Egyptian-born Nonie Darwish is “too controversial” to speak at Brown University, where her invitation to speak was just taken back. The title of her new book about says it all Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror . Good luck with that one. Here, where we’ve been attacked by jihadists, we don’t like to hear about the enemy we face.
Well, here on National Review Online, anyway, we’d like to hear from Darwish. What she has to say is important to dealing with the threat we face. She recently took some questions from NRO editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What were you taught about Jews?
Nonie Darwish: As Arab children, we were taught about Jews in schools, at home, in the media, at mosque sermons, and by politicians. No one can escape the overwhelming anti-Semitic propaganda and the venomous hatred that my culture of origin advocated against Jews. In Gaza elementary schools I learned hate, vengeance, and retaliation. Peace was never an option; it was considered a sign of defeat and weakness. Those who wanted peace and compromise were called traitors and cowards. When I asked “Why do we hate Jews?,” the answer was “Aren’t you a Muslim?” We were told “Don’t take candy from strangers since it could be a Jew trying to poison you” or that Israeli soldiers would kill pregnant Arab women just for fun, place bets on whether she was carrying a boy or a girl, and cut her open to see who won the bet. My classmates would cry while reciting jihadist poetry daily, wishing to die as martyrs.
Lopez: How did you manage to eventually come to be part of the Zionist conspiracy?
Darwish: It took me many years to change, evolve, and realize that I was indoctrinated with a lot of propaganda and outright lies about Israel. I owe my change to America. I appreciated the tolerance, respect for minorities and equality under the law that America stands for. When I heard church and synagogue sermons I realized how different the message was from the hate speech, cursing, and incitement advocated in many mosques across the world. Many of us who immigrated to America thought we had escaped jihad, hateful propaganda, intimidation, and mind control, but we found that even in America, there are powerful radical Muslim forces who are trying to silence us. For the sin of criticizing terrorism — not Islam, just terrorism — we are threatened. Terrorism is like the elephant in the room that no one is supposed to talk about, especially if you are an Arab American. But when 9/11 happened, it was no longer about me or my culture of origin; it is about the safety and security of the country that I now call home; America. When I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States I took this pledge to heart and I decided to speak out of respect for the 3,000 Americans who died on that day. I speak out of empathy for Israel; a country that has lived under severe terrorism, boycott, and war. Israel deserves our respect and not our hatred. I also speak out of love for my culture of origin in desperate need for reformation. I speak out. That is why to radical Muslims, I am now part of the Zionist conspiracy.
Lopez: When did you know there was something off about how you were raised?
Darwish: Several incidents during my childhood led me to question my beliefs and upbringing.
As Arab children we were not allowed to ask why or question any of the propaganda we were given. After my father’s death President Nasser vowed that all of Egypt would take revenge. My siblings and I were asked by top government officials: “Which one of you will avenge your father’s blood by killing Jews.” We were speechless; they made us feel that if we really loved our father we would kill Jews. I also witnessed what happens to the families of martyrs when I saw my mother suffer after my father’s death. My mother had to face life alone with five children in a culture that gave respect only to families headed by a man. Arab women are expected to sacrifice their family by giving up their husbands and sons to martyrdom. As a young woman, I visited a Christian friend in Cairo during the Friday prayers, and we both heard the verbal attacks on Christians and Jews from the loudspeakers outside the mosque. We heard “May God destroy the infidels and the Jews, the enemies of God. We are not to befriend them or make treaties with them.” We also heard the worshipers respond “Amen.” I heard such prayers many times before; and believe it or not if you grow up with prayers like that, it can sound and feel normal. My friend looked scared, and I was ashamed. It is not easy to be an infidel living in Muslim land. That was when I first realized that something was very wrong in the way my religion was taught and practiced.
Another incident that happened about eleven years ago also changed my outlook on Israel. My brother suffered a stroke while in Gaza, and was not expected to survive. The Egyptians around him asked, Where shall we take him now? Cairo hospitals or Hadassah hospital? They all agreed: If you want him to live, take him to Hadassah in Jerusalem! Why would they choose to get treatment in the hospitals of people they despise and call apes, pigs and enemies of God? In time of crisis Arabs trust Jews!
Lopez: Your father was considered a martyr. How did that come about?
Darwish: My father was an Egyptian army officer who participated in the 1948 Arab war against Israel. After the Egyptian revolution of 1952 he was assigned by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to head the Egyptian military intelligence in Gaza and the Sinai. Nasser’s mission was to unify the Arab world and destroy Israel. Under my father’s command Egypt started the Fedayeen, which means “armed resistance.” These were guerilla-style operations against Israel. Israel wanted to kill my father and made several attempts on his life. One night Israel sent commandoes to our heavily guarded home, but my father was not home. All the Israeli soldiers found were us — women and children. The Israeli soldiers left us unharmed. I was grateful they did not kill us; especially since the Fedayeen did kill Israeli civilians. After two years of intense Fedayeen operations, my father was killed in the first targeted assassination in Gaza in 1956. I was eight years old. In Nasser’s famous speech to nationalize the Suez Canal, he hailed my father as a national hero, a shahid.
Lopez: Are the majority of Muslim women oppressed? What can be done for them?
