Nonie Darwish was born in Cairo, and in the early 1950s moved with her family to Egyptian-occupied Gaza, where her father, Lt.-Gen. Mustafa Hafez, was appointed by president Gamal Abdel Nasser to command Egyptian army intelligence. Hafez founded Palestinian fedayeen units to launch terrorist raids across Israel's southern border. Between 1951 and 1956, the fedayeen killed some 400 Israelis. In July 1956, when Nonie was eight, her father became the IDF's first targeted assassination. He was immediately recognized as a shahid - a martyr for jihad. Nonie eventually graduated from the American University, and later worked as a journalist. In 1978 she moved to the US, where she has become a Christian.
Nonie Darwish's book Now They Call Me Infidel fascinated me, and I remember thinking as I read it that I would love to meet this woman. The opportunity came during her recent visit to Jerusalem to speak at the Feast of Tabernacles.
We began our conversation by talking about her family background.
You attended elementary school in Gaza. What was that like?
In elementary school we learned hatred, vengeance and retaliation; peace was never an option, but a sign of defeat and weakness. Teachers filled our hearts with fear of Jews; that made hatred come easy and terrorism acceptable, even honorable. Looking back, I never heard a peace song in Arabic. All we heard were songs glorifying jihad, martyrdom and winning wars.
In Now They Call Me Infidel, you wrote about the difficulties your mother faced as a widow, even though your father was an Egyptian hero. What was life like for you and your family after he died?
After my father's death, my mother had to face life alone with five children in a culture that respects only families headed by a man. In the 1950s few women drove, and she was called names for buying a car to take us to school.
You've said that you gradually began to question the culture you lived in. Do any specific incidents come to mind that were turning points?
I remember visiting a Christian friend in Cairo during the Friday prayers, and we both heard the verbal attacks on Christians and Jews from the loudspeakers. We heard "May God destroy the infidels and the Jews, the enemies of God…" and believe it or not, if you grow up with cursing prayers, they can sound and feel normal. But my Christian friend looked scared, and I was ashamed. That was when I first realized something was wrong with the way my religion was taught and practiced.
You are very outspoken in your book about the grave consequences of polygamy on women in the Arab culture. Why?
Polygamy has a devastating effect on family dynamics, on the husband/wife relationship and on women's relationships with other women. Many Muslim men have only one wife, but the damage to the wife/husband relationship has already been done in the Muslim marriage contract, in which a man doesn't pledge loyalty to his wife. Besides the name of the bride, the marriage contract has three spaces left blank, to be filled with the names of any other women the man later wishes to marry. Yet in spite of this, a good Muslim woman must accept her destiny under Shari'a law...
How would you describe Shari'a law?
Under Islamic Shari'a law, punishments include flogging, stoning, beheading and amputation of limbs. These are cruel and unusual punishments by Western standards. Leaving Islam is punishable by death. Even if an Islamic state fails to kill an apostate, his death is guaranteed at the hands of a street mob. That makes Islam more than a religion; it's a state, with an elaborate legal system that can put you to death if you leave it. Shari'a guarantees that there is no crossing the "Berlin Wall" of the Muslim state... Amazingly, the majority of Muslim countries don't practice criminal Shari'a simply because they can't stomach it. But family Shari'a law is in every Muslim country. It allows only men the right to an easy divorce, permits up to four wives and allows wife beating. A woman is respected only when she hides her body, face and even her identity.
You've been to Israel several times. In your view, how does it differ from the rest of the Middle East?
Israel really brings hope to the region. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that allows religious freedom. Even though it is the tiniest country in the region, it is not afraid to allow Muslims to have mosques to pray in; it is not afraid to allow Christians all these freedoms. It is really a credit to Judaism that it doesn't have the possessiveness Islam has. You know, it's amazing, with all the land the Muslims have, and all the wealth from oil, and all the armies, that no Arab country is secure in its existence. Why else would 1.2 billion Muslims feel threatened by five million Jews? It says a lot. And I've learned that the fear and hate are by design - of Islam's religious educators, its political leadership and its intellectuals. Hatred for Israel is part of how the Arab world operates. They need an enemy. Because there is so much turmoil inside the Muslim world and no one can really name the reason. Why do we have so much turmoil? Why do we have so much anger? Why do we have such rage in our families? They don't dare say it's because of Shari'a.
