Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Now They Call me Infidel:
Why I Renounced Jihad for America,
Israel, and the War on Terror, by Nonie Darwish.
Sentinel, Penguin Books, 2006, 258 pp.

June 2007

Many immigrants come to this great nation in search of material gain, which is fine; however, the biggest prize I gained was my religious freedom and learning to love. For me it was nothing short of cataclysmic. I had turned from a culture of hatred to one of love. (p.161) 

Nonie Darwish, who lived the first 30 years of her life in Egypt and immigrated to America in 1978, is supremely suited to write about the stark difference between the free West and the Islam-ruled Middle East.

 Born into an Egyptian Muslim family, she at first tried very hard to be a good Muslim believer. However, blessed with an inquisitive mind and a strong will, she found that increasingly difficult and then decided to break with her culture and religion. She now is an American citizen who has dedicated her life to publicly extolling the freedom and openness of America and the right of Israel to live in peace. This book is a compelling account of the author’s journey from Islam to Christianity, in parallel with her move from Egypt to America. 

A World Split Apart

Her family belonged to the middle-upper class of Egypt since her father, Colonel Mustafa Hafez, was a high-ranking officer in the Egyptian army. When she was five years old, her family moved to Gaza where her father was appointed by the Nasser government to head the clandestine operations against Israel. Nonie attended a school where students were drilled to hate Jews as despicable people who had stolen their land and were the cause of all the troubles in the Arab world, and therefore had to be destroyed.  

In 1956, when she was eight years old, her father was killed by the Israelis, and the relatively carefree life of the family came to an abrupt end. She was heart-stricken when she lost her father and was not comforted with the adults’ assurances that he had a guaranteed place in heaven because he had died as a martyr. 

Her mother, who was now left to care for four daughters and a son, at first received a generous government pension. Later that was severely reduced, and she experienced the loneliness and hardship that is the lot of all widows in Islamic countries. 

The family moved to Cairo, where the girls attended a British Roman Catholic school run by English nuns. Before long,  President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized all the private schools and the English, French and German educators left the country. Nonie considered herself fortunate to have had the benefit of English education in the private schools, including the American University in Cairo, before they were all shut down.  

She experienced her schooling in the foreign-led schools and the surrounding culture, where jihad against the infidels was glorified, as living in two worlds. She relates how in the Catholic school where half the students were Muslims, the latter would spend part of the afternoon with an Islamic teacher who taught them the Koran and told them how Allah led Muhammad in his victorious battles against the infidels. And then the Muslim students returned to their regular classes, she writes, “where the kind, sweet, ‘infidel’ nuns resumed their instruction.” 

After the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952, President Nasser ruled the country until 1970. He was determined to establish a strong pan-Arab coalition and considered Israel the great obstacle to the realization of that ambition. The 1956 and 1967 wars were disastrous for Egypt, but the main preoccupation of the Nasser-led government remained the elimination of Israel. 

That changed after the death of Nasser in 1970, when President Anwar Sadat pursued a different policy and in 1978 took the courageous step to sign a peace agreement with Israel. In response, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, territory that Israel had made over from an empty stretch of sand to a thriving modern economy with an infrastructure, oil wells and modern hotels on the beautiful Red Sea and Mediterranean beaches. But the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood, who considered the Sadat-brokered peace treaty with Israel an act of treason, assassinated him in October 1981. 

A Ticking Time Bomb

Though she was spared the hardship of the poor and illiterate, Darwish experienced firsthand the suffocating restrictions and demands on women in an Islamic country. With the support of her mother she obtained an excellent education and escaped the fate of an arranged marriage that would have robbed her of the little freedoms she still enjoyed.  

However, she deeply resented the suffocating control over women’s lives by the religious laws and taboos that condemned women to a life of servitude and isolation. All spontaneous contacts between boys and girls, men and women, were forbidden, and the prying eyes of neighbours and family members were everywhere to ensure that women uphold the “honour “ of the family. Darwish writes that as a young woman she felt “locked into a box, living to satisfy someone else’s criteria of morality and social behavior. I was only to befriend Egyptians, preferably Muslims and women like me, and even those friendships presented problems.” 