Darwish: The majority of Muslim women are oppressed and that is due to Islamic sharia law which severely discriminates against women. Even the most educated and powerful Muslim women are faced with a legal system that is very discriminatory against women. Muslim women start the marital relationship from a weaker position. The Muslim marriage contract itself is unfair to women because Muslim men can add three more wives if he wishes. That changes the dynamic of husband/wife relationship even if a Muslim man does not exercise this right. Polygamy has a devastating impact on families. There are chronic social ills and tragedies stemming from this single right.
The court system is designed to oppress women, without a doubt.
Lopez: How prevalent is “honor killing”?
Darwish: According to Islamic law sex outside marriage is prohibited and the penalty for that is often death. The woman is always to blame because she is regarded as the source of the seduction. Muslim men’s honor is dependent on their women’s sexual purity. It does not matter how honorable the character of the Muslim man; but if his female relatives commit any sexual taboos, Muslim society will dishonor him. Arab culture is based on pride and shame and a Muslim man cannot survive with this kind of shame unless he kills the source of that shame which is the female relative who have had sex outside of marriage. It is not known how common this crime of honor killing happens since it is often goes unreported and the police often looks the other way, but I believe it is common in certain parts of the Muslim world if the girl is discovered to be no longer a virgin or pregnant. That is why most girls in the Middle East remain virgins till marriage and there are very few births out of wedlock in the Middle East.
Lopez: What’s it like to be a journalist in Egypt? Worse than life under the Patriot Act?
Darwish: I was a journalist in Egypt in the early seventies when I worked at the Middle East News Agency in Cairo, Egypt. I was an editor, translator, and censor. As a censor I decided what was to be allowed for publication and what was not allowed. Egyptian media outlets at the time were controlled more or less by the government. Journalists were not really journalists in the Western sense of looking to expose government corruption and internal problems; they were more concerned in blaming the outside world. Military information was totally off limits in reporting. I once said to a fellow journalist that I met a Jew in one of my trips and that that was the first time I met a Jew. The colleague warned me that Arab journalists who communicate with Jews in foreign countries come back to Egypt in a box. Very few Arab journalists were even aware of the true role of media in a society. As to Western life under the Patriot Act, I think it the opposite Arab government controlled Media. In the West it has often become Media controlled government where freedom of the Press (having too much of a good thing) often comes before other important things in Western society, such as for example national security. Sometimes Western media has no tolerance for any restrictions and that can help America’s enemies.
Lopez: What made you leave Egypt?
Darwish: I always regarded America as the land of hope, equality, and opportunity and that was my motivation. I also wanted to leave the Middle East with its problems, its jihad, its pride, anger, and anti-Semitism and above all the constant state of war with Israel.
Lopez: Why don’t we hear from more Muslim moderates?
Darwish: There is a fear factor that all Arabs share of never speak against our own culture, tribe or religion and it does not matter how wrong or right they are. But it is more than just fear. Most Muslims believe that jihad is their duty and is part and parcel of being a good Muslim. That creates a conflict with us since many of us truly believe that many of these terrorists are great jihadists. Osama bin Laden was a hero among many Muslims. Many Muslim leaders tell the West in English they are against violent jihad; but in private, in Arabic, they praise the jihadists and the martyrs.
Lopez: Is there anything we can do to encourage more moderate Muslims to speak out?
Darwish: After 9/11 very few Americans of Arab and Muslim origin spoke out and from my experience it took us a long time to get noticed by Western media. Western media still regards Muslim organizations such as CAIR as representative of moderate Muslims in America. This is not the case. Radical Muslim groups in the U.S. try to silence us and intimidate American campuses who invite us to speak. I often tell Muslim students that Arab Americans who are speaking out against terrorism are not the problem, it’s the terrorists who are giving Islam a bad name. And what the West must do is ask the politically incorrect questions and we Americans of Arab and Muslim origin owe them honest answers.
Lopez: Is Iraq doomed?
Darwish: My views on Iraq are 50/50 hope for Iraq itself; but I believe that it was right for America to take out Saddam. The same people who criticized Bush senior for not taking out Saddam in 1991, are the same people who criticized President George W. Bush for taking out Saddam. Unfortunately we are playing too much politics when it comes to the war on terror. Iraq was doomed with or without the removal of Saddam who was never going to hesitate in helping terrorists. Terrorists are not accidentally in the Middle East; they are the product of the political and religious system and they are defended and given excuses and called heroes in Arab media. Now it is up to the Iraqis to take this great opportunity for freedom that America has given them. It’s an open question if the rest of the Arab and Muslim world allow that — will the tyrannies surrounding them allow them to make decisions for themselves or will the larger picture of hostilities in the Middle East take over Iraq? That is the question that will be answered in the future and I have not given up hope because the Iraqi people have had a taste voting for their leaders and they will never be the same again. I truly feel that ten years from now we might thank George W. Bush as the hero of Middle East democracy.
Lopez: How can we deal with Iran?
Darwish: Iran has to be dealt with firmly and harshly. The Iranian president Ahmadinijad is not governing a country that is united behind him. He is using Israel as the distraction for his people’s discontent just like all Arab leaders. There are too many lies, bluffing, and blackmailing in this part of the world and I think the Iranian leader is a master of that strategy. If we can surgically take out the Iranian nuclear facilities then I think the West should do it before we witness his first nuclear test, like North Korea.