Censored: The Politics Behind Silencing Nonie Darwish

by Aaron Smargon ’11

Last month’s cancellation of Nonie Darwish’s November 18th talk, “Sharia Law and Perspectives on Israel,” brought to light how controversial a figure she is. The attention given to Darwish’s statements, however, has obscured some unpleasant truths about how student organizations operate on campus. The clubs in question—Tigers for Israel (TFI), the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP), and the Whig-Cliosophic Society—all played a part in revoking Darwish’s invitation, and in doing so they share responsibility with campus religious figures for stifling free speech and breaching the recognized boundary between political and religious activity.

The impetus for the event’s cancellation came from Imam Sohaib Sultan, Muslim Life Coordinator and Chaplain at Princeton University. In a November 16th email to Rabbi Julie Roth, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL), Imam Sultan brought up several uncited quotations, including one calling the “Qur’an itself…‘violent, incendiary, disrespectful,’” and one arguing that “Islam is actually anti-religion, in that it is similar to communism,” attributed to Darwish’s book, Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law. He also referred Rabbi Roth to Darwish’s website “Former Muslims United,” in which Iranian-American pro-democracy activist Amil Imani’s article “Does Islam Breed Violence?” called Islam a “mental retrovirus” in which “…violence is the animating force….” Ending the email correspondence, Sultan wrote to Roth, “I am confident that you will look into this matter.” Sure enough, a day later Darwish’s speech was cancelled, with TFI, and subsequently the Whig-Cliosophic society, withdrawing its co-sponsorship.

Replying to the Tory’s request for the controversial quotes’ citations and context, Imam Sultan wrote, “It is ironic that someone who makes a living off of quoting and stereotyping all of Islam by taking things completely out of context would then accuse others of taking her own comments and writings out of context. The simple truth is that Darwish makes no distinction between extremist interpretations of Islam and non-extremist interpretations in any of her writings, speeches, or interviews.”

But in defense of her divisive statements—which one could discover through a quick Internet search—Darwish pointed out that they were not her opinions originally, but rather adaptations (although perhaps not properly cited every time) from the works of Muslim scholars, including Sheik Abul Ala Maududi, a prominent Pakistani journalist and Sunni thinker. From page 262 of Maududi’s Islamic Law and Constitution, “Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and program of Islam regardless of the country or the nation which rules it. … It seeks to mould every aspect of life and activity…. In such a state no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.” While Maududi’s writings by no means represent all of Islamic thought, to Darwish’s knowledge they never have been “challenged or denied by any Muslim authority.”

From the standpoint of this writer, it would seem that Darwish, an Egyptian Muslim turned American Christian, was not rejected from campus for expressing her perceived intolerant views of Muslims as a people of faith, but for saying something critical about Islam in practice. Not only was free speech infringed upon, but also these two distinct spheres of Islam were conflated. This is no baseless contention, but rather the conclusion of weeks of investigation on the Nonie Darwish scandal. The full story began to unfold in a Tory interview with TFI co-vice president Raffi Grinberg ’12 nearly a week after the talk’s cancellation.

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As an intern in a fellowship program of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), Grinberg had the opportunity to invite CAMERA-recommended speakers to campus. CAMERA suggested Darwish on the grounds of her support for minority rights in the Middle East, as well as her pro-Israel views. Grinberg tells the story that when he proposed TFI’s sponsorship of Nonie Darwish three weeks before the scheduled talk, they agreed and placed him in charge of planning most of the event.

On November 9th, he emailed Ben Weisman ’11, president of the Whig-Cliosophic Society, asking if Whig-Clio would be willing to co-sponsor Darwish’s talk by providing the Whig Senate Chamber as a venue, in light of an earlier TFI-Whig-Clio co-sponsored talk by Khaled Abu Toameh (which had been cancelled at the last minute due to Abu Toameh’s family emergency in Israel). Weisman responded that “This sounds like it would be a great event to co-sponsor,” but also said that he did not want Whig-Clio to “come across as endorsing her views.” He suggested either a follow-up speaker or a disclaimer of non-endorsement as a condition for Darwish to speak. Grinberg agreed to the latter, but was very adamant about not having a follow-up speaker, since, as he has claimed in our interview, the opposition is “not interested in debating Nonie Darwish.” Grinberg provided Darwish’s name and a link to her Wikipedia page to both TFI and the Whig-Cliosophic Society, and expected further research from both organizations.

The event was advertised as early as November 13th in an email flyer from the CJL, which stated its occurrence at 4:30pm on November 18th in the Whig Senate Chamber. Rabbi Roth, the Executive Director of the CJL, however, was apparently unaware of Darwish’s controversial nature until November 16th, when she received Imam Sultan’s email. (Rabbi Roth did not reply to the Tory’s request for comment about the issue.) She then called Addie Lerner ‘11, the president of TFI, to alert her of Darwish. And on November 17th, a day before Darwish’s scheduled talk, she emailed Grinberg to notify him of Imam Sultan’s concerns and Lerner’s intention to cancel the event. The remainder of the TFI board, excluding Grinberg, echoed Lerner’s sentiments.

