Where are the moderates of the Islamic world? The question has befuddled Americans since the September 11 attacks. Indeed, while President Bush and other leaders of the West have fervently defended Islam as a “religion of peace,” there has been a conspicuous dearth of prominent Middle Eastern leaders openly willing to criticize radical Islam or defend the United States and Israel in the War on Terrorism. A recent incident at Brown University this past November sheds light on the perplexing issue.
In late November, Hillel, Brown University’s prominent Jewish group on campus, invited Nonie Darwish to give a lecture in defense of Israel and its human rights record, relative to the Islamic world. Born in Cairo, Darwish moved to Gaza in the 1950s when Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered her father, a Lieutenant General in the military, to serve as a commander of the Egyptian Army Intelligence in Gaza. At the time, Egypt occupied Gaza. Her father, Mustafa Hafez, founded the Fedayeen, which launched raids across Israel’s southern border. When Darwish was eight years old, her father became the first targeted assassination carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces in response to Fedayeen’s attacks, making him a martyr or “shahid.” During his speech nationalizing the Suez Canal, Nasser vowed Egypt would take revenge for Hafez’s death. Nasser asked Nonie and her siblings, “Which one of you will avenge your father's death by killing Jews?”
After his death, Darwish’s family moved to Cairo, where she attended Catholic high school and then the American University in Cairo. She worked as an editor and translator for the Middle East News Agency, until emigrating to the United States in 1978, ultimately receiving United States citizenship. After arriving in the United States, she converted from Islam to evangelical Christianity based on her belief that even American mosques preach a radical, anti-peace message. Due to her decision to convert, Darwish instantly became branded as an “apostate” in several prominent Muslim circles. After 9/11, Darwish began writing columns critical of radical Islam, and authored a book Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror. She is also the founder of the organization Arabs for Israel, which pledges, “respect and support the State of Israel,” welcome a “peaceful and diverse Middle East,” reject “suicide/homicide terrorism as a form of Jihad,” and promote “constructive self-criticism and reform” in the Islamic world.
When Hillel announced its decision to invite Darwish to speak, the Brown University Muslim Students’ Association promptly insisted that Hillel rescind the invitation. Their reasoning: Darwish is “too controversial.” Similarly, the Sarah Doyle’s Women’s Center, which Hillel had contacted to cosponsor the event given Darwish’s advocacy of women’s rights, refused to support the lecture. After a brief period of internal debate, Hillel buckled to the pressure and withdrew its invitation. In an open letter explaining the decision, Hillel cited a “desire to maintain constructive relationships” with the Muslim Students Association. Inviting Darwish, they argue, “would not be a prudent method of Israel advocacy.” Defending the decision, one member of Hillel stated that Jews “should be especially sensitive about comments which criticize strict religious observance and deem it unacceptable in America.” This member was particularly concerned that his Muslim peers “were extremely offended by this characterization of them as ‘extremists.’”
Amidst a flurry of negative press, including stories in the New York Post,
National Review Online, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the University moved into damage-control mode. Interim Vice President Carey offered to sponsor the event in the spring semester due to “the well-known and often-articulated University policy to support a wide range of perspectives and ideologies and without regard to the content of the message or argument of any particular speaker or program.” Yet despite the obvious evidence, Carey shielded the Muslim Association: “It has been reported in many venues that the Muslim Students’ Association voiced objections to the original idea of bringing Darwish to campus. That is not true.”
It is tempting to dismiss Hillel’s decision to abandon Darwish as an extreme example of political correctness and sensitivity in academia. Yet the incident is more revealing. It is a symptom of a deeper, fundamental problem with both Muslim and pro-Israel activism on campus.
The Muslim Students’ Association is one of the most active student groups on campus. Much of their activity is not political. During Ramadan, for instance, the group organized an interfaith fast co-sponsored by a number of student groups on campus, including the College Republicans. Indeed, in promoting traditional faith, the Muslim Students Association has been a tremendous boon to Brown, where secularism and moral relativism tend to reign.
Yet in their political activism, the group is guided by an avowed opposition to the state of Israel. During “Palestinian Solidarity Week” for instance, members of the Muslim Students Association display prominent posters and pictures condemning Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli “aggression.” Last year, it featured an “apartheid” wall on the Main Green to protest Israel’s security fence. While opinion in the group on the issue of Palestinian terrorism ranges from begrudging denunciation to wholehearted defense, opposition to the Jewish state is nearly universal.
That members of the Muslim Students Associations criticize Israel is not problematic per se. Yet it is galling that the organization, united around a religious identity, has willingly tied the faith directly to a distinct political agenda. Even worse is their total unwillingness to consider the experience of a former Muslim, moved to abandon her faith. In successfully pushing to silence a woman raised in the heart of the Islamic world, simply for voicing grievances against Islamic radicalism, the Muslim Students Association sends an unequivocal message: Muslims who defend Israel and America in the War on Terrorism and advocate reform within Islam are anti-Muslim.
Perhaps even more disappointing, however, is the way in which Hillel handled the matter. As a member of Brown Students for Israel, which works closely with Hillel, I continually have been struck by the meek and complacent nature with which the Jewish community at Brown defends Israel. On numerous occasions, when the Israel-Palestinian issue has flared up on campus, the Muslim Students Association and other Palestinian sympathizers will launch vitriolic attacks against “Zionist imperialism” and the like, only to be countered by timid protestations that Israel is not really an aggressor state. Nor does Hillel’s concern over “sensitivity” carry into invited speakers who are decidedly anti-Israel. When Brown invited Noam Chomsky, for instance, to speak, among other issues, against Israel, Hillel stood by idly. Indeed, in my conversations with fellow students on campus involved with pro-Israel activism, my defenses of Israel are often met with guilt-ridden hesitancy. One even called me a “Zionist crazy.” Inherent in the tentativeness, I have observed that while defenders of Israel at Brown will confidently cite Israel’s protection of liberal rights within the state, many are far less certain on the more fundamental issues: Does Israel really have a right to exist? Are the boundaries of the Jewish state legitimate? Should Israel compromise with terrorists? Hillel’s decision to back away from Darwish is only a manifestation of a lack of conviction latent in the pro-Israel movement. As Brown University Professor Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad, recently noted, “The Jews at Hillel act as if they are already living under the Shari’a.”
The Darwish incident at Brown is certainly alarming, yet it must be understood in a much broader context. The debates on campus are microcosms of the issues Israel faces at the international level. Despite the fact that Israel stands as the only liberal democracy and bulwark against terrorism in a sea of pan-Islamic despotism, anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic stances are in vogue throughout elite circles. The war against Islamic radicalism will likely continue for generations and students at Brown and other elite universities invariably will be forced to contend with the issue. If the actions of the Muslim Students Association and Hillel at Brown are any reflection of the future of American leadership on the issue, there is cause to be concern.
Perhaps the Darwish incident can serve as a clarion wake-up call. While all Muslims need not embrace Israel with open arms, the quashing of any voice supporting of reform signals a much more profound need for greater tolerance and dissent within the Islamic ranks. The issue of Muslim “apostates” is particularly salient in light of the violent repercussions converts, such as Abdul Rahman, have faced in the Islamic world. On the other side, the pro-Israel movement must renew its faith in the virtue of their cause. Though I myself am not Jewish, I have naturally looked to the Jewish community at Brown to lead the defense of Israel. Yet if Jews themselves are unwilling to take their own side in an argument, the fate of Israel is jeopardized. Only when these factors come together can the greatest hope for genuine peace emerge: the voice of moderates in the Islamic world.
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.