Nonie Darwish grew up in a culture in which anti-Semitism was the order of the day by government edict and social and religious custom. Every problem her large Middle Eastern country had was blamed on tiny
Israel. Government schools taught that martyrdom in jihad against the Jews was the pinnacle of personal glory. If someone talked about current events or predictions of the future, "In Shallah" was as required a response as "Heil Hitler" was in another time and place.
Men practiced polygamy while exercising total control over their wives and daughters — in fact, male strangers had the right to be cultural enforcers of women's actions. Women could be killed for "improper" actions, or shunned over a stray word or rumor.
So in what stifling environment was Darwish raised? Afghanistan under the Taliban? Ayatollah-ruled Iran? No, perhaps the most sobering fact of Now They Call Me Infidel, Darwish's compelling memoir, is that she grew up in Egypt -- a country considered the harbinger of the new, progressive, secular Arab state.
Her autobiographical account is one of the bravest books I have ever read. Darwish takes an unsparing look at the way the "Religion of Peace" is practiced in the real world — both in Muslim countries and in the West. Past political defectors to the West could reveal embarrassing and damaging truths about their homeland with relative impunity -- think Solzhenitsyn, nestled in exile in the woods of Vermont, lashing at the Soviet system -- but Darwish is in a far more precarious situation. She is criticizing a culture where fundamentalist clerics have issued fatwahs calling for the death of people who have been far less critical of Islam than she is. She has also risked a large part of her social and familial ties with her outspoken and principled stand.
The daughter of an Egyptian military officer assigned to the Gaza Strip in the 1950s, Darwish was constantly told in school that Israel was the cause of all her people's problems. Indeed, when she was 8, Israeli agents killed her father; a martyrdom orphan, she and the rest of her family moved back to Cairo.
In Cairo, Nonie was surprised to hear that Jews were the cause of all the problems in the rest of Egypt, too. Even as a young child who'd lost a father to the enemy, she wondered how such a large and populous land could be bullied by tiny Israel. Her world expanded further when her mother scraped the means together to send Nonie and her sisters to a Catholic school.
This was a time when Gamal Abdel Nasser, who helped depose Egypt's King Farouk in 1952 and became the country's revolutionary ruler two years later, was cozying up to Moscow and trying to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. But the seeds of radical Islam were being sown in the schools, the mosques, even in the songs on the radio.
"No Arab could avoid the culture of jihad," Darwish writes. "Jihad is not some esoteric concept…It is a religious holy war against infidels … a fight for Allah's cause to promote Islamic domination in the world."
The culture of jihad and how Darwish personally experienced it is a major theme in her book. She demolishes absolutely the media-driven notion put out by disingenuous Islamic scholars that "jihad" really means the internal struggle a Muslim wages to attain spiritual growth. Although Darwish spent 30 years in a Muslim country and 50-some years on this earth, she writes she never heard that palatable-to-Western-ears definition of jihad before Sept. 11, 2001.
Perhaps the best part of Now They Call Me Infidel is Darwish's unsparing examination of marriage and family dynamics in Muslim countries. While the oppression of women is a common charge against Islam, Darwish looks at the effect this poisonous dynamic also has on men and society as a whole.
One of the first questions Westerners might ponder when thinking about radical Islam is: Where do they get all these suicide bombers? The Left would have us believe that the urchins of the Arab street are so enraged by the invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush that they are willing to blow themselves to bits over it.
Darwish explains the cause is far deeper than current politics—or even a lifetime of indoctrination into the ideology of jihad. She finds the alienation of many young men begins in the attitudes of the traditional Muslim family. She points to two ancient traditions that persist in the modern Muslim world that hinder normal family attachments and increase alienation in young men. The first is polygamy, which brings competition and insecurity to families, while the other is the dowry.
Under Sharia law, she writes, men are allowed up to four wives. There are also three kinds of marriages: a primary publicly recorded marriage; a private — or urfi — marriage which is typically how second marriages are conducted; and a mutaa "pleasure marriage" which is essentially prostitution with the payment referred to as a dowry.
Meanwhile, in a society where a wife or daughter's "honor" affects how the man is viewed in his community, a long series of taboos are enforced to keep absolute control over the women. The only concession given to women is that they are allowed to enter a marriage with their own property — the dowry — which the possibility of polygamy makes a practical necessity, but adds to the fracturing of the marriage bond.
This makes marriage an uneasy alliance between families, Darwish says, leading to distrust and competition and depriving many children of a loving environment.
Polygamy also makes being the urfi wife of an older, well-to-do man a more attractive option for many young women than taking a chance on a poor younger man — of which there are plenty in the economic backwaters of the Muslim world, most of them unable to afford a dowry that marriage requires, anyway. "You see them, the restless angry throngs of young men who make up the seething Arab Street," Darwish explains. While a couple with limited means can work together to escape poverty in Western society, this becomes very tough for a poor man living under Sharia law.
The second half of Now They Call Me Infidel could have been subtitled, The Search for the Moderate Muslim. Two things surprised Darwish when she immigrated to the United States at the age of 30. First, the ease at which she was able to find a job — with a kindly Jewish business owner, no less —and the second, the degree to which radicals control American mosques.
Even though Muslim immigrant communities to the U.S. are well off enough to fund their own mosque and imams, most accept Saudi "generosity" in subsidizing their mosques. "The agenda of these radical American mosques… was to keep American Muslims in line, Islamize America and spread a radical Wahabi sect of Islam that even Egyptians find too extreme." Darwish decided to follow her friends' advice and practice her religion in private.
But it is not only in religious settings that American Muslims are being radicalized, Darwish contends. The modern American campus might seem the last place this most illiberal of philosophies could flourish, but a strange brew of anti-American radicalism, multiculturalist identity politics and anti-Semitism has given radical Islam a foothold there.
Call it burka chic. Darwish is particularly frustrated by "defiant young Muslim women… who instead of feeling gratitude to the culture that liberated them, they use their head cover or veil as a form of jihad against all that America stands for…" She points out that "Most of them were born in the United States and have never lived under the Taliban, Iranian or Saudi Sharia law, and look at their long lost heritage with naïve nostalgia and pride."
Most chilling is Darwish's account of trying to marshal forces to speak out against terrorists after Sept. 11, 2001. Having returned to America the day before the attacks from a trip to Egypt where she was shocked at the political climate (furthered, she argues, by CNN's overseas coverage) Darwish had already decided on a more activist role.
The cold shoulder was among the more polite responses she received to her calls to her "moderate" friends. More often, she was called a traitor or regaled with conspiracy theories about the Zionists' responsibility for the 9-11 attacks. She was forced to conclude that "Radical Islam has declared war on America and on the West, and the majority of Muslims either support or make excuses for terrorism."
Darwish went on the lecture circuit on her own, eventually becoming a powerful voice not only in defense of America, but calling for Arab countries to let Israel live in peace, as well.
Nonie Darwish was never a radical, so her autobiography does not have the strong story arc of such classics as Whittaker Chambers' Witness. She was not jailed for her beliefs like Natan Sharansky, (Fear no Evil) or forced to flee one step ahead of armed opponents like Victor Belenko (Mig Pilot), or Polish diplomat Romuald Spasowksi (The Liberation of One).
But Darwish's story is incredibly compelling, nonetheless. She fearlessly confronts the socially enforced myths about Islamic radicals both home and abroad, and she has the life experience to make it stick.