By Nonie Darwish
Front Page Magazine February 11, 2003
I was born and raised as a Moslem in the Middle East culture that has many facets, some of which have a beauty and splendor that I miss to this day. That beauty was the contributions of many different groups. The ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Syria, Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon and — yes — Israel and the cities of Jerusalem and Mecca enrich the World.
I never give up hope. It is my life’s dream to see Arabs finding a different paradigm in their view of themselves, Israel and the world; to see fear and old habits of hate, archaic prejudices and biases all discarded and replaced by an embrace of goodwill, cooperation and a win-win attitude. The contributions of Judaism, Christianity and classical Islam produced a beautiful and unique culture that has influenced the whole world. How truly beautiful it would be if the cradle of world religions would set an example of respectful coexistence. This is my dream. But for now I have to wake up and see reality. This is not the story of my dream coming true; this is the story of my escape from Islam. The reasons I am writing about it can be summed up with three digits: 9/11.
Since that day, I have known and seen many other Moslems shying away from Islam, and rightfully so. The relative tolerance of Classical Islam has been gradually eroded, to be replaced by rigid, fanatical fundamentalism. That once beautiful culture is now decaying, stagnant at best, and unable to accommodate other religions or cultures. This sickness is now contaminating the West through the terror of Jihad.
I feel alienated from a religion that has sponsored over 30 years of terrorism, and from the flagrant and arrogant Moslem/Arab support of it. My criticism is not directed at the Koran itself, but at the current Moslem culture and community that has handed over control of Arab society to the most extreme, fanatical Wahabi Islamic sect. Many religions chose to mature out of their intolerant, medieval form. It is now Islam’s turn to seek reformation if they truly care to save their religions reputation around the World and to save the world from a major military confrontation. Reasonable Moslems should stand up and realize that people who criticize the current culture of Islam are not the threat to Islam; rather, the silence over and justification of 9/11 by Moslems is Islam’s true enemy.
I believe that the Arab/Moslem world has lost its moral equilibrium and must travel a long road towards reformation. Their paranoia and obsession with Israel as the bogeyman in the neighborhood is becoming increasingly unbelievable, and after the cheering crowds on 9/11, their cause is no longer credible.
Contrary to popular belief, Islam is not flourishing; Islam is rotting out from its core. This is a culture in convulsions, using anything and everything from oil to airplanes and from stones to suicide bombs as weapons against the rest of the World. In my estimation, this is a sure sign of internal struggle, conflict and weakness. Instead of using reason to reform their religion and join the rest of the civilized world in peaceful coexistence, they choose violence through their ancient doctrine of Jihad.
Islam in its present form is almost impossible for many — myself included — to practice; strict codes of behavior include prayers 5 times a day, washing and cleanliness before prayers, what you say during prayers, and fasting that does not allow even drinking water from sunrise to sunset. The women’s dress code is impossible to bear in the heat of the Middle Eastern climate. If you’re born a Moslem you remain a Moslem whether you like it or not. Just like the color of your eyes, hair or skin, you are a Moslem. Freedom of thought or choice of ones religious beliefs is not an option. To be a Moslem is to belong to that bigger holier-than-thou, self-righteous group whom they try, but fail to emulate. Many Moslems find it impossible to live up to Moslem observances and codes of behavior, and at the same time are prohibited even from being exposed to other religions. With no where else to go, they are left in a no-man’s-land, devoid of spirituality and a personal relationship with God, and burdened with guilt. Thus, they end up as part of the large number of the non-practicing Moslems.
The non-practicing Moslems are Moslems who wear Western clothes, do not pray 5 times a day, donut fast in Ramadan and do not consult with Moslem theology before indulging in many personal and social activities. This is the group the West calls “moderates.” However, most of these non-practicing Moslems are staunch defenders of Islam especially in front of non-Moslems and many share the hatred of Jews and Christians. They surrender their society to the extremist Moslems out of guilt and in order to be left alone. Even many Christians in the Middle East have been Islamized out of fear without even knowing it. I learned that recently an Arab Christian group did not condemn terrorism and found it to be a legitimate form of resisting the “occupation.”
