Across the Middle East the cynical are again exploiting the ignorant, this time lying about Denmark, a place of which most Arabs know nothing and can be told anything. This bogus controversy, a few slapdash cartoons inflated into a violent controversy by blowhard imams and demagogic tyrants, provided the context for a visit to Canada by Nonie Darwish, an Arab-American journalist carrying a message of uncommon realism.
She was here this week to give several lectures, including one at a University of Toronto conference on radical Islam, a subject she knows painfully well. She was born 57 years ago in Cairo, the daughter of an Egyptian army officer. In the atmosphere created by the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood she learned to hate Jews about the time she started kindergarten. "I thought Jews were monsters." Adults said, "Don't accept candy from a stranger. It might be a Jew trying to poison you."
She met no Jews but was often told about them at her elementary school in Gaza, where her father was assigned to raid Israeli civilian communities. In 1956, the year Nonie was eight, her father was killed by the Israelis. Friends congratulated her family on his martyrdom and president Gamal Abdel Nasser decorated him posthumously.
As a child she was often asked, "Are you going to avenge the killing of your father by killing Jews?" We can measure the distance she's travelled by the fact that she founded a Web site, ArabsForIsrael.com.
Her brother's illness was one among many reasons she changed. When he had a stroke in Gaza 10 years ago his Arab doctors advised that Cairo hospitals be avoided and he go to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. "The doctors there saved his life," she says. She says Arabs, when their leaders aren't driving them crazy, respect Israelis and should be living in mutually profitable co-operation beside them.
Her father's army pension paid for her education in a private school run by Catholic nuns. Since half the class was Muslim, they studied the Koran with a Muslim teacher. Darwish mainly remembers horrifying stories of Muhammad and his followers fighting other tribes. She now considers herself an apostate Muslim but she knows Islamic culture will always be part of her.
She took a degree in sociology and anthropology at the American University in Cairo and worked as a journalist at the Middle East News Agency. She eventually concluded that the spectacular economic failure of the Arabs is grounded in their culture. In December she heard someone on Palestinian TV remark with satisfaction, "We have succeeded in raising an ideological generation to love death as our enemies love life." She sees this as only an extreme expression of a widespread and crippling attitude among Arabs. As she sees it, a society that doesn't value life won't have an urgent reason to improve its economy.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been pushing Egypt in the wrong direction for decades -- "ruining my beautiful country," as she says. She left at the age of 30 and ended up in Los Angeles, where she and her husband raise their three children.
America provided an escape from the pathology of jihad, the perverse dream of holy war, that she saw emerging across the Middle East. In America she lived a mainly private life for years. But Sept. 11, 2001, changed her, as it changed the whole Islamic world. Nothing could be the same again. "I knew the moment I saw the Twin Towers go down that the jihad I left behind me in Egypt had followed me to America."
Ever since, she has campaigned against the radicals who destroy the fabric of Islam and give Arabs and Muslims a bad name. She thinks it's the duty of every Muslim to stand in the front line of the fight against terrorism. Instead, she finds Islamic Studies professors exercising their America-granted freedom of speech on everything except what matters most, the failures in their own communities. "They leave the job of ridding the Muslim world of terror to the victims of terror, namely America and Israel." In California Muslim women, instead of fighting for their oppressed sisters in the Arab countries, are demanding that they be allowed to have their faces covered on their driving licenses. "The silent Muslim majority is the problem."
Silence leaves the terrorists and dictators in power and leaves Islam shamed before the world. "If you mention Islam," Nonie Darwish told her audience in Toronto, "people think of terrorism. And whose fault is that? Not the West's."