Karima Bennoune on Helping Artists, Cultural Workers Escape Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

With the end of the U-S military mission in Afghanistan and the quick takeover of that nation by the Taliban, advocates fear a terrible backslide in human rights and civil society there.

Karima Bennoune, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, has been working with others to help get artists, musicians and other at-risk cultural workers out of Afghanistan. She has worked in the field of human rights, including in Afghanistan, for more than 20 years. And, she serves as U-N Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. Her recent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism was based on hundreds of interviews with people from 30 countries. Bennoune is currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School.  

In this episode of The Backdrop, Bennoune discusses the international effort to help evacuate vulnerable cultural workers from Afghanistan and how human rights advocates can move forward in a country ruled by the Taliban.

More Information:

Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights

UN Expert Warns of “Cultural Disaster” in Afghanistan, Urges Visas for the Vulnerable

"Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here" Book Website

TED Talk: Karima Bennoune - When People of Muslim Heritage Challenge Fundamentalism




Karima Bennoune: I want to stress to governments, to people listening to please remember that among the many categories of at-risk Afghans, including women, human rights defenders, including other human rights activists, including journalists, please also remember cultural workers and artists because they are really in the front lines of those targeted by the Taliban, because their art and cultural practice is so much at odds with the very stark vision of Afghanistan that the Taliban has historically had.

Soterios Johnson: The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan is over. The American withdrawal has been declared complete, although the general in charge of the pullout acknowledges they didn't evacuate everyone they had hoped to. With the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban taking control, advocates fear a terrible backslide in human rights and civil society. This is The Backdrop, a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas. I'm Soterios Johnson. Karima Bennoune is a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. She's been working with others to help get artists, musicians and other at-risk cultural workers out of Afghanistan. She's worked in the field of human rights, including in Afghanistan, for more than 20 years. She serves as UN special Rapporteur in the Field of cultural rights. Bennoune is currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Thanks for taking the time to come on the podcast today. I know you've been very busy these past few weeks.

Karima Bennoune: Thank you so much. It's wonderful to be with you and thank you for your interest in these issues, because I'm fearing that now that the U.S. troops have left, attention will wane. So great to have a chance to talk about all of this.

Soterios Johnson: Absolutely. And I should say we are actually recording our conversation on August 31st. The U.S.'s deadline to get out of Afghanistan. The last military personnel left just hours ago. What are you hearing on the ground there right now?

Karima Bennoune: Well, I think it's a it's a very tragic moment for many Afghans. I'm hearing that many, including human rights defenders, women activists, cultural workers and artists, feel abandoned by the international community. I think it's hard for many of them to understand why the United States and the international community seem to care so little about them at this point, but also seem to care so little about protecting their own investment in blood and treasure these last 20 years in helping rebuild Afghan civic and cultural life. It's, I think, very surprising to Afghans to see the sort of willingness to have all of that washed down the drain. I think another thing that has dismayed many Afghans in civil society and cultural life is the idea that Afghans are somehow being blamed for what has happened to their country due to the supposed lack of resilience or insufficient resistance to the Taliban. When all of these sectors that I'm talking about have been doing everything that they could to speak out against extremism and to simply do sort of daily battle against it by living their lives in free and engaged ways. And I'm hearing sadly, in my area of cultural rights that much, if not most of those working in the cultural sector feel they must leave the country for their safety and only a small number of them have gotten out.

Soterios Johnson: Why do you think the Afghan government collapsed so quickly even before the U.S. and NATO pullout was complete?

