by Raffi Grinberg
On March 24th, Nonie Darwish spoke in the Whig Senate Chamber, at a lecture co-sponsored by the Princeton Tory, the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. This was not the first time she was supposed to speak in the Senate Chamber. Earlier this year, her November 18th lecture was unceremoniously canceled by Whig-Clio and Tigers For Israel the day before it was to be held—allegedly due to pressure from the Princeton Committee on Palestine and the Muslim Student Association. Thus her recent, successful lecture represented a victory for free speech on campus, an event that stated, “No speaker should be canceled just because some students may disagree with her.”
The re-instating of her lecture was not just to make a general point about the abstract value of free speech, however. The lecture was held also because her main point—that radical Islam’s interpretation of Sharia (Islamic) law is a major threat to the Western way of life—is not only interesting and valuable, but essential.
Darwish had numerous transformative experiences growing up with radical political Islam, and has devoted her life to speaking about and studying the Middle East and Sharia. While her experiences alone are not enough to give her claims validity, her research and evidence are. Yet, surprisingly, a number of students on campus hold the misguided view that Darwish is Islamophobic, and that her message is hateful and offensive to Muslims. This belief is completely false and, as I will explain, dangerous.
In her speech, Darwish made three important distinctions (each of them more than once). Her statement “I am not here to offend the good and peace-loving Muslims” could not summarize it more perfectly. The first distinction is between a people and an ideology. An ideology can be hateful and violent, but that does not necessarily mean that the people who practice it are hateful and violent. For example, Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia preaches intolerance. That does not mean that all Saudis are intolerant. But when intolerance is a large part of the accepted law and culture, it may easily become ingrained in one’s mindset. Those affected by this negative culture are not intolerant people by birth, but they have become so because of the surroundings in which they have lived.
The second distinction is between religion and political movement. Islam was founded as a religion. As Darwish said, like any other religion, Islam is about a personal relationship with God. In that sense, it should not be criticized, put down, or spoken against. A relationship with God, and with a community that worships, is a personal—and often wonderful—thing. Yet sometimes, as is the case with Islam, peace-loving religions can become the basis for political movements—which manipulate the religion’s precepts for the movement’s gain. Not all political movements that use Islamic values as their foundation are necessarily evil. But some are. As Darwish said,
“If religion expands itself so much to become a one-party totalitarian state with a very elaborate legal system, then it is no longer a private matter. It has become a dictatorship that has put itself in the realm of criticism. If a legal system, religious or secular, has given itself the right to put to death those who no longer wish to follow it, then it makes perfect sense to criticize it. It is political and legal Islam that I am concerned about, and not the personal faith.”
Indeed, Islam has laws that oppress women, oppress people of other faiths, and call for the death of those who convert from Islam. And this leads into the third distinction.
There is a difference between law and practice. Just because a religion, or a political movement, or even a state, has certain written laws, it does not necessarily imply that those laws are enforced. Many religions, for example, have laws in their scriptures which are considered outdated, or artifacts of history. In the Hebrew Bible, there is a law which calls for the annihilation of all people of the tribe of Amalek. This is essentially a commandment to genocide—does this mean that all Jews today (and all those who follow the Hebrew Bible) are genocidal? The commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and interpretation of prominent Rabbis, have “worked their way around” that law. They say things such as, it is impossible to trace whether someone today is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek, so there is no need to worry about this. In other words, because Judaism values human life above all else, there are virtually no Jews today who follow this law literally.
Similarly, no one can argue with the fact that Islamic scripture contains violent passages. “The Reliance Traveler,” a book of Shafi’i (a Sunni school of thought) law, contains many inflammatory verses: “The Caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians until they become Muslim or else pay the non-Muslim poll tax while being belittled.” But one must look at whether or not these laws are followed literally. The vast majority of Muslims worldwide choose to ignore, or interpret around, these laws—because they are good, peace-loving people.
However—and this is a big however—there does exist a significant proportion of Muslims who follow these laws literally. They exist in the government of Iran, in radicalized mosques in Egypt, and in the ranks of Hizbullah and Al Qaeda. They are of a significant enough number to make us concerned—concerned not about the religion of Islam or about the majority of Muslims worldwide, but about that smaller proportion of radicals who use Islam as justification for their violence. Radical Islam, when it becomes an oppressive political regime (as in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are continually trampled upon), or when it becomes a violent movement (as in Iran, where nuclear weapons are being built to wage Jihad against the Western world), becomes a danger to human life and morals.
Darwish quoted many Sharia laws to make another point. Not only do radicals use Islam to justify their violence—sometimes the radicalization stems from the laws themselves. People who are poor, or angry, or prone to violence, who then hear that fundamentalist interpretation of their religion push them towards violent Jihad, will be further propelled in that direction. Incitement to violence is a frightening reality that is all-too present in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran. TV clips that are aired on popular stations can be found (in terrifyingly high numbers) on www.memritv.org, for instance. (Although media like TV surely does not represent the views of an entire population, it obviously affects those who watch it. When shows for children teaching hatred against Jews and Christians are aired daily, it influences their upbringing.) In Syria, a January 2010 news clip accused Jews of aiding earthquake victims in Haiti only to steal their organs. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, an April 2009 clip featured a man telling a room full of children that “our hatred against the Jews is perpetual and continuous,” and made them repeat it. This hate education is as real as anything, and it is a large cause of the radicalization of Islam in certain Middle East countries.
With that in mind, Darwish’s message is especially important to Muslims and Middle Easterners. There are people who are literally hijacking the religion of Islam and exploiting it to fuel their hatred and to incite others to hatred. It is as much a problem for Jews and the state of Israel (whose destruction is called for by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), as it is for Muslims, and the women and minorities who are oppressed under the Saudi fundamentalist regime. The fact that Muslim students label Darwish as Islamophobic is alarming. It means that they are unwilling to accept the fact that radical Islam is a problem. They are unable to realize the distinction between their practice of peaceful Islam versus the fundamentalist practice of radical Islam. Muslim students, more than anyone else, should be at the forefront of the movement to combat radicalism.
In today’s political environment, radical Islam is a significant threat to the Western way of life. It has very little to do with Islam as a religion, but Muslims and people of other religions alike need to acknowledge it—for acknowledging it as a problem and learning about it are the first steps to stopping it. Islam as a religion is peaceful; Islam as a political movement, though, can move into the dangerous territory of violating human rights. And this needs to be recognized. As Darwish said: “We can continue the defensiveness, denial and blaming the messenger, but we can also accept the challenge, and change. Human rights are not negotiable even in the name of God. They are sacred and more divine than any scriptures.”