Later that day, the Whig-Cliosophic Society sent out an email to its members, announcing, “Tomorrow’s event with Nonie Darwish has been canceled. Our decision to co-host the event was based on our belief that by extending an offer to speak to Ms. Darwish, members of Tigers for Israel deemed her views a legitimate element of the mainstream discourse and, in part or in full, agreed with her incendiary opinions. By rescinding their offer, TFI indicated their understanding that such views have no place in the campus community, essentially rendering irrelevant our attempt at opening them up for debate. Whig-Clio will not permit the event to take place in Whig Hall as earlier planned, and we hope that her visit to campus will also be canceled.”

Weisman, the author of the email, made his belief in the limits of free speech clear and misled his constituents by shifting the blame onto TFI. This is quite obvious from the last line, “We hope that her visit to campus will also be canceled.” (Weisman did not respond to a message asking for his input on the controversy.) Soon after the Whig-Clio announcement, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS), recognizing a lack of venue and student organizational sponsorship necessary for speaker invitations, pulled the plug on the event, rescinding a contract with Public Safety upon which Darwish’s arrival was contingent.

Effectively backed into a corner, Grinberg met that evening with both Imam Sultan and Rabbi Roth. According to Grinberg, Sultan told him that he normally did not get involved with campus speakers, but that Darwish was different, not because she was pro-Israel, but because she was anti-Muslim. In addition, he explained to Raffi that both the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) would be protesting, while claiming that he would refrain from involvement, as he did not see it as his place. After speaking with Roth later, Grinberg says, “The impression that I was left with was that she personally did not want the event to happen, because she said it will undo a lot of the work she’s done with Muslim-Jewish dialogue.” Rabbi Roth later clarified in an email to Grinberg after the event was cancelled that it would not “undo” the work of the dialogue, but rather that it would “strain relations between communities” and “promote existing stereotypes.” Regardless of Rabbi Roth’s reasons, Grinberg told the Tory that he felt “a lot of pressure from Rabbi Roth to cancel.” And after Grinberg’s subsequent phone call with Lerner, he says, “Addie was really worried about Muslim students protesting and what it would do for TFI’s image.”

Lerner, for her part, insists that she was never pressured, and in an interview with the Tory stated, “I was never asked by Rabbi Julie or Imam Sohaib Sultan to cancel this event. I was never asked by Muslim students or the PCP to cancel this event.” Yet at another point in the interview she declared, “And now, I want to make an important point here: Simply being offensive to Muslim students, personally—and I think that the TFI board would agree with this—is not a reason necessarily for her not to speak on campus, but it was a reason why Tigers for Israel didn’t want to associate ourselves with her.” After reading this statement, Lerner has since contended that what she said “is not true,” and that really what she meant to say was that TFI no longer wanted to sponsor Darwish because of her anti-Islam views, supporting another claim in the interview that, “Tigers for Israel may be against radical Islam, but we are not anti-Islam.” But some have accused TFI of acting in a politically expedient manner to avoid a public relations blow from the Princeton Committee on Palestine.

Yoel Bitran ’11, the president of PCP, told the Tory that, “PCP does not have a policy regarding protesting TFI events, nor was PCP planning to protest the Darwish event. What we have done in the past is once we find out about a TFI event that we think is providing misleading or incorrect information to students, we try to offer the other side of the issue by offering students information that we think is more accurate or pertinent.” Lerner, however, strongly disagrees, writing in response that, “As of 7:30pm the night before Darwish was scheduled to speak, a PCP officer told me there was a protest being planned.” It is unnecessary to engage in a “he said, she said” argument over the definition of a protest that never actually took place, but it is important to point out that PCP sought to capitalize politically on religious feelings with its “Anti-Islam =/= Pro-Israel” posters, which were put up around campus at 9pm the night before Darwish’s talk—even after Lerner had already had told one of PCP’s officers that TFI was withdrawing its co-sponsorship expressly because it was “not anti-Islam and did not support those views of her.”

While TFI was not prepared to take a PR hit over Darwish, the Tory’s publisher Rob Day ’10 agreed at around 1:30pm on November 18th to sponsor Darwish’s talk, on the justification of protecting free speech, regardless of whether or not the publication agreed with her. Even as the Tory’s confirmation was still uncertain, Grinberg invited Imam Sultan to give a few remarks after Darwish’s talk, in which he could refute any claims he found offensive. Corroborating Grinberg’s claims of the opposition’s unwillingness to debate Darwish, Sultan responded, “As a Muslim, I have been following her pieces for sometime now—publications, lectures, interviews—and she has taken every opportunity to bash Islam with extreme distortions and stereotypes, and she has again and again failed to make a distinction between extremists and mainstream Islam. I have no desire to engage such a person.”