When I lived in the Middle East, I regarded myself as a non-practicing Moslem. Even though I did not practice or choose Islam and was just born into it, my life together with all people in the Middle East was totally controlled by it. I surrendered to the guilt, the oppressive society and Islamic laws unfavorable to women (I have written an article on this called “Impossible Family Dynamics of Islam”). I often lived a facade, trying always to please others. It took me many years to actually know I am not a Moslem, never have been, nor wanted to be. I had to find great (almost superhuman) inner strength to actually extract myself, my mind and my soul from feeling, being and belonging to Islam.
The word “Islam” means submission; to submit to God and the words of the Koran. Most religions advocate a kind of submission in one form or another. Many Moslems in particular are proud of this meaning. There is beauty in this meaning. It brings internal peace, reliance on the creator in everything a Moslem does, and accepting life’s many challenges and unavoidable pain. One just has to look at the faces of many Moslems praying and see sincere submission. Total submission, however, is a two-edged sword. Submission in the Moslem world is often misplaced to dictators and people of authority instead of God. Freedom of speech is discouraged and condemned and is replaced by submission. That condition attracts political and religious tyranny.
Many Moslems are very kind and friendly and we often ask why none of them speak out against terrorism. The answer is that there is a hierarchy of ” ˜submission’ that no one calling him/herself a Moslem can escape from. Many of the non-practicing Moslems who do not follow the commands of the Koran to the letter often support the extremists out of guilt or fear. The end result is a mass of humanity, submitting to the terror of dictatorships in a large hierarchy of an oppressive social structure from top to bottom. It is a dictator’s dream.
Dictatorships in the Middle East are not only enforced from the top, but are part and parcel of the dynamics and structure of the whole society. It is not very difficult to establish and maintain dictatorships in Moslem countries. To live under dictatorship is expected of ” ˜good’ Moslems. Only one-party systems can exist, not necessarily Islamic but definitely oppressive and dictatorial, veiled by the legitimacy of Islam. The scenes of Saddam Hussein’s hands being kissed by his subjects who look at him with fearful adoration are very common in the Middle East. Fearing Allah has been transferred to fearing “Leader,” who behaves like God. Huge posters bearing the portrait of leaders are displayed everywhere you go on Arab streets. There are more songs expressing the love and devotion to Arab leaders than any religious songs praising Allah.
The people also expect their leaders to do miracles, to save them, and take care of them from cradle to grave. This condition spills down to the rest of society. As a child I remember my grandparents’ hands being kissed by poor villagers who needed something. My grandparents often refuse the bowing and the kiss, but are often pleased by it. Servants submit to their masters, workers to their bosses and children to their parents. Maids often have to express total respect and submission and very often to physical and sexual abuse. There is a sad dependency for ones welfare upon the graces of any one above you in the Moslem hierarchy of submission. Since initiative is stifled, most people wait for things to happen to them rather than change things on their own. Thus dependency becomes the norm. Slavery may have been abolished officially, but it is alive and well in a different form called submission.
The flip side of this submission is that it creates a people who are extremely sensitive to criticism and with chauvinistic impulses. You thus see a loyal, polite Moslem man turn violently angry over the slightest difference of opinion or challenge to the status quo. People explode in illogical overreaction to trivial disagreements.
The first reason for me to escape Islam is that I am an independent thinker and cannot submit totally and blindly to any ideology, especially if society willingly transfers its submission to a dictator, an employer, or any figure of authority. There is no tolerance in Islamic society to differing views; you either submit or pretend, and I couldn’t do either. In Islamic culture, personal freedom is not an esteemed value, to say the least, and peer pressure wholly regulates one’s behavior, including how you pray, how you dress, what you eat, who you befriend, in short, every minute detail of your life. Many Moslems assign to themselves the role of God in enforcing Islamic law. Extreme and cruel forms of punishment are used to guarantee compliance, such as stoning to death and amputation of hands. Profound shaming is often used for people with differing views. Moslems as a group are very critical of each other. Despite my natural inclination to be a moral person, I have deep fear in my heart of Islam. It is depressing, ruthless and oppressive. As a Moslem, I found myself accountable not only to God, but to every other Moslem around me. I remember when I and other non-practicing Moslems went swimming in the Middle East I observed the women with Islamic clothes on the beach covered from head to toe. Some of them envied me as I was having fun in the water while others looked at me with disgust for doing something they could not dare do. A woman could be criticized over simple enjoyments of life such as swimming.
