In June, Peace is Loud launched a campaign calling for grassroots women human rights defenders to be meaningfully included in global discussions on countering extremism, starting with the reconvening of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism during the United Nations General Assembly in September. Cherifa Kheddar was one of the few women from civil society invited to participate in the Summit. She is an Algerian human rights defender and the founder of Djazairouna (Our Algeria), an organization that works to raise awareness about the impact of terrorism in Algeria and provide support to victims of terror. Kheddar is profiled in the book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here:Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Peace is Loud speaker Karima Bennoune.
You've truly been at the forefront of promoting human rights and working to end terrorism in Algeria. What do you think are most dangerous misconceptions about terrorism or extremism, and how can they best be addressed?
I am an Algerian living according to the Muslim tradition of peace and community. I remember that when the extremist ideology began spreading in my city, my close and distant relatives could not accept that violence could be born out of Islam, nor that Muslims could kill other Muslims, or any other people, or that they could rape Muslims before their parents’ eyes. Most Algerians refused to believe that our country would see further war and bloodshed after the War of Independence. And yet, in the decade that followed, tens of millions of Algerians experienced hell, without any support for the victims, nor any strong condemnation of the extermination of non-veiled women and intellectuals. Subsequently, Islamist terrorism spread like wildfire to other parts of the world.
When, in the name of freedom of religion, we support a group that makes no distinction between violating human rights and respecting these same rights, we create an unhealthy environment that perpetuates a culture of violence defending a particular belief system. But let us stick to the subject of Islam, because first, it is Islamist extremism that we are speaking of, and second, we must not excuse the violent culture of Islamist fatwas against women and intellectuals and entire peoples that do not adhere to their fatwa or conform to their violent vision of Islam. Since the world has begun experiencing Islamist terrorism, Algerian women have been working to denounce Islamist terrorists, often with little, if any, global support. I would cite, for example, the astonishing behavior of international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and the International Federation for Human Rights, supported by international public opinion, who for the past 15 years or so, have refused to listen to the victims of Islamist terrorism in Algeria, even accusing them of being bankrolled by generals, though the number of daily victims (in the hundreds) was devastating and the kind of victim was obvious: aside from members of the security service, it was women and intellectuals in particular that were targeted and executed.
The terrorists’ plan wasn’t only to attack Algerians in Algeria — their terrorism was transnational, and geared towards the creation of an Islamist state on a global scale. Algeria was just a laboratory for their dark agenda. International NGOs responded by saying that we didn’t understand, that it was the generals who were doing the killing in Algeria, which lead to the famous “kituki” (“who kills who”) debate. Certain Western countries gave visas to Algerian Islamist leaders and welcomed them on their soil, giving them political asylum, something that women and intellectuals had a lot of trouble getting. When I was invited to speak about my experiences in France, Italy, Belgium and in the U.S., representatives of FIDH, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused me of being in cahoots with the generals, and of being sent by government factions, following my testimony. Me: a woman who survived an attack targeting my family, in our own home. There were even some people who said that maybe I was sincere, but that I was testifying out of ignorance. Apparently, they knew better than I what happened to me.
What inspired you to create Djazairouna?
Djazairouna was created on October 17, 1996 following the assassination of my sister and brother after a targeted attack on my family, including my mother, who by some miracle survived her wounds. Islamist terrorists accused her of being a hypocrite veiled Muslim, whose children did not adhere to their vision of Islam. Her daughters, among other things, did not wear the veil.
What do you think is the role of women in countering extremism, and how can we ensure that women's voices are heard on this topic?
If Algerian women today are not suffering the same fate as the Iranians, it is because of the sacrifices they agreed to make for years. Thousands of women preferred to die standing up, rather than living veiled, under the tyranny of an Islamist state. Unfortunately, our friends in the international community made themselves scarce, and our executioners benefitted from their support. At the time, occidental intellectuals and international human rights organizations chose their side. At best, we were considered naïve women manipulated by power; otherwise, we were women bankrolled by generals with the mission of misleading public opinion.
As for the second part of the question, I have said it and will say it again: regardless of the support that militant opponents of violent extremisms receive, if it is not at the very least equal to the financial support and media coverage that Islamists receive, it would be a waste of time. Do you have any idea how much financing these ideologues and armed groups benefit from? Do you have any idea how many satellite TV channels Islamist ideologues have at their disposal? Do you understand the capacity for disruption of these chic ideologues that are received into the highest spheres of Western (and other) states?
We are seeing civilians caught between the military and Islamists in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Egypt as we saw in the Trials of Spring feature film. It sounds like there was a similar situation in Algeria. Based on your experiences, do you have any advice for human rights activists in Egypt today facing these struggles?
If I have one piece of advice for them, it is to stand with those human rights struggles that do not discriminate against the victim's nationality. It is to be more welcoming towards, and less insulting to the victims of the Islamists, even if they [the Egyptian human rights defenders] are sympathetic to the Islamists, or admire their rhetoric. It is critical that we don't compare the Islamists to their victims or put them on equal footing.
Can you tell us about the role you played at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism? Do you have a sense of how many women from the Middle East/North Africa region were represented at the summit, in addition to you?
At the UN summit on September 29, 2015, which united 100 states, 120 non-profit organizations, private sponsors, including heads of state or their representatives, and a number of mayors of cities affected by terrorism, I didn’t have an active role, but rather a symbolic one; I served as a witness for the White House’s initiative to implement a strategy to fight violent extremism and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This initiative resulted, among other things, in the creation of a network of cities. Regarding the presence of women, there were a high number of them in attendance, but this had no effect on the work or the outcome. The agenda had already been determined and was respected at the summit.
What do you hope to see as a result of the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism? What are your thoughts on the US government's recent announcement of sanctions against terrorist groups? How effective do you think this will be?
Any initiative taken by the American government can only be beneficial and important, and have an international reach. But it will not be life changing unless the fights against the ideology and funding of terrorism propaganda are placed at the heart of the strategy to fight violent Islam. This is, unfortunately, what I have drawn from the interventions of the different heads of state present at the Summit.
And finally, regardless of the strategy determined at this summit, I think that by bringing in other states affected by the problem (100 states were present), the American government has created an incredible opportunity to think differently about the security of people and property that can only be beneficial for the states and the citizens of the world.
What is your ultimate goal as an activist, and what would a truly peaceful world look like to you?
A world that respects fundamental human rights and gender equality above everything else, and in all parts of the world, rather than using the pretexts of culture and cults to justify the repression of women and minorities.