In April, Nonie Darwish, a 61-year-old Egyptian-born author, was sworn in as a witness before a New York State Senate committee hearing on homeland security. She had been invited to speak at the hearing by Sen. Gregory Ball, a freshman Republican from Putnam County and chairman of the Committee on Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs.
Darwish first gained attention for her memoir, Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Denounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror. The daughter of a high-ranking officer in the Egyptian army, Darwish, who founded a group called Arabs for Israel, quickly became a favorite speaker on politics and women’s issues. She had never before been considered an expert on homeland security.
Darwish is part of a new crop of Arab writers and thinkers who encourage foreign policy decisions that differ dramatically from the conventional solutions offered by the Middle East policy establishment. Some of these are genuine spokespeople advancing an agenda of peaceful dialogue. Others seem to introduce ideas into the public discourse that would be controversial and exceptionally divisive if they were articulated by anyone other than an Arab Muslim.
During her public presentations, Darwish, a child of Middle Eastern aristocracy, often encounters a special rage. While her talks at universities and think tanks are couched in terms of human rights and her personal experiences growing up in Egypt, her comments are virtually identical to the anti-Muslim tenor heard on right-wing radio talk shows.
If this script sounds familiar to students of Jewish history, it should. During the medieval period, the Christian church regularly used Jewish apostates to argue the Christian case against the Jews. In many ways, Darwish represents a modern replication of these apostates’ positions—updated for the political arena.
In the Arabs for Israel charter, Darwish’s organization states, “We are Arabs and Muslims who believe.” Its website includes several bullet points advocating reformation of Islam, such as:
• “Diversity should be a virtue not only in the United States but should be encouraged around the world. We support a diverse Middle East with protection for human rights and respect and equality under the law to all minorities, including Jews and Christians.”
• “We stand firmly against suicide/homicide terrorism as a form of jihad.”
• “We are eager to see major reformation in how Islam is taught and channeled in order to bring out the best in Muslims and contribute to the uplifting of the human spirit and advancement of civilization.”
In her memoir, Darwish discusses her fondness for her family, early memories of her father, Col. Mustafa Hafez, and her eventual disillusion with Arab society. She begins with a vivid description of herself as a young girl, on a train from Gaza to Cairo, watching the scenery race by the window in her family’s private compartment of the train. The Gaza-Cairo train ride embodied for Darwish the luxurious life that she was accustomed to as a result of her father’s status as a highly ranked officer in the Egyptian army. In describing Israel’s targeted assassination of her father, and the bitterness and the personal difficulties that she faced growing up in Arab society without the protection of a male figure, she writes with astonishing forgiveness for Israel and expresses her hopes for peace in the Middle East and more rights for women and minorities in Arab countries.
A casual reader could be forgiven for mistaking her book as a plea for religious temperance among her Muslim co-religionists. However, Darwish is no moderate Muslim. In fact, she is not a Muslim at all. Notably, she left unmentioned the most striking element of her story—and the area in which she bears similarity to the medieval Jewish apostates. She is a convert to Christianity.
Repeatedly, she portrays herself as an advocate for human rights in Arab countries; however, even a cursory look at her writing and public comments demonstrates that she is not so much interested in critiquing human-rights abuses as she is in critiquing Arab culture. “The education of Arab children is to make killing of certain groups of people not only good, it’s holy,” she told that New York State Senate committee.
Such remarks suggest that Darwish is a uniquely one-dimensional advocate. She represents a personal betrayal to many Muslims and is routinely heckled and shouted down by Arab students when she speaks on campuses. After she spoke at Princeton University last year—a talk in which she said that it is “no joke” that Buckingham Palace will be turned into a mosque if Muslims are not kept in check—a non-Muslim Arab who attended the event wrote a letter to the university newspaper critiquing Darwish’s comments as “bold, unjustifiable declarations about the Islamic world [that] made even non-Muslims in the audience, like me, cringe.”