I had to be very conscious of every move I made and every word I said. As long as the facade was maintained I was safe. Behind the scenes, it was a different story. Public behavior in Islam is what counts, while sins prohibited by Islam are alive and well in private. You have no privacy or choice but to conform and live in a straightjacket, at least publicly. Because of the restrictions in public behavior many Moslem women prefer to spend most of their time at home to avoid the stress and hardship of being in the public eye. There is hardly any outdoor activity for Moslem women. Perception is everything. There is no choice but to work around this and live a double life; one life in public and another life in private; one lifestyle in Riyadh opposite to the one in Paris. The use of alcohol or illicit drugs, as well as promiscuous sex, even homosexuality, are great sins in Islam which carry heavy penalties ranging from humiliation to death, yet they are not uncommon among many Moslems.
This is the second reason I cannot belong to the current Islamic culture. I refuse to adhere to superhuman behavior in public and then release the tension and the truth in private. My private and public life are to a large extent in harmony and very similar. I cannot submit to the observing eyes of other Moslems who treat each other as police enforcers of Islamic law. The scene of the women in Afghanistan being herded with a stick because an ankle was exposed just scares the hell out of me.
Moslem children at a very early age undergo horrific indoctrination to hate Jews and Christians. We all had to go through Islamic education breeding fear, anger, Jihad and extreme criticism and rivalry of other religions. We were told stories beyond belief about Jews. We were told Jews were hated by God and should be exterminated. They killed Arab children and pregnant Arab women, break treaties with Arabs! Hearing this about other human beings made m extremely scared. I listened day in and day out to religion teachers who only spoke of an angry God, Hell and Heaven, the battles that Mohammed won and the booty his soldiers got.
Jihad and martyrdom was the center piece of Moslem education and the certain road to heaven. I sensed comfort and tolerance of Moslems to violence and feuds between groups.
The mother of a suicide bomber said “Because I love my son, I encouraged him to die a martyr’s death for the sake of Allah.” This woman and many others like her are speaking and living a life that is against the normal impulses of Motherhood. The religious and political indoctrination through tyranny pushed her against herself and her child into insanity.
This form of child abuse, serves more than one purpose. Hate is a motivation for Jihad and also causes fear in the hearts of children who reason that they do not want to be the object of that hate. The hate of an enemy helps unite Moslems, especially children, into compliance. To hate is better than being the object of hate like Jews and Christians. When I said I did not like “Shahada” after my fathers death, I was told “you don’t want to get the wrath of Allah”. I am still being told (threatened) by that today when I write articles critical of terrorism! No child should have to endure this poison under the name of Religion. As Arab children we were all exposed to this moral contamination, and it should end.
The use of fear and hatred in bringing about compliance of children is a very primitive but very effective and often unconscious human tool that serves keeping your friends together to defend each other from the ” ˜enemies’. That tactic is used in many oppressive systems and not just Moslem societies; i.e. fascism and communism. It is also found in all societies at all levels and at deferent degrees. Even children playing often use this tactic, to keep a group together and gang up against other children. Children are not only scared into compliance but are also taught that dying in Jihad against the infidels is the highest virtue. This manipulation of human beings has reached an art form in Moslem culture. It is a cruel form of child abuse and should be exposed for what it is. Fathers and sons go to the Mosque to hear a fiery sermon on Jihad. It is an exuberant feeling of cohesion against Satan or Jews, and Arabs use it to bring about cultural cohesion.