Ultimately, the Tory’s decision to sponsor the event regardless of Sultan’s willingness to engage Darwish did not matter, as when notified at 2:30pm of the sponsorship ODUS stopped replying to Grinberg’s emails. Darwish could not commit to her 3:00 train from New York, and since changing the talk’s venue and time at the last minute would have resulted in a lack of an audience, Grinberg decided to cancel the talk. It was the second of three cancellations in a three-week period, the first taking place the day before at Columbia University, and the other occurring on December 3rd at Boston University, ostensibly due to arson in a bathroom nearby the talk’s location.

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The Nonie Darwish scandal has shocked many in the free speech community. Why should Princetonians deny her a chance to speak when earlier this year PCP invited Princeton Professor Richard Falk—who has accused the Bush administration of being complicit in the 9/11 attacks and has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust—and two years ago the Woodrow Wilson School invited Norman Finkelstein—a Holocaust “reformist” who charges Jews with exaggerating the extent to which the Holocaust occurred and with exploiting their genocide? Is there a double standard for those who criticize Western practices and those who criticize Muslim practices?

Imam Sultan told the Tory that this conclusion is incorrect, noting that he in fact had tolerated the campus presence this September of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Darwish, however was different, as he had earlier told Grinberg that, “Asking me to help you invite her is like asking Rabbi Julie to invite a neo-Nazi, anti-Semite to campus.” Interestingly enough, of Roth, Lerner, Bitran, and Grinberg—all Jewish—only Grinberg refuted this comparison: “To call Nonie Darwish a neo-Nazi is intellectually non-rigorous…it’s offensive to her as someone who is in great personal danger because of her huge efforts for minority rights in the Middle East, and I found it offensive as a Jew to call someone who is working for positive social change basically the equivalent of someone who advocated for the murder of 6 million Jews.”

Darwish herself, who has never advocated violence against anyone, pointed to this unfounded moral equivalence to neo-Nazism as “the worst kind of intimidation and character assassination aimed at those who dare to question, analyze, or criticize.” And she found it ironic that while her punishment for speaking out as an apostate against Islam’s worst practices was silence at Princeton, it would be death under Sharia law.

But more than the issue of free speech, the scandal has exposed in the religious community a problematic link between faith and politics, one that is the root of any inter-religious conflict. When asked if the religion of Islam were inseparable from politics, Imam Sultan explained, “There are a whole host of theories on how Islam can interact with politics, from the least imposing to the most imposing ways. I find myself agreeing more with the former, but I cannot deny that it is a source of great debate and difference of opinion among Muslims.”

Lerner similarly rejected the notion that there is a clear divide between politics and religion in Judaism, saying of TFI, “We’re a political advocacy group where one of the things we advocate for has a religious component: the advocacy of Israel as a Jewish state.” No one would deny that faith be allowed to inform viewpoints, but to have it dictate policy-making threatens both religious and political freedom. Furthermore, Zionism is understood by many scholars as a secular movement, a fact Lerner seemed to overlook in our interview.

This false conflation of political and religious views can also be seen in the troubling institutional connection between the Center for Jewish Life and Tigers for Israel. As Lerner notes, “TFI is a student group that’s affiliated with the CJL, and we all fall under broad CJL auspices…We don’t really use the CJL for much funding, we don’t use their rooms all that much, but they’re there for us: We use their rooms, we use their building, and Rabbi Julie, the Executive Director of the CJL, has been very involved in helping our group.”

Lerner was surprised to hear that some might take issue with the fact that a decidedly Jewish religious organization, albeit one which welcomes students from all backgrounds, would offer any facilitates and funds to a pro-Israel political advocacy group. When asked whether TFI’s relationship with Roth via the CJL factored into her decision to cancel the Darwish talk, Lerner responded, “Rabbi Julie was going to support any decision we made…and in the future she would have continued to help us to the same degree as she’s helped us before.” Whether or not this is the case, the very possibility that Rabbi Roth could have used CJL’s support for TFI as leverage should be reason enough for the affiliation not to exist.

Contrary to Rabbi Roth’s statements, the Jewish and Muslim communities at Princeton have done a great disservice to their dialogue by collectively advocating, whether explicitly or implicitly, for Nonie Darwish not to speak on campus. Darwish’s message was not one of religious bigotry, and yet many, including Tigers for Israel, the Princeton Committee on Palestine, and the Whig-Cliosophic Society, were led to believe the opposite. Until we learn to separate the religious and political components of Islam and Judaism, idealistic religious leaders like Rabbi Julie Roth and future policy makers like Tigers for Israel president Addie Lerner will forever hope that their best intentions and willingness to listen may bring progress.

Sadly, if only they had listened to even twenty seconds of Nonie Darwish’s prepared speech, they may have learned something: “I want to stress that I am not here to offend the good and peace-loving Muslims; but I am speaking out and trying to expose horrific human rights violations in Muslim countries, allowed under Sharia law. How can we ignore suppression of freedoms of speech and religion, and the demonizing of whole groups of people such as Jews and Christians in the Middle East?” Likewise, how can we ignore our own suppression of freedoms of speech and religion here in the United States, sanctioned by the religious leaders whom we trust and the groups of which we consider ourselves members?

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