune argues that instead of drawing a line between violent and non-violent (moderate) Islamists, we should draw a line between those who respect universal human rights and those who don’t. If ‘moderate Islamists’ or ‘moderate Taliban’ don’t believe in women’s rights, for example, in a way that any English schoolgirl would understand, Prof Bennoune has no time for them.

This is a passionate, moving book, highlighting the sheer power of intimidation.

Buy it from (who pay their taxes)

A thanksgiving prayer for the ability to urinate

You shall be free indeed

Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gallstone.)

‘Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun’s radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?’

‘Only, Amen!’ (p 500)

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Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Extraordinary.

Behold the work of her hands

“I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end”

and then this:

“then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him.”

I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading a book. I could feel the sobbing welling up inside. It was doubly embarrassing because I was lying next to a pool in the Cote d’Azur on a brilliant blue day, and my wife was reading Bill Bryson.

Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress speaking after my coma and paralysis three years ago. The book I was reading had the weight of an old hymn, suffering graced in music.

Or perhaps it was because God was beautiful and humans, like mathematics, need infinity to make the sums come out right.

Either way, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is extraordinary.


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The amazing growth of new Christians from an Islamic background

New figures count around ten million new Christians from an Islamic background.

A recent academic paper by Duane Millar and Patrick Johnstone (disclaimer: Patrick is a colleague of mine) has tried to put numbers on this recent, but widely-observed phenomenon. Indonesia leads the way with a well-established Christian movement that has lasted since the 1960s.

More recently, Christ-followers from an Islamic background have started to appear in large numbers in parts of Africa, in South Asia and Iran and some Western countries. The study claims that even Saudi Arabia, home of Islam, is home to 60,000 Islamic-heritage followers of Christ.

The study dovetails with a recent book by Southern Baptist researcher David Garrett A Wind in the House of Islam, that counts no mass movements to Christ at all in the Islamic world’s first 1000 years, two in the mid-twentieth century, a further 11 in the final decade of the twentieth century, and 69 more since then. Proof, as Garrett claims, that ‘something is happening.’

Here is Millar and Johnstone’s list of the countries that have 10,000 or more or more followers of Christ with an Islamic background. Their figures are based on 2010, and will have increased in most cases since.

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