The enemy of Islam then becomes a very necessary part of the religion, since it contributes to the unity of Moslems and ensures compliance. This unity has to be fed, cultivated and nourished constantly at all levels of education and Media. The infidels, non-Moslems, are extremely useful in Arab/Moslem cultures. They become the glue that bond many Moslems together as well as the instrument for compliance. There is less cohesion between Moslems rooted in love, compassion, or any common good towards improving the society and economy as a whole. That is why most Moslem countries are economic basket cases, and if it weren’t for oil, the Moslem world might be the poorest on the planet.
Arabs deny their true intensions regarding Jews and Christians when confronted by the West. What they tell each other is different from what they tell non-Moslems. Image and reputation is of utmost importance between Moslems and especially in front of foreigners. Their first instinct is always to lie, even in situations that do not require lying, to show only the good side and shame those who don’t go with the lie for the sake of saving face. As a child and teenager I saw respectable adults who lied to present Islam in a flowery picture. I learned to ignore it and developed an internal sensor to stop hearing it. I could only talk to myself about religion and could never dare tell any one about my thoughts but I had to pretend a lot to survive.
As a child of the fifties and sixties I felt that many Moslem countries were more moderate then than now and looked to the West for modernity and cultural and economic guidance. Only Saudi Arabia was then looked upon as the real Islamic country. This started to get reversed in the 70’s. Saudi Arabia and Moslem extremism replaced that need for change. Oil money from Saudi Arabia got more and more influential in reviving the more extreme form of Islam among more Moderate and poorer Moslem countries. During this period I started noticing a shift from Western influence to more rigid adherence of Islamic law. Many moderate Moslem countries were shamed into rejecting Western influence and encouraged to defy it. Women on their own began wearing Islamic clothes emulating their sisters in Saudi Arabia. All Arab women’s hard work for advancement and legal equality and economic parity with men was eroding. Newspaper articles started promoting Jihad and hate. Saudi money started pouring into poorer neighborhoods to build mosques, not to feed the spiritual needs of the flock, but to further radicalize the vulnerable poor and turn them against their moderate governments. Moslems verbally attacked Christians and Jews violently and openly on loudspeakers of Mosques. Many Christians were the victims of Moslem attacks. I was once visiting a Christian friend during the Friday prayers and witnessed the verbal attacks on Christians and Jews from the mosque’s loudspeakers. My friend looked scared and I was embarrassed and frightened. One day I was criticized by a woman on the street for not wearing Islamic clothes. That did it. That was when I decided to leave the Middle East and move to the USA. That same Wahabi sect was responsible for 9/11. People like me who escaped the oppressive Moslem society are now facing the same threat right here in the bastion of freedom. Where else would we go if it weren’t for America?
No one should ever believe that 9/11 was for the support of the poor Palestinians. It was a call of warning from Saudi extremists to Western civilization. They announced to us loud and clear “we are coming to Islamize you the same way we did to moderate Arab countries.” Saudi Arabia never participated with troops in any war against Israel and I never heard of one Saudi dying in a war between Israel and the Palestinians. All the Saudis want is to spread Islam, be the Mecca of the World and maintain the status quo in the Israeli/Palestinian
conflict. I truly believe that what stopped Yasser Arafat from signing the peace treaty were his bosses in Saudi Arabia and other extreme Arab regimes who are financing him. These regimes do not want the Palestinians to live in peace and become a democracy like Israel. The Palestinians are very smart and educated people and are the victims of Arab Dictatorships who want to keep them as pawns in refugee camps for over a half a century.
No one in this day and age should be killed for choosing another religion. Islam is the only religion in the World that does that. Ironically, many Moslems say they want to start practicing democracy, or at least they claim they want to. How can they talk about freedom to vote when they do not allow freedom of thought in choosing one’s religion? The founding fathers of the United States correctly identified freedom of religion as being of primary importance. The right to vote is meaningless if one has no right to choose one’s religion.
Moslem women can be killed if they choose to marry a non-Moslem, and that was my dilemma when I wanted to marry my Christian husband. That was the main reason why I moved to the USA. The UN should issue an International Proclamation for Freedom of CHOICE of ones’ Religion that Moslem countries would have to adhere to. However, the UN has not shown much strength in rejecting Arab money and influence to issue such a resolution and follow it up.
