Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When Nonie Darwish was eight years old, her father, commander of the Egyptian Army in Gaza, was assassinated by Israeli forces and became a martyr for the Arab cause. President Nasser “hailed my father as a national hero and vowed that he would take revenge from Israel.” Afterwards, he asked Nonie and her siblings, “Which one of you will avenge your father’s blood by killing Jews?”
This is the culture Darwish grew up in and today she speaks and writes on the importance of reforming Islam and Arab culture, taking it back from the radicals who have turned it into a culture of jihad. She is also the founder of Arabs for Israel, since “there are 5 million Jews holding on in a sea of 1.2 billion Muslims… Israel deserves our respect and acknowledgment, not our hatred.”
She began her speech by saying “I never want to speak for the purpose of offending the religion… I would hate the idea that I am bashing Muslims or making general statements that all Arabs are terrorists because that is not true. When I speak I’m speaking about a culture that is now being dominated by radical Islam.” This radicalism is “destroying the moral fabric and goodness that I know exists in Arab culture.”
Darwish explained that she could never give this speech in Egypt because “democracy is prohibited where I grew up… questioning religious views is regarded as treason, and even if you start asking simple questions you are called an infidel.” In large part because of this prohibition on free speech, claimed Darwish, all twenty-two Arab countries taken together produce fewer books per year than any European country taken on its own.
“Even the best religion in the world should be subject to critique,” she said, “but to critique Islam in a Muslim country is a death sentence… an ideology has become more important than human rights, than freedom and democracy, and than women’s rights… we have to get into a discussion but discussion is not allowed–that’s why change is very difficult in the Middle East, because the religion itself is above critique.”
Darwish began speaking after 9/11, when she began to reflect on her upbringing and realized that “we had learned that honor and pride can only come from jihad… in Gaza elementary schools I learned hatred, vengeance, and retaliation daily.” She had to recite poems about the importance of jihad and the duty of self-sacrifice, and was told not to take candy from strangers because “it could be a Jew trying to poison you.” Darwish had never seen a Jew in her life, “I thought they had horns… I thought they were monsters.”
“When you do that to a child,” said Darwish of her education, “hatred becomes easy and terrorism becomes acceptable.” She realized that “I never heard a peace song in Arabic… when I visited Israel every song had the word shalom in it, but a famous Egyptian singer has a hit song called ‘My right for Jihad, my right for self-sacrifice.'” She pointed to the infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank as an example of this emphasis on terrorism. The media always points out that the West Bank is underdeveloped compared to Israel, “but compared to Egypt the infrastructure is good… the Arab world is capable of making the West Bank first-class but they want money to go towards terrorism instead.”
Furthermore, all of the emphasis on jihad means that Arabs “have to look the other way” when Arab countries fight Arab countries. When Egypt was at war with Yemen and when Algerians were slaughtered by fellow Muslims, “it never made the headlines in Arab media.”
Darwish is particularly disturbed by the treatment of women within Arab culture. When she was fifteen, a sixteen-year-old maid at her house became pregnant, and Darwish’s mother sent the maid to a government agency. A year later, her mother inquired about what had happened, and was told that “she was dead, her father and brother came and ‘took care of her distress.'” This maid “was killed because she was raped… she was a maid in another house before ours. The man of that house was raping her every day, and when the wife discovered it she kicked her out.”
Darwish also deplored female genital mutilation, claiming that in her mother’s generation, over 90% of seven-year-old girls had to undergo this horrific surgery without anesthesia. She is also strongly against polygamy. The threat of being replaced by another wife “is in the back of the mind of every Muslim woman… that makes women accept a lot of abuse because of the threat that her husband will get a second wife.” The lack of trust that polygamy creates hurts relationships between men and women and also hurts the children of these relationships.
She described Sharia law as “a dictator’s dream handed to him on a platter by God.” According to her, only a few Muslim countries practice criminal Sharia law because the rest “simply cannot stomach it… it is cruel and unusual punishment.” Even if criminal law is not in effect, civil law is still harmful, with the legalization of polygamy and other problems. “Muslim women can only inherit half of a man’s inheritance… her testimony only has half the value of a man’s.”
There are courageous women in the Muslim world who are agitating for reform even though their lives are threatened by doing so, and “young women in the Middle East are starting to crave freedom… but the more they demand, the more the level of hate-mongering and propaganda will increase.” Darwish is also scared because she sees that “some Muslims in the west want Sharia law… are we going to reform the Arab world and find it re-igniting in the west?”
Darwish is glad to be in the West because “here diversity is a value… but in the Middle East it is a source of shame, not a source of pride. Minorities are seen as filth on Muslim soil.” She told a story about going to visit a Coptic Christian friend as a teenager. While they were together, the prayers were called from a nearby mosque which called for a war against all infidels. When Darwish looked in her Christian friend’s eyes and saw fear, “for the first time ever, I realized something was wrong with how my religion was practiced.”
When she talked to people in Egypt after 9/11 “my Egyptian friends all said it was a Zionist conspiracy… the Jewish and Israeli people should demand an apology and we owe them an apology, because we should never accuse them of something that we’ve done.” She has been accused of dishonoring her father’s memory by supporting Israel, but she believes that he was a reasonable man. In 1954, he wrote in a letter that six years was too long for the conflict to have gone on and that a compromise should be reached. “Imagine now it has gone over 50 years,” said Darwish, “what would he think? It is with no shame whatsoever that I advocate peace.”
During the question period, Darwish elaborated on some of her views. She stressed that polygamy is “the root of evil in Arab families,” and is also against the compulsory wearing of hijab. “I don’t mind if a woman chooses to wear hijab on her own… but if the government forces her, I do.”
When asked about her study of Sharia law, Darwish said that she has not had formal scholarly training of Sharia law, but that her interpretation is based off of her personal knowledge and experiences.
On the resolution to the Israeli conflict, she said “we will never have peace when one party refuses all concessions,” but went on to explain that she believes the Arab world has been overly stubborn. “We ask American leaders to pressure Israel for concessions but we do not hear people asking Arab leaders to pressure Palestinians for concessions.” She believes personally in a two-state solution.
One student asked a question about Darwish’s personal religious beliefs. Since coming to America, she has converted to evangelical Christianity. “I couldn’t take the hate speech in the mosque that I attended in America.” Of her new church, she said, “there is total respect for women and there is no polygamy, men are committing themselves to be faithful husbands, so yes, I am proud.”
Another student asked why she was bringing her message to Americans instead of bringing it to the Middle East where it is most needed, and she explained that “they will kill me if I say this in the Middle East.” That said, Darwish does write articles that circulate in the Middle East, and this Friday she will be giving an interview on an Arabic television network. “I am scared but I am speaking because I have to reach them.”