Her first job out of university was to serve as editor, translator and censor at the state- owned Middle East News Agency where she discovered that all information was closely controlled. At the same time she was fortunate that her work took her to the major Western cities where she saw a very different world than the one presented in the Egyptian media.  

She became increasingly aware of the gap between what the media were allowed to report and the reality within Egypt as well as in the outside world. The relative openness to the United States at the time of President Nixon’s visit in 1972 made way for a culture of hatred toward the “Great Satan.”  Darwish attributed that to the influence of Islamists and Arab secular leftists who “bombarded the Arab street with misinformation, propaganda, and outright lies,” She writes that even the Western media played along with this falsehood because it did not want to run the risk of being ousted from the country. But the lies and the incessant drumbeat of hatred toward the outside world created the right climate for the spread of fundamentalism and extremism in Egypt.  

Darwish began to despair of the future of Egypt because of the control over the lives of all citizens, the culture of jihad, the hatred, especially toward Israel, and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.   She feared that the Middle East was becoming a ticking time bomb ready to explode any time. 

A New Start

In November 1978, Darwish immigrated to America, where she married her fiancé who had preceded her. What made a deep impression on her was the openness, freedom and real tolerance of the American people. She quickly found a job as a secretary in a small business owned by a Jew, the very person whom she was taught from childhood to hate as an enemy to be destroyed.  

Darwish is convinced that we will never understand the culture she left behind unless we realize how different the Arabic mindset is from the openness, freedom and tolerance she experienced in America. For example, she writes that saving face is a very strong motivation for Arabs, and lying is seen as a virtue if that is required to save face.  

On the other hand, Western notion of honesty, in the Arabs’ understanding is not a virtue at all but an opportunity to take advantage of the naïve Westerners. Darwish is convinced that “the whole issue of truthfulness and honesty in Arab culture is a multilayered mystery to most of the Western world and is integral to the misunderstandings between our cultures.” She explains:  

During my first two years in America, my sudden exposure to the freedom of religion and social and racial equality in America made me realize to what degree Muslim society oppressed, shamed, and manipulated its citizens. It was crippling to a healthy life…. Moving to America was like being catapulted to another time in history. America for me was not just a place for making money, having a job, a house, and car, it was a place for becoming a human being. 

Much to her disappointment, during the 1980s she began to notice that the radical version of Islamic culture she had left behind was beginning to take root right here in America. In the meantime, Darwish had to face the fact that though she still considered herself to be a Muslim, her attachment to that religion was a mere formality without any depth.  

Her attempts to connect with other Muslims and the mosque were disappointing. The rudeness and fanaticism put her off – the very things she had escaped from - she encountered when visiting a mosque. But more importantly, she began to question the very essence of Islam especially after she heard the same sort of anti-American and anti- Israel propaganda she had heard in Egypt. 

Growing Fanaticism

She discovered to her dismay that many mosques in America are supported by Saudi-Arabian money and led by imams who preach the fanatical Wahabi branch of Islam. Their message was that Muslims should not assimilate into the American culture but that they should strive to change America into an Islamic country, a message that was summarized by Omar Ahmed, co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as follows: 

Those who stay in America should be open to society without melting, keeping Mosques open so anyone can come and learn about Islam. If you choose to live here, you have a responsibility to deliver the message of Islam…. Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faiths, but to become dominant. The Koran, the Muslim book of scripture, should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.  

One Sunday morning Darwish watched a televised church service where the preacher read from I Corinthian 13, about love that is patient, kind, not envious, or self-seeking, does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth,…. She was amazed, and began with her family to attend a Christian church where she found a community of people within which they felt blessed. Instead of hatred for the Other, she found that Christians are called to love and to pray even for those who call them infidels.  

In August 2001, together with her husband and three children, she visited Egypt after her absence of 23 years. She was happy to meet her close relatives including her mother again, and they enjoyed the sightseeing of interesting and historic places. But she was heart broken about the many changes for the worse. The poverty and hardship of the people had worsened, and so had the chaos and the decay of the infrastructure.  