Karima Bennoune: I think, as you say, there is a broader discussion to be had here about the successes and failures of the Afghan government, although I think we tend to hear much more about the failures, which were considerable than we do about the successes, which were also wide-ranging in many fields, including education and succeeding in getting young -- so many young girls and young people educated. I remember when I was last in Afghanistan, the sort of beautiful sight of schoolgirls on the streets with their backpacks. But, you know, I think we have to look at the successes and failures here and judge them in a fair and objective way. But we also have to recognize, for example, that between 50 and 70,000, depending on which statistics you use, Afghan soldiers and security forces died fighting the Taliban in the last 20 years. And so those horrible losses on top of about 2,500 U.S. military losses and coalition military losses really show that I think Afghan -- every aspect of Afghan society from the security establishment and the armed forces to civil society were working hard to resist extremism and I think doing their best. And I think they began to understand that perhaps there was a willingness of some governments to hand over to their opponents. And I think one also cannot discount the traumatism of 40 years of war. This is a society that has seen wave after wave of armed conflict since the Soviet invasion, followed by the war between the mujahideen groups, followed by the battle with the Taliban. Then the international intervention in 2001 and then the ongoing conflict between the Taliban and international forces since that time. And you know the old adage, no one wants to be the last person to die in a in a particular war. I think there was a sense that the international community that was providing such needed support to the Afghan forces had surrendered or at least accepted the outcome of the Taliban being victorious. And it was very difficult to see how the local forces could prevail. Although, I have to stress there are those forces which are still continuing to resist in the northern part of the country. So this is certainly not to excuse the failures, but I think we have to look at the entire picture here.

Soterios Johnson: Right. And I think the President Biden basically has referred to what's going on in Afghanistan right now as a civil war that, you know, the U.S. and NATO are now withdrawing from. How do you respond to the president's argument that the U.S. couldn't stay there forever and that if the Afghan government wasn't able to stand on its own after 20 years of support, that another 20 or 40 years wouldn't likely make a difference?

Karima Bennoune: I don't think anyone wanted to see international forces stay forever. The point is that there had to be a stable situation on the ground. I was looking back at my notes of an interview some 10 years ago with an Afghan woman, you know, she kept saying, you know, no one wants their country occupied forever, but we want to make sure that when the forces leave, there is a stable Afghan government and security forces actually capable of protecting the population. I think it's really a misnomer to call this a civil war. It is, at the very least, in international law parlance, an internationalized internal armed conflict that many outside parties have been involved in for for many years. And it certainly will have international repercussions as well. So I think that that's a critically important piece of this to remember. And I also think that if we should have learned anything from the horrible tragedy of 9/11, it would be that the human rights of Afghans and the security of Americans are very closely interlinked. And the lesson of that awful period of time in Afghanistan in the late '90s when the international community really wasn't interested anymore. The sort of Cold War battle was over and Afghan civilians were left to deal with a terrible armed conflict situation after many outside parties had supported the armed groups. And when the world forgot a) there were atrocities inside the country. I've been to Kabul Stadium where there were even executions at the hands of the Taliban and systematic gender apartheid. And b) that period of atrocities also created a situation which was really fertile for the rise of terrorist groups and the planning of terrorist groups ultimately leading to the 9/11 attacks. And I'm I'm very saddened that with all of these deaths, we seem to have failed to learn the obvious lesson.

Soterios Johnson: You serve as a UN special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. I know you can't speak for the whole organization, but what do you expect the UN will be doing going forward to help protect women and girls and human rights in general?

Karima Bennoune: So very important, as you rightly pointed out, to stress that as a UN special Rapporteur, I am an independent expert appointed by the UN human Rights Council and reporting to the council. But independent and I don't work for the UN, nor do I speak for the rest of the UN I would say that in the UN human Rights system, we have tried to be very engaged all the way through the summer. I think it was very important to have a preventive approach to react as early as possible. We have issued a number of statements calling on the Human Rights Council and calling on states in the UN to act effectively to create monitoring mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation on the ground, as well as accountability procedures to investigate some of the atrocities that happen throughout the summer, including targeted bombings, targeting minority groups, targeting girls' schools and so on. And unfortunately, the international community and states failed to react. Most recently, we've seen that the UN Human Rights Council had a special session last Tuesday on Afghanistan and passed a resolution which I'm glad was passed. I have to say it is weaker than I would have hoped. It is not specific enough about the dangers of Taliban abuses, and it does not provide for a monitoring mechanism, which is essential. And my hope is that the Security Council resolution that was passed yesterday, which also is somewhat more tepid than I would like to have seen, but at the very least insists that the Taliban have to allow all those at-risk Afghans who need to leave the country to continue to do so safely. And it insists on respect for human rights and international humanitarian law by the Taliban. I hope that the whole UN system will work to follow up and ensure that those commitments are fulfilled. And meanwhile, other branches of the UN will be continuing humanitarian work on the ground.