Because Islam cannot tolerate the free market for religious choice and freedom, non-practicing Moslems are left with the one ideology to practice and that is Socialism. Arab intelligentsia, especially in Arab Media, is mostly Socialists. Many oppressive Arab regimes are really secular socialist rather than Islamic. An example would be the “Baath” party of Syria and Iraq. Many Arab Media figures are openly Socialist and agnostic but package themselves in Islam for reasons of practicality and legitimacy. These Arab media figures, many of whom I know personally quite well, fiercely defend Islam and find excuses for terrorism against the West. You can see them day in and day out on American TV defending the indefensible. I don’t know how they can do it with a straight face. However, behind the scenes they tell a different story and live a different life from that of Islam. They have to please the Moslems to survive and keep their hefty salaries while their Government-run newspapers are losing money. That would have been my destiny in the Middle East; no spiritual life, no inner peace, just playing games to survive. I either would have stayed a non-practicing Moslem or joined the elitist class of Arab socialists. Is it any wonder why the Western liberal media sympathizes with Arab Media?
After I moved to the US, I attended a non-denominational evangelical Church and could not help but compare. The pastor was a peaceful, kind and gentle man and never spoke any ill about other religions, he even prayed for Moslems after 9/11. Love, kindness, grace, forgiveness and elevation of the human spirit were everywhere and among all members of the Church. It was a microcosm of the goodness of the American culture. The pastor embodied what I aspire to be. On the other hand, many Moslem clergy were a source of repulsive and uncompromising anger, rage, hate and subversion. Moslem clerks seek total power and control over their worshipers and forget that only God is in control.
We often hear of Moslem worshipers leaving the Friday prayer to attack Churches and Synagogues. They call us the great Satan because our social ills are not concealed in an open society. On the other hand, many Moslems forget that they too have a great Satan alive and well but hidden in the caves of Afghanistan, in the palaces of Iraq, in their dictatorships and in many Middle East closets. Self criticism is a virtue many Moslem countries need to learn. Mosques are not like churches, families do not attend as a unit. It is not an event where fathers, mothers and children unite in asking for Gods blessings and forgiveness. In the Middle East only men attend Mosques. Mosques spread the word of Allah harshly through loudspeakers heard over miles. There are several mosques in each neighborhood and one often can hear 3 or 4 mosques call for prayers at the same time 5 times a day!
It did not take me very long to know where I belong. I now belong to the greatest and most moral country that ever existed on the face of the earth. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights were written by men in the Judeo-Christian tradition who told their citizens that their rights were given to them by their creator. These great men did not try to take any credit since ones human rights are given by God not by man. Consequently, the citizens lived with relative internal peace and confidence in their government. This graceful country allowed me to practice any religion or no religion and gave me human rights I could only dreamed of under Islam. I am lucky and more than lucky, I am saved.
I was never discriminated against even after 9/11. The reason is that I love this country and grieved with the rest of America following the attack. The key to happiness in America is to love America. In the church I realized that a religion should bring about the love of all of humanity in my heart and never ever teach hatred of anyone. It should bring out the best in me and all its followers. Jihad, anger and terrorism should not be advocated by any religion. My husband and I were brought to our knees in tears and for the first time I felt I could trust and surrender my heart and soul to the God of peace and love. I said to myself “You, God, are in control! The terrorists might think they are in control, but they are wrong and their culture will suffer eventually by this evil”. It was the love of God I was desperate for but never found in Islam. I lived half my life in Islam and my soul was empty and in this Church in the US my soul was revived and nourished with love of all of humanity. I learned what it means to be grateful. Oh God I am grateful for leading me from chaos and confusion to hope and humility in your Way. The US has been blessed by many Churches like this, which other countries emulate instead of envy. I pray for Moslem countries to see the light that all men are created equal and not that all Moslems are created equal. Many come to this great nation in search for material gain which is fine, however, the biggest prize I gained was my religious freedom and to find myself in the glory of God.
Ms. Darwish is an American of Arab/Moslem origin and a former editor and translator.