Worst of all, she found that radical Islam, enforced by increasing control over the lives of people, had become more influential. Some of her friends, who had worn Western dress, now were covered from head to toe, and they treated her with suspicion. The hostility to the West had become more pronounced, eagerly promoted in the mosques and the controlled media. 

Darwish left Egypt with deep pessimism about its future and a profound concern for the well-being of her people. She was so happy to return to the land that had given her freedom that she felt like kissing the ground on her arrival back in Los Angeles. That was September 10, 2001.

No Longer Silent

The next morning, September 11, they awoke to the news of the dreadful massacres in New York, Washington, and the Pennsylvania countryside. This hit her very hard, first of all for the loss of 3000 innocent lives and its impact on the entire nation. But she was also saddened that Arab culture had stooped to this measure of madness. 

She was more downhearted when she canvassed members of her family and a number of acquaintances back in Egypt. Everyone she spoke with had little sympathy for the victims, and many saw this attack as something the Israelis or the Americans themselves had masterminded.  Or they felt that Americans had this coming to them. They were all angry with her for thinking that Arabs had perpetrated this attack on America. 

Darwish faced the reality that she was totally disconnected from the Arab/Muslim world. But there was worse to come. When she began to speak with fellow Arab Americans, she mostly encountered indifference and even fear for speaking out against the ruthless attackers of America. Nonetheless, she made up her mind to publicly defend America against its enemies. She realized that doing so would bring trouble and opposition from Islamists, radical Muslims and even from moderate Arabs and Muslims. She writes: 

But the time of silence, of being afraid to speak out, was over for me from the day the planes hit the twin towers. After seeing 3,000 fellow Americans killed in an instant, I had to stand up for America. 

She began by writing a few articles, then was invited to an ever growing number of conferences and meetings, in the course of which she met many appreciative people in person and by email. But many of the responders from the Arab world asked her not to post their letters of support. 

The Right Thing to Do

She also made up her mind to work closely with the Jewish people because she thought it was simply the right and honourable thing to do. 

In 2004, she traveled to Israel where she received a warm welcome. Here was the daughter of an Egyptian military officer, a martyr in the war against Israel, who made a complete turn around and now is a defender of this beleaguered, tiny country in an ocean of Arab hatred. Her worries that she might be looked at with suspicion proved to be totally unfounded. 

Her Web site ArabsforIsrael.com has a list of statements that describe what the Arab and Muslim signatories believe about Israel. It is a plea for the peaceful coexistence of a free and democratic Israel and a similar country for the Palestinian people. 

In a final chapter, “The Challenge for America,” the author issues a strong warning against the widespread naiveté about the real threat of radical Islam, especially in the academic and media world in America. She warns against the inroads of fanatical preachers who use the freedom of America to promote a culture that would destroy those very freedoms 

Darwish is convinced that Arab Muslims and non-Muslims should give priority attention to, 1) Since freedom of religion is the key to the reformation of Islam, the law that forbids Muslims from changing religion must be abrogated; 2) The Arab world must stop blaming the West, America, and Israel for all the problems of the Middle East and begin to accept responsibility for its own failings; 3) American Muslims must take control of their mosques away from the Islamic fanatics, and cut their ties with Saudi Arabia’s money and leadership. 

She has found encouragement and support though a great deal of that has been from people who are afraid to stand up, not only in the Islamic countries but even in the free West. She has also been maligned, especially by fellow American Muslims who consider her a traitor. She has been treated rudely by Muslim thugs, shouted down at meetings, and barred from speaking at certain events.  

The University of Guelph (Canada) has the dubious distinction of having cancelled her speech in early 2006 after the local Muslim student association accused her of being a hate-monger and demanded that she not be allowed to speak. 

Now They Call me Infidel is a moving story of a courageous, extraordinary woman.  It has a message of great urgency for our time, because it provides an inside look at a culture that is a mystery to Westerners but that has been the ruin of entire nations.  

This book is written with conviction and honesty, and above all in spirit of love and compassion. My advice: order this book today, read it, and pass it on.