You still have family members in Egypt. When did you last see them, and what were your thoughts about life there during your visit?
In August 2001 I visited my birthplace. I was stunned to see how radical Islam had taken over. The level of anger and hate speech was alarming. I saw extreme poverty, pollution, hazardous material and garbage along the Nile. There was high unemployment, inflation and widespread corruption. But when I read the Arab media, all I saw was the bashing of Israel and America. Citizens were unaware of Muslim-against-Muslim atrocities in Iraq, Algeria, Sudan and so forth. I was happy to return to the US on the evening of September 10, 2001.
So the next morning…?
The next morning, when I saw the second plane hit the Twin Towers, I thought, 'Jihad has come to America.' Muhammad Atta was from Cairo, the same city I came from.
I called several friends in Cairo that day, but they were all in denial and asked me, "How dare you say that Arabs did this? Don't you know this is a Jewish conspiracy?"
Were the people you talked to affiliated with radical Islam?
No, these were not radicals, but ordinary Egyptians, who are otherwise very nice people. I hung up and felt alone and disconnected from my culture of origin. Once again, my people are accusing the Jews of something we know very well that we Arabs have done... I started speaking after 9/11 out of respect for the 3,000 fellow Americans who died that day. I also spoke out of empathy for Israel - a country that deserves our respect and not our hatred. And today I speak out of love for my culture of origin, which is in desperate need of reformation. Arab terrorism is destroying the moral fabric and goodness in Arab culture.
You have written about the role envy plays in the Muslim world, describing it as a root of anti-American and anti-Israel thinking. Can you explain what you mean?
As Muslims we fear the evil eye of others. We call it hasad, which means envy. Unlike Christian teaching, which regards envy as a sin of the person who envies, in Islam envy is viewed as a curse brought upon one person by the evil eye of another. As a result we often see Muslims hide good news or keep their distance. Even giving a compliment is dangerous; it could be taken as a curse. The end result is a population that is extremely distrustful of one another...
Islamists are blinded by envy and can't understand Israel's success. They say it must be due to conspiracy and not merit... They have forgotten that Jewish success is due to a culture that promotes excellence and is blessed with self-discipline, education, dedication and a drive to leave this world a better place. There is no conspiracy there! If Arabs want to compete with Jews, let them do it in the realm of innovation and education, and not by terrorizing and eliminating the opposition. Arab mistakes are blamed on Israel, the West, past injustice or colonialism. Looking at a map of Israel in relationship to the Arab world tells us that Arabs don't need land; they need tolerance. There is no shortage of land. There is a shortage of freedom.
Exactly how do Muslim preachers stir up envy and hatred against non-Muslims?
Non-Muslims are not just cursed, but are often described as nagas, Arabic for "filth." The Times of London reported that Muslim students in Britain are being taught to despise non-Muslims as filth. That is why many Arabs believe that the existence of non-Muslims on Muslim land is a desecration... That is why America's defense of the Muslims against the Serbs, the Afghani Muslims against the Soviet Union, feeding Somali Muslims starved by their own leadership, received no credit in the Muslim world. In fact, the results are just the opposite; the more we try to help stabilize the region, the more we are despised. Muslims do not want to be rescued by infidels. This is a proud culture that is easily shamed by feelings of dependency on non-Muslims.
Besides your book, explain the other work you are doing.
In February 2004, I started an organization called Arabs for Israel. Some criticized the name, claiming it implied a lack of support for Arabs. But to support Israel doesn't mean being anti-Arab. I love my people, but for peace to happen, we need a big leap, a new attitude; forgiveness and compassion. We Arabs need to ask "What can we do?" and not focus on what Israel must do to build trust, respect and peace... Improving living conditions for Arabs is not Israel's responsibility, it is the Arabs' responsibility. And Arab kids don't need hatred, they need hope. They don't need jihad, they need jobs.
What are your fears for Israel?
My greatest fear for Israel is that it will lose the will to fight. Its founders are dying off, and now the same liberalism that is making the West weak is here too. I'm afraid Israel will give away too much, and the country will become too small to defend. Because the more you give, the more the Arabs want; it's part of the Arab culture. My Arab people are beautiful people, and I pray to God that they will find forgiveness in their hearts.