Soterios Johnson: Now, the Taliban have been saying the past few weeks that they have evolved over the past 20 years, that they aren't as extreme as they used to be. Do you believe that?

Karima Bennoune: I mean, I think that's that's the big question here. And I'd like to offer a nuanced answer to it. I think the first thing one has to consider is the background of systematic human rights abuses as a matter of policy carried out by the Taliban when they were in power between 1996 and 2001, including the exclusion of women and girls from all aspects of public life, even being able to go into a public space without a chaperon, including their exclusion from schooling, including discrimination against minorities, including the use of cruel punishments, among other things. So I think that is one thing that is very much remembered by Afghans and needs to be considered. Then there's the issue of the recent abuses by the Taliban, both in the context of the conduct of the armed conflict, but also in recent weeks we've seen the killing of a folk singer reported to have been carried out by the Taliban, a folk singer named Fawad Andarabi. And these are reports coming from a number of very credible sources. We have seen the reported, and I stress reported, abduction of a number of poets. And here I'm just looking in my area. We've seen reports of destruction of cultural heritage, which is something that the Taliban had also done in the past. We have seen the banning of music, which is clearly a de jure act. And so all of that, worryingly, suggests that the past track record could be a predictor of what may happen. And at the same time, I have to say that, you know, many have pointed to some of the statements being made by the Taliban leadership in Doha, the spokespeople. And I think what we, the international community needs to do is to hold the Taliban accountable for living up to those pronouncements, you know, including that they would allow Afghans to leave the country after today going forward, including respect for international norms, including even some pronouncements they've made about respecting cultural heritage, which they haven't done in the past. And, you know, there is some suggestion that there are different groups within the Taliban. But I you know, and I respect that distinction. Nevertheless, what matters is not words in Doha, it's deeds in Kabul and not only in Kabul, but on the territory of the entire country. And I always remember what an Afghan woman said to me when I interviewed her in Kabul 10 years ago. I said, "You know, what do you think of this suggestion that there's something called the moderate Taliban?" which some in the State Department were even suggesting then. And she said, "To me, if someone is moderate, then why are they Taliban?"

Soterios Johnson: Right. It's almost like an oxymoron.

Karima Bennoune: It's an oxymoron.

Soterios Johnson: So, you know, a lot of their extremism is is based on this fundamentalism. And that's something that you focus on in your book. Your Fatwa Doesn't Apply Here. What prompted you to write it? And and can you talk a little bit about the relationship between fundamentalism and religion, like it's the interpretation that is driving this movement?

Karima Bennoune: So in the book, I cite a particular definition of fundamentalisms and note the "s." There are many different fundamentalisms in the world, and the definition that I cite is that they are political movements of the extreme right which manipulate religion to achieve political aims, basically to take power in sometimes within states, sometimes within society, I think, very important to understand these as political projects that use an interpretation of religion as a tool rather than merely some sort of expression of religion. And this to me is a critical distinction. And these are, unfortunately, issues that I've worked on for a long time, because, as you mentioned, I wrote this book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, which is based on the stories of many, many people of Muslim heritage in many different countries in the world working against fundamentalism and extremism. And I wrote this book for a very personal reason, which is that my father was one of these brave people. My father was a professor of anthropology at the University of Algiers in Algeria. And Algeria also saw the rise of terrible fundamentalist armed groups in the 1990s that tried to take over the state. And there's really a connection here to Afghanistan because the worst fighters, the sort of those who carried out some of the worst atrocities in the Algerian context, killings of intellectuals, killings of unveiled women and massacres were called in Algeria, the Afghans, because they had fought in Afghanistan in the context of the battles between the jihadist armed groups and the conflict against the Soviet Union. And, you know, a lot of those jihadist groups had had the backing of the United States and Saudi Arabia and other nations in a sort of Cold War calculation. And that had many consequences all around the world, including in Algeria. And so I felt a very personal connection to this issue. And one of the things that frustrated me, and I think it's similar to what you hear from Afghans now, is that everyone sort of knows about the terrorists, but they don't know about or pay attention to the people standing up to them, you know, the women's activists going to a bomb crater and filling it with flowers and standing there in protest at great risk to themselves after an attack and so on. And so I think it's really critical, as it was in Algeria, as it is today in Afghanistan, to amplify those voices of the many Afghans in the cultural field, in the human rights field, and ordinary Afghans who are working against extremism and fundamentalism and carrying that forward. We can't let the Taliban speak for Afghanistan. We have to listen to so many other Afghan voices.

