StandWithUs manages an impressive stable of Zionist speakers, including several who are Arabs, Muslims, or ex-Muslims: Brigitte Gabriel, Ishmael Khaldi, Walid Shoebat, Khaled Abu Toameh, and Nonie Darwish. Darwish, born an Egyptian Muslim, now an American Evangelical Christian, is one of the most energetic. She manages the website Arabs for Israel and has appeared on FOX News, on the website Frontpage Magazine, and in the film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. She is also the author of Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror. Penguin Books publishes it under its Sentinel imprint — a special line of conservative titles. Since her book’s publication in 2006, Darwish has toured extensively, speaking primarily at colleges and universities.
Now They Call Me Infidel has blurbs from all the usual crew: Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’Or, former Senator Rick Santorum, Representative Tom “Nuke Mecca” Tancredo, and General Paul Vallely, who advocates the final ethnic cleansing of all Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the book itself, Darwish interweaves stories of her Egyptian girlhood with potted accounts of female genital mutilation, arranged marriages, polygamy, veiling, domestic abuse, honor killings, sharia law, jihad, censorship, hate-oriented education, the rejection of modernity, the cult of martyrdom, Islamic imperialism, and the pathological, groundless hatred of Israel.
In her interviews and in her book, she insists that she is not anti-Arab or anti-Islamic, and even suggests from time to time that she is still a Muslim. Then she pivots nimbly and attacks “the Arab mind,” “the seething Arab street,” and “the Muslim world,” with its “culture of jihad,” “culture of death,” and “culture of envy.” There are “no real distinctions between moderate or radical Muslims,” and no significant differences within or among Arab or Muslim cultures: for Darwish, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism was essentially jihadist. Darwish is allergic to social history: “I realized that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a crisis over land, but a crisis of hate, lack of compassion, ingratitude, and insecurity.” Instead of history, scholarship, and footnotes, she gives us a watered-down version of Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind: a dictionary of Islamophobic commonplaces underwritten by the authority of an ex-Muslim native informant: I was there — I know.
Darwish’s portraits of Israel and of the US, to which she emigrated in 1978, are diametrically opposite but equally fatuous: Israeli Jews are tolerant, pragmatic, and peace-loving. From 1967 to 1982, they made the Sinai bloom. Americans are honest, charitable, industrious, self-sufficient, intellectually curious, and benevolent toward the foreign nations to whom they bring liberty. They err only in their excess of credulous goodness: because of “the simplicity of American values such as truthfulness,” they risk falling prey to duplicitous jihadist immigrants and dangerous professors, who “indoctrinate American young people with the radical Muslim agenda.”
Her outsider’s view of America complements her insider’s view of the Arab and Muslim world, for imperial states want not only other people’s land and labor, but their love. Here, we may compare Now They Call Me Infidel not only to recent anti-Islamic conversion narratives like Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel (her conversion was to neoconservative atheism and the American Enterprise Institute), but to earlier works in the genre. In her 1964 Editions Gallimard autobiography, O mes soeurs musulmanes, pleurez! (O My Muslim Sisters, Weep!), Zoubeida Bittari recounts her escape from Algerian Muslim patriarchy to French Christian bliss as a domestic servant to a Pied-Noir family; Nonie Darwish finds friends, family, and faith in southern California, including a Republican women’s group, an American husband, and Christian fellowship in Pastor Dudley Rutherford’s Shepherd of the Hills Church. As Bittari helped French colons feel better about their ungratefully rebuffed civilizing mission in Algeria, so Darwish helps Americans feel better about the long and bumpy road to global democratization.
There are occasional flashes of something more individual and authentic in Darwish’s book. For instance, her reiterated heartfelt attack on Nasser’s rent control laws (her mother lived partly off of her Cairo rentals) helps us understand why she feels so much more at home in southern California, where she arrived with enough money to buy a house with a swimming pool. But as a whole, the book is tedious, predictable, and badly edited — born to be bought, scanned and displayed, not actually read. But this will not diminish the demand for Darwish as a lecturer, which derives not from her writing but from her parentage: her father was Colonel Mustafa Hafez, head of Egyptian army intelligence in the Gaza Strip in the early ’50s, who was killed by an Israeli letter bomb in July 1956. Every lecture notice, every interview, even the title page of her book announces her as “a Muslim Shahid’s Daughter.”
Throughout her book, Darwish struggles to maintain love and loyalty both to the father she lost at age eight and to the Israeli state that killed him. In a parting flourish, she says that “My father — and potentially my whole family — was sent to his death in Gaza by Nasser, who was consumed by his desire to destroy Israel,” and she fondly imagines him surviving and flying with assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Israel. But this argument sometimes requires a torturous chronology: “When, on January 16, 1956, Nasser vowed a renewed offensive to destroy Israel, the pressure on my father to step up operations increased. More fedayeen groups were organized, and their training expanded to other areas of the Gaza Strip. Often my father was gone for days at a time. In an attempt to end the terror, Israel sent its commandos one night to our heavily guarded home.”
