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.
Should academic departments sponsor non-academic speakers? This question and many more were raised in Monday night’s discussion, sponsored by Speak for Peace, about the Nonie Darwish lecture. The Gazette reported on the lecture last Tuesday.
Although at least one student reported that they “liked her talk because she’s not an academic,” students were in general agreement that she could have been more precise in the claims she made about Islam and about Arab culture.
Multiple students pointed out that Darwish took her personal experiences, which “were not typical–her father was an Egyptian general” and unfairly generalized them onto the rest of the Arab world. It is unclear how many people Darwish’s observations actually apply to.
There was also confusion about whether Darwish thought that the practices she criticized, such as polygamy, were part of a culture or part of a religion. One student commented that she “seemed to conflate Arab and Islamic culture.” Although parts of her argument were cultural, other parts were theological, and some of the Muslim students were bothered by the fact that Darwish hadn’t studied Islamic law in a scholarly manner, because “she didn’t know the context” of the laws that she criticized.
At one point, the question was raised of why Darwish was even brought to campus. Although some of her personal experiences were interesting, “is the story that she has to tell even unique? We hear about Islamic terrorism in the media all the time.”
In response, other students pointed out that while the average American may already associate Islam and terrorism, Swarthmore students are more liberal and may have found her message different from other messages they’ve been exposed to on campus. Some students said that they were liked hearing her personal experience on education–“I hear a lot about Islamic terrorism… I don’t understand how anti-Israeli sentiment can be so virulent, and she shows how that’s possible.”
Students were also bothered that Darwish spent her entire lecture talking about problems without suggesting possible solutions. “She antagonizes instead of building,” said one student. One student pointed to the message that they took from her talk, which is “she doesn’t think Israel can do more… she puts the responsibility for the future on the Arab world.” Maybe this is what’s really bothering Swatties, since “the disturbing part of her argument is that it has to come from within the Arab world… as Americans there’s little that we can do.”
A few Muslim students were bothered that a speaker brought in to criticize Islam didn’t actually practice the religion herself. Although she grew up in a Muslim family in Egypt, Darwish converted to evangelical Christianity several years ago. Students agreed that in the future, it would be beneficial to find a speaker who had both relevant personal experience with the Arab-Israeli conflict and a more academic background.
The Muslim Student Association reported that although many of its members were bothered by aspects of Darwish’s talk, it has left them energized to plan new events. Aliya Vajid ’09, a member of the MSA, said in a post-discussion interview that that “after listening to Nonie Darwish, the MSA realized that speakers are a great way to educate the campus on current issues, especially those involving so many misconceptions of Islam. One issue that has recently interested us is women in Islam and feminism in Muslim countries and the United States, and in the near future, we hope to address this with our own speaker.”