Soterios Johnson: I was wondering if you might be able to share some of the stories of the people that you are helping in that you have helped in your cultural rights work, you know, without putting anyone at risk, of course. Are there any stories you can share with us? These are people, these are artists, musicians, other people in the cultural space that have been trying to get out of the country now that the government has fallen. Can you can you share any stories with us?

Karima Bennoune: Well, I was talking to some of my cultural partners today, and we determined after a very hectic few weeks that actually already we have a total of 813 cases that we need to work on of artistic and cultural figures gravely at risk who need to leave the country. And we fear that this is also the tip of the iceberg and many more cases will be coming our way. And I have to stress that we tried everything we could think of. I worked with many cultural institutions, human rights organizations and other individuals who were concerned to try to get some of these artistic and cultural figures out to be very creative, to fill out all the forms. We sort of went from government to government. We had some successes, but sadly, there are so many people we still haven't been able to get out and whose cases we need to keep working on. And for security reasons. I will tell you the story of one of the successes, which I think is a is a really beautiful story and a very important person who I am so grateful has made it to safety. But I think, unfortunately, we have to remember that in some ways he represents thousands of others who didn't yet. So I wanted to share the story of Omara Khan Massoudi, who is the former director of the National Museum of Afghanistan. And the National Museum has this wonderful motto, which is "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive." And so I think they've always understood the relationship between, you know, the museum and their cultural work and the well-being of the entire society around them. And Mr. Massoudi has worked at the museum over the course of many decades of conflict and is actually one of the people who was responsible for saving the collection of the museum during the war between the mujahideen groups in the 1990s, when he and a few other cultural figures kept the keys of to that collection and no one else knew who had the keys and really put their lives on the line to save the cultural heritage of humanity. And then in 2001, the Taliban's Ministry of Culture at the time actually sent armed men to the museum and they destroyed about 2,700 of the best pieces in the museum. And, you know, you have to imagine, I think this suggests to us the danger today. These are the cultural authorities of the country destroying its own history, its own artifacts. And after that time, Mr. Massoudi and others worked to put those artifacts back together, many of them pre-Islamic artifacts. And I remember asking him, you know, why this was important. And he said, well, you know, no one worships these statues here today, but this is a part of our history, part of our heart. And they really use the museum collection to try to teach tolerance in a sort of nuanced and and quiet way that was possible in the context of Afghanistan. And I really wonder I asked in my book, you know, how many times can you reconstruct a thousands of year old statue? And that really makes me fear for the future of the museum. And I remember what Mr. Massoudi told me. He said we must transfer this. And he was talking about the cultural treasure of the museum. We must transfer this to the next generation. And I remember asking him if he was hopeful. And this is back 10 years ago in 2011. And he said something that I think is really important to remember today, said having hope is essential for life. And he said the sacred religion of Islam always promotes hope. And I think that hopeful message and that interpretation, that tolerant interpretation of Islam is one that is really critically important to remember and to understand the importance of today. And so I'm so grateful that Mr. Massoudi, with the help of many organizations and governments, made it to safety. But my fear continues for the other colleagues inside Afghanistan who work in the cultural field, in the museum sector, protecting cultural heritage. And let's use his story and the importance of his work as an inspiration to keep working to get all of them to safety.

