Abu Mazen finds a wife

October 12, 2009

In News

Ed West meets the extraordinary Egyptian convert warning Europeans not to abandon their Judeo-Christian heritage

Slight of build and dressed in the stylish manner of the European-influenced Arab middle class, Nonie Darwish could be any wealthy Levantine in Paris or west London.

But behind the veneer of Egyptian elegance is a one-woman anti-jihad machine, a Christian convert from Islam, founder of a group called Former Muslims United and author of two books highly critical of Sharia law, Arab policy towards Israel and Islamists’ ambitions for global conquest.

Darwish is often compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch feminist, but whereas Ali is an atheist who stands up for Europe’s “Enlightenment values” against Islam, Darwish is a Christian who believes “that Judeo-Christian culture produces healthier, happier and more just societies, whereas Islamic culture produces tyrannical regimes and oppression”.

As a result her life is in danger. Is there any specific death threat, I ask, when we meet in central London.

“I’m not aware of a fatwa, but my life is in danger,” she says with a shrug. “Just like anyone who speaks about the nature of Islam.”

And Islamic fundamentalists have every reason to hate her. She is regularly attacked on the front pages of Egyptian newspapers, where she is called a “traitor”. She campaigns against Sharia law and against those who threaten apostates. She is a regular on the lecture circuit, where she criticises Arab foreign policy.

And perhaps even more irritating for many back home, she is the founder of the oxymoronic-sounding group Arabs for Israel, and has written two books with subtitles that need little explanation: Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, and the recently published Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Sharia Law.

And what makes the story so more amazing is that she is the daughter of the godfather of the Palestinian resistance movement.

Born and raised in Cairo, she grew up in Gaza, where her father, Lt General Mustafa Hafez, was head of the Egyptian army’s intelligence in Gaza, and founder of the Fedayeen, the paramilitary force that killed over 400 Israelis in the early 1950s. Although, as she points out, with a look of fierce loyalty: “At that point the Fedeyeen did not do suicide bombings.”

But in 1956, when Nonie was just eight, the Israeli Defence Force killed her father, who was proclaimed a martyr by President Nasser, who then asked his children: “Which one of you will avenge your father’s death by killing Jews?”

Darwish explains that she always blamed Israel for his death and grew up pledging jihad against Egypt’s neighbour.

But she also lived in two different worlds. Being from an educated, middle-class family, she attended a British Catholic school and an American university, and got to experience the last days of cosmopolitan, secular Egypt, just as President Nasser’s disastrous Arab nationalism drove out the ancient communities of Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Jews.

“The British were able to separate mosque and state. We got used to that, and it took us two decades to go back to our roots,” she says. “When the British were in Egypt for 70 years we had incredible reforms for human rights, minorities were protected, and there was a feminist movement protected by the British. In 1919 Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi visited Europe and when she returned to Alexandria and arrived at the railway station, she threw off her headscarf, along with 20 other women from the upper class. It was a huge event, and that was why my grandmother and mother never wore a hijab. And I have to say, thank you, Great Britain, for protecting those women, and for stopping them going to jail or being killed.”

After university she worked as an editor and translator for the respected Middle East News Agency, before emigrating to the United States in 1978. She married an American and converted to Christianity, and now attends an Evangelical church, and yet she still remained hostile to Israel until an extraordinary incident 40 years after the death of her father.

“My brother in 1995, living in Gaza, had a stroke and was unconscious. Someone said to his family: ‘If you want him to live, send him to Israel.’ They [Arabs] prefer Israeli hospitals. You know, even Arabs don’t believe their own hatred. In times of troubles Arabs will trust Jews. “They saved my brother’s life, they were very kind to his family. And I started changing my views after that.”

She now states firmly that “the Palestinian Arabs are the victims of the Arab world” and “if Israel withdraws from the West Bank, it is finished”. “I just wrote an article called ‘Arab-made misery’. It is the Arab League’s policy to never absorb the Palestinians, because then there will be no pressure.” She also cites the disastrous rule of Hamas in the land where she grew up after the Israeli withdrawal.

“Instead of paying attenton to internal issues, instead of building a trade centre, instead of making it the Hong Kong of the Middle East, and it is in a very central position, what did they do? They started hurling missiles from schools. They started having a civil war.”

Her spiritual journey was completed by a visit to Egypt with her American-born sons in August 2001, after several years in the United States.

“I saw the poverty not improving at all, the unemployment, and the oppression of Christians,” she says. “The Christians are very oppressed. I receive stories every day. A woman called Sherine, a Muslim, was caught in a church, arrested, taken for interrogation and apparently tortured and killed, just for being found in a church.”

But there was something else. “From the minute I arrived I thought: ‘Did I land in Saudi Arabia?’ It has changed totally. I never wore a head cover when I was a Muslim. Women wore modest western clothes, the peasants wore head covers but it wasn’t because of religion. It was more tradition and protection against the sun.

“When I left Egypt it was a hot day and everyone came to greet me with sun dresses, with no arms. When I landed again, in 2001, those same cousins came to greet me wearing Islamic clothes in the heat of August in Egypt. One of them was completely covered in black. Even her face, it was a slit. She’s a physician, and she did it on her own – the government didn’t force her, nor did her husband. In fact she forced her husband to go to mosque more and to be more obedient to Islamic tradition. Some women are more radical than men.”

“For a Muslim woman to have respect and also a good career and social rewards, she has to become as radical, if not more so, than men. In Egypt I was wearing a very modest bathing suit on a towel. Next to me there was a woman who was quite educated, her husband was a doctor, quite sophisticated in many ways, and yet she would not talk to me because I was not dressed in Islamic dress.”

Darwish began to write about Sharia a year after the September 2001 attacks on her adopted homeland (which were led by an Egyptian), as a way of warning the West. She says that if a religion goes unchecked it becomes “like a mafia”, with everyone too afraid to speak up. And she is quite convinced that Islam does want to expand.

“The West is the great civilisation that Islam wants to seize and conquer. They wouldn’t take their eyes off it. Because of the West’s superiority it makes Islam feel ashamed.

“The entire Arab world has lived in total indoctrination for a very long time. They are used to being oppressed, living under Sharia, having no freedom of speech whatsoever. They hear only one side of the news, and they vote accordingly. Even wealthy Arabs believe the most incredible theories – I had that experience even before 9/11.”

But Islam has been moderate from time to time, I point out. Voltaire put it best in describing it as a violent sect that had become “benign and tolerant”.

“I tell you why Islam was becoming moderate, and that was because Islam was weak. Then they discovered oil and a lot of Muslims looked on Saudi’s oil as a blessing from God.”

But it is also, perhaps, because the West does not believe in itself.

“The West is no longer proud of the Judeo-Christian culture and democracy. It does not believe in its own beliefs. Tolerating intolerance is not a sign of virtue, but gross negligence. The West hates itself and it’s very sad.”

She shakes her head at the thought that elements of Sharia law are recognised in England.

“We look to the European democracies as our escape to freedom. As a former Muslim and someone who lived under Islamic law, one of the major reasons I went to America was to escape my second-class citizen status.

“There are forces of reform in the Middle East. People are sticking their heads on blacklists, whether they are journalists, intellectuals or simply people who want change. When we see the West treat groups like Hamas as a legitimate government, and allowing something like Sharia law to be practised, it really weakens their position. And the radicals see that violence works!”

And that would be very, very sad indeed.

Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Sharia Law is available on Amazon for £11.49