Most of Darwish’s income stems from speaking engagements for conservative groups and writing that she contributes to like-minded publications. She is a favorite commentator on right-wing blogs like American Thinker, FrontPage Magazine, and Jihad Watch. Darwish has disturbingly comfortable relationships with ideologues who profess inflammatory views about Islam. Her writing has appeared regularly on Pamela Geller’s conservative blog, Atlas Shrugs. Geller, who is Jewish and a former associate publisher at the New York Observer, has been called “the queen of Muslim-bashers” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and has built her reputation by voicing outlandish claims on her blog. These have included a video suggesting that Muslims have sex with goats, an essay suggesting that President Barack Obama is the lovechild of Malcolm X, and a claim that the State Department is run by “Islamic supremacists.” Geller has called for the removal of the Dome of the Rock from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Other allies of Darwish have made similarly disturbing comments. David Horowitz, editor of FrontPage Magazine, another publication to which Darwish regularly contributes, has said, “The Palestinians are Nazis.” In April 2008, while speaking at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Horowitz commented that the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab head-covering, is a symbol of terrorism. (Horowitz, it’s worth noting, is also a professional provocateur.)
Arabs seem to view Darwish’s activities in much the same way that Jews have historically viewed the actions of the medieval Jewish apostates. Of the Muslims she encounters, Darwish observes, “They send me e-mails wondering who is behind me, who is funding me. This is the way Arabs regard those who dissent; they assume we cannot think like that on our own or act out of free will.”
Paul of Burgos, an apostate originally named Shlomo Ha-levi, became the Archbishop of Burgos in 1415 and took an active role in the forced conversion of Spain’s Jews beginning in 1411. Paul was responsible for drawing up edicts that “deprived [Jews] of almost all means of earning a living, leaving them with the choice of death by privation for themselves and their families or conversion,” according to Kenneth Levin, author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
More scholarly apostates took an active role in a series of disputations intended to prove to Jews that Christianity had superseded Judaism. One such convert from Judaism to Christianity, Nicholas Donin, persuaded Pope Gregory IX to issue a bill that required burning the books of the Talmud. Donin participated in the Disputation of Paris, during which he pointed out several passages in the Talmud that were degrading to non-Jews. These claims, while true, were extremely embarrassing to the Jewish population.
In much the same way, Darwish’s outspoken critiques of Islam and Arab culture are extremely problematic to those who share her religious and national background, and the accuracy of her representation of Islam has been hotly debated. After she made a presentation at Tufts University last year, a student interfaith group, the New Initiative for Middle East Peace Dialogue, met to discuss the lecture and declared that she “spoke well beyond the scope of her qualifications and that her controversial opinions on Islam were rooted in misunderstandings and generalizations,” according to the Tufts Daily.
“Now I am called an infidel!” Darwish writes in her memoir of her isolation from other Arabs and Muslims. “In their eyes, I am no longer a good Arab or a good Muslim for supporting the war on terror, advocating peace with Israel, and standing up to the culture of jihad.” The full story of her political disillusionment with the Muslim world is more complicated than passages like this suggest.
It is striking that she omitted from her memoir her conversion to Christianity, particularly in light of her astonishment at being called an infidel. Indeed, considering her Christianity and her affiliation with an evangelical mega-church, the suggestion that she is called an infidel because she advocates peace with Israel seems remarkably disingenuous. While the term “infidel” is rightfully offensive to non-Muslims, there is little doubt that traditional Muslims would view Darwish’s lifestyle and religious decisions as no less than heretical.
“It’s telling that the people Republicans are turning to for their anti-mosque street cred are not ‘moderate, peace-loving’ Muslims, since even Muslim Republicans are disgusted by their party’s actions,” political commentator Peter Beinart wrote in the the Daily Beast during the heated public debate over Park51, the planned Muslim community center that has inaccurately been termed “the Ground Zero Mosque.” “The GOP’s new heroes are former Muslims like Nonie Darwish and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.”
Darwish has been enthusiastically embraced by Republican Jews, and she has reciprocated the affection. Numerous references to Jewish groups are made throughout Now They Call Me Infidel. In her acknowledgments, she mentions the leaders of several Jewish student organizations and Israel advocacy groups, including Jennifer Lazlo, of the Israel Project, Roz Rothstein, of Stand With Us, and Ilan Sharon, of Minnesotans Against Terrorism. She says that her public speaking career began when a Jewish friend, whom she refers to only as “Selma,” encouraged Darwish to speak to her Hadassah group.
The enthusiastic Jewish embrace of an apostate attacking her people at every opportunity is a strange course of action for a group that has throughout its history bristled when one of our own advocated a stance that others believed to not be “good for the Jews.” In October, Pamela Geller, the wise-cracking Jewish creator of the Atlas Shrugs blog, told the New York Times that “a moderate Muslim is a secular Muslim.” Or, even better, a converted one.
Jeremy Seth Davis is a journalist living in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in FT.com and the New York Daily News, among other publications.