The problem here is that this early, failed assassination attempt occurred in 1953, when Hafez was struggling to prevent destabilizing Palestinian infiltration from Gaza into Israel. Things changed dramatically in February 1955, when then military commander Ariel Sharon’s Gaza raid killed 37 Egyptian soldiers and wounded 31. This raid brought shocked international condemnation, the end of Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett’s ongoing negotiations with Nasser, mass demonstrations of Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip, and Nasser’s decision to have Hafez organize and arm Palestinian fedayeen for cross-border forays. Israeli historians Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris see the raid as a turning point in Israeli-Arab relations. Darwish never mentions it.
Continuing with her discussion of the earlier undated raid on her family’s home (it actually occurred on 28-29 August 1953), she says, “My father was not at home that night, and the Israelis found only women and children — my mother, two maids, and five small children. The commandos left us unharmed. I personally did not even wake up or know of the incident until later in life, when I read a book written about my father. After I read it, I called my mother immediately, and she confirmed the story. The Israelis chose not [to] kill us even though the Egyptian-organized fedayeen did kill Israeli civilians, women and children.”
Young Nonie must have been a very sound sleeper, since one squad blew the gate off her house, injuring several civilians, and, by one account, proceeded to demolish the house. Grown-up Nonie seems not to know that the Israeli commandos were part of Ariel Sharon’s newly-organized Unit 101. While the one squad attacked her house, Sharon’s was cornered nearby in al-Bureij refugee camp. He decided they would bomb and shoot their way through the camp rather than retreat from it. General Vagn Bennike, the Danish UN Truce Chief, reported to the Security Council on the ensuing massacre: “Bombs were thrown through the windows of huts in which the refugees were sleeping and, as they fled, they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons. The casualties were 20 killed, 27 seriously wounded, and 35 less seriously wounded.” Other sources estimate from 15 to 50 fatalities.
The Israeli army blamed the raid on rogue kibbutzniks, and Ariel Sharon tried to reassure his men, telling them that all the dead women were camp whores or murderous Palestinian infiltrators. But some of them remained shocked at what they had done. Participant Meir Barbut said they felt as if they were slaughtering the pathetic inhabitants of a Jewish transit camp: “The boys threw Molotov cocktails at [innocent] people, not at the saboteurs we had come to punish. It was shameful for the 101 and the IDF [Israel army].” Another asked, “Is this screaming, whimpering multitude … the enemy? … How did these fellahin sin against us?” In 2006, Palestinian journalist Laila El-Haddad interviewed a survivor for Al Jazeera English:
“Mohammad Nabahini, 55, was two at the time and lived in the camp. He survived the attack in the arms of his slain mother. ‘My father decided to stay behind when they attacked. He hid in a pile of firewood and pleaded with my mother to stay with him. She was too afraid, and fled with hundreds of others, only to return to take me and a few of her belongings with her,’ he said. ‘As she was escaping, her dress got caught in a fence around the camp, just over there,’ he gestured, near a field now covered with olive trees. ‘And then they threw a bomb at her, Sharon and his men. She tossed me on the ground behind her before she died.’”
Though Darwish never mentions it, the al-Bureij Massacre hasn’t exactly been a secret — both Zionist and anti-Zionist historians have described it clearly, with little disagreement save the number of fatalities, with the high-end estimate coming from an Israeli history. If it tends not to loom large in Palestinian historical memory, that’s because it was overshadowed just two months later by the Qibya Massacre, during which Sharon’s Unit 101 killed 67, women and children, demolishing buildings over their heads and shooting them down when they tried to flee — the tactic pioneered at al-Bureij. Given its propensity for civilian soft targets, this daredevil elite unit might be better described as a death squad.
We probably shouldn’t expect Nonie Darwish to alter her campus presentations anytime soon. The bookings by StandWithUs might dry up if she were to start supplementing her cautionary tales about sharia law, jihadi immigrants, and female genital mutilation with a serious discussion of Israeli massacres at Deir Yassin, Tantura, al-Bureij, Qibya, Kfar Qasim, Sabra and Shatila, and Beit Hanoun. In any case, Darwish prefers simple cultural generalities and intimate personal reflection to historical analysis. But since that’s the case, someone at her next lecture might ask if she remembers playing with any of the refugee children murdered at al-Bureij, and why the kindly Israeli commandos who spared her family decided to blow up Mohammad Nabahini’s mother.
Jim Holstun teaches world literature and Marxism at SUNY Buffalo and can be reached at jamesholstun A T hotmail D O T com.