Darwish lecture provokes fierce student reaction

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Denouncing Islamist ideology as “archaic and oppressive,” Arab feminist Nonie Darwish declared Arab culture in “a head-on collision with the rest of the world” during a speech yesterday evening in Salomon 101.

Darwish’s speech was followed by a heated question-and-answer session, during which several students passionately questioned her views and academic credentials.

Growing up in Cairo and Gaza, Darwish said she learned to hate Jews, Israel and America. Yet she is now an ardent supporter of Israel and a women’s rights activist. Darwish founded ArabsForIsrael.com, a Web site that urges Muslims and Arabs across the globe to “give Israel and the Jewish people the respect they deserve in their tiny little country.” She is also the author of “Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror.”

Darwish was originally scheduled to speak last semester, but her lecture fell through after the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center declined to fund her appearance and Brown Hillel decided not to sponsor the event alone. The Office of Campus Life and Student Services and the Political Theory Project sponsored last night’s talk.

According to Yael Richardson ’08, president of Hillel’s executive board, Hillel decided not to sponsor the event last semester because of “inflammatory statements” Darwish has made about Islam.

“We didn’t see it as our place to bring a speaker who has spoken in a derogatory manner about another religion,” Richardson said. “If another organization were to bring a speaker who has made anti-Semitic remarks, we hope they would also be respectful of us.”

In an interview with The Herald, Darwish said she is used to being silenced after growing up in “Middle East dictatorships and police states.” She said she was “disappointed that in America this could happen” but added she is very grateful the University invited her to speak.

“It shows that our academic leaders are very wise men,” she said.

Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, interim vice president for campus life and student services, said his office decided to sponsor the event after it was clear the speech would not go forward otherwise.

“The whole purpose of a university is to have free and open exchange of ideas, particularly those that students initiate and develop,” Carey said. “It’s not so much about her, it’s about the open and frank exchange of views and opinions.”

In that spirit, Associate Professor of Political Science John Tomasi, who directs the Political Theory Project, introduced Darwish by stressing the “ideal of intellectual ferment and discomfort.”

Darwish began her speech by pointing to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a “symptom of a much bigger problem: a problem of tolerance.” The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the London and Madrid transit bombings and terrorism in Chechnya, India and the Philippines are all connected by a common factor of intolerance, Darwish said.

Darwish said radical leaders in Muslim countries have oppressed freedom of thought and insist on maintaining oppressive laws that hold women hostage. As an Arab woman, she said she spoke out of love for her culture, but she added that “self-criticism is a virtue for every culture, and any that refuses it is going to stagnate.”

Recounting memories of her childhood in Gaza, Darwish said she witnessed oppression of women and was indoctrinated to hate Israel. Darwish said her father, a high-ranking Egyptian army officer, was killed by Israeli soldiers when she was eight years old, leaving her mother to raise five children in a male-dominated culture.

“I remember my mother crying, saying Arab women are expected to sacrifice their family, their husbands, their sons, but are given no respect as women who just want to conduct their lives and do the business of living,” she said.

Darwish said many Muslim women accept oppression, since they were taught from birth that their inferior position is God’s will, which she described as “sexual apartheid.”

“This is why you don’t see a lot of outcry in the Middle East from many women, because they really truly believe that it’s God’s will,” Darwish said. “They’re suffering from polygamy, their testimony in court is half of a man’s and they believe they shouldn’t object to that.”

Darwish criticized the impact of sharia law, the basis of family law in many Muslim countries, which she said permits men to divorce their wives without consent but only allows women to request divorce.

In addition to denouncing oppression of women in the Middle East, Darwish condemned the treatment of non-Muslims in the region as a “disgrace.” Muslim clergy have become sources of hate, she said, rather than sources of wisdom.

“They work their worshippers into a frenzy against the West and Israel,” Darwish said. “What good is it if they say we have a religion of peace – and I don’t disagree with that – when radical teachers are teaching intolerance and violence?”

As a child, Darwish said she was “told outrageous lies about Jews” and that “peace was never an option.” She said her classmates would cry daily while reciting Jihadist poetry, wishing to die as martyrs, and she said she would sing songs with lyrics like “Arabs are our friends, Jews are our dogs” during recess while jumping rope.

“When you do that, hatred becomes easy and terrorism becomes acceptable,” Darwish said. “Because who wouldn’t want to kill a monster or terrorize a monster?”

Darwish went on to say it is up to Arabs themselves to question their faith if the Middle East’s problems are to be addressed.

After Darwish’s speech, many students attacked her views in the question-and-answer period, receiving both applause and disapproving shouts from the audience.

One student attacked her views and said he attended the speech only “to embarrass the people who brought you here.”

Another student challenged whether Darwish’s words helped or hurt her fellow Arabs. “Is what you’re doing helping the Middle East or increasing the hatred there?” the student asked.

Several students questioned Darwish’s credentials.

“You are not a scholar of Islam,” said one student. “Similarly, when you speak about Palestinian society, I am trying to figure out what your credentials are. You do not have the credentials most speakers who come to Brown have.”

Darwish replied that she may not meet the criteria “somebody needs to speak at Brown,” but she meets “the criteria of a human being.”

Nadia Maccabee ’08, the student organizer of the event, said she was pleased with the student turnout but unhappy with the question-and-answer session. “I was disappointed that my peers asked questions about her degrees,” Maccabee said. “It was not as challenging a dialogue as I had hoped.”

After the question-and-answer period, students continued debating each other at a dessert reception.

Vale Cofer-Shabica ’09 said he thought Darwish was overly defensive in her answers to questions. “Even when people asked questions that could have been answered, she didn’t even answer the question, but instead used emotional appeal,” he said.

If somebody more scholarly had spoken on the same subject, Cofer-Shabica said, the event would have prompted more interesting questions from students. Even if a speaker expressed views that contradicted the opinions of most Brown students, a discussion could have remained intellectual so long as the speaker’s claims were convincingly substantiated, he said.

Other students agreed that Darwish drew too much from her own life.

Erik Peterson ’07 said Darwish based her ideas “too much on personal experiences, rather than a broad picture of the Middle East.” He added that Darwish did not address the difference between radical political Islam and Islamic culture.

Regardless, Darwish’s speech sparked fiery dialogue that many students hope will continue.

“I see this event as an opportunity,” Becky Mer ’10 said. “The dialogue that took place tonight is a sign of student body interest, and I would love this to be translated into further dialogue, greater understanding and possible solutions.”

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