Soterios Johnson: That's a wonderful story that you got him out.

Karima Bennoune: And let me be very clear. I'm not solid in any way taking responsibility for getting anyone out. I worked with many other people and one never knows actually the extent to which one has actually helped. One hopes one contributed a little. The 813 people are cases we are still working on of at-risk cultural workers, artists and their families who we have tried through many different initiatives to evacuate and have been unable to do so. So those are people whose cases we are still needing to actively work on with very limited resources. And so I really I want to stress to governments, to people listening to please remember that among the many categories of at-risk Afghans, including women, human rights defenders, including other human rights activists, including journalists, please also remember cultural workers and artists, because they are really in the front lines of those targeted by the Taliban, because their art and cultural practice is so much at odds with the very stark vision of Afghanistan that the Taliban has historically had. When you think that music is already banned, what does that mean for people practicing in that field? When you think that a singer has already been reportedly killed, what does that mean for all the other singers?

Soterios Johnson: So how can human rights advocates move forward in a country ruled by the Taliban?

Karima Bennoune: One of the most important things that I think has to be done is to secure lines of communication going forward so that we can stay in touch with those at risk as the communications context in Afghanistan might shift. And I think that, you know, it's really important to to think. About that, we also have to think about ways in which they can be concretely supported and I was really inspired to hear that actually the current director of the Afghan museum has put a message out on social media saying that so far the National Museum has been protected from looting and destruction and that, you know, those curators, the cultural workers are determined to continue. But, you know, according to their capacity and it's really up to all of us to try to find creative ways to help build and sustain their capacity to do that work. I think that that is critically important. We also, I think, need to move to have structures and not have an ad hoc response, which is, I think, where the lack of planning around the evacuation really led to significant challenges in the last few weeks. So we need structures. We need coordination of the different groups who are working on these issues. And critically, we need funding. And one of my frustrations in the last few weeks is that when one went to governments for help, sometimes one was referred either a) to other governments or b) to civil society. And while civil society is a very important resource, civil society simply does not have all of the resources at its disposal that a government would or the capacity. And it's not a substitute.

Soterios Johnson: And when you mean civil society, you mean like NGOs and organizations like that.

Karima Bennoune: NGOs, human rights groups, charities, activist groups and so on.

Soterios Johnson: So to wrap up, what would your message be to Americans who may start hearing about Afghanistan less and less in the news because we don't have a military presence there anymore.

Karima Bennoune: One is I think we really need to call on our news organizations to continue to cover this story. It's a critically important story for the human rights of Afghans, but also for the security of Americans. And we need to not take our eye off the ball. Next, I think there are all sorts of alternative ways to reach out for information to the extent that they're able to continue, you can follow Tolo News --TOLO -- on Twitter or find them on social media. That's an Afghan news outlet. You can follow a number of different artistic and cultural Afghan groups. I think about, for example, the ArtLords who had a wonderful project, a mural project against the war in Afghanistan. And I'm very thankful that their director, Omaid Sharifi, their founder, has also made it out. And he's continuing to get the messages out about the absolute need to insist that the Taliban respect artists and respect the ability for there to be a cultural life. We need to listen to those voices. And if they are not being brought to us, we need to seek them out.

Soterios Johnson: Well, Karima, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your insight. This has been a really important conversation.

Karima Bennoune: Thank you so much for your interest.

Soterios Johnson: Karima Bennoune is a professor at the UC Davis School of Law. She's currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Bennoune has been part of an international effort to get at-risk artists, musicians, poets and other cultural workers out of Afghanistan with the Taliban now back in control there. Her recent book, "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories From the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism" was based on hundreds of interviews with people from 30 countries. Find out more about her work on our website. UC Davis dot edu slash podcasts. Just click on The Backdrop. And if you like The Backdrop, check out our other UC Davis podcast Unfold. It breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. Join public radio veteran and host to Amy Quinton and co-host Kat Kerlin for Unfold. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Soterios Johnson and this is The Backdrop a UC Davis podcast exploring the world of ideas.

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