Nonie Darwish's "Wholly Different"
Half her life in Egypt, half her life in the U.S. -- an insider's insights on Islam and the West.
May 11, 2017
Danusha V. Goska
Danusha V. Goska
Nonie Darwish's 2017 Regnery Faith book, Wholly Different: Why I Chose Biblical Values over Islamic Values, is a wide-ranging, reader-friendly view into the thinking of an Egyptian, Muslim woman who immigrated to America at age 30 and began to compare and contrast the values she was steeped in to those found in Judeo-Christian-influenced, Western culture.
Darwish was born in 1949 in Cairo, Egypt. She grew up in Egypt and Gaza. Her father, Mustafa Hafez, created and oversaw an anti-Israel terror group. When Darwish was eight, her father was assassinated by Israel. Egyptian President Nasser praised Darwish's father as a shahid, or martyr. Darwish immigrated to the US in 1978, and she has lived here ever since. She converted to Christianity.
Wholly Different is part memoir, part sociological observation, and part prophetic clarion. Darwish's style is cozy and conversational. Her sentences are short and easy to read. Darwish paints a vast, impressionistic landscape comparing the Muslim world to the West. She makes a series of thought-provoking points in a rapid style. She quotes relevant passages from Islamic scripture and shows how that scripture plays out in modern societies. In contrast, she quotes important Biblical passages and demonstrates how those have influenced the West.
Darwish combines the maternal love one might find in a wise grandmother, the kind who bakes cookies and contains a storehouse of folkloric wisdom, with the stripped-to-the-bone truth-telling and no-time-to-waste urgency of an Old Testament prophet. With every sentence, Darwish conveys the deep care she feels for every reader with an insistence on being heard, and heard for every last syllable.
As is often the case, this book by a former Muslim is more fearlessly blunt than many a counter-jihad statement by someone who has never been a Muslim. "Islamic values versus Biblical values is a bloody collision waiting to happen. The West must be warned," she writes. Darwish has seen jihad up close and personal. She knows what is at stake, she has taken the measure of the wolf at the door, and her call bursts forth like a trumpet. Just one example of the kind of unique insights she can offer: in thirty years of living as a Muslim in the most populous Arab state, she never heard anyone question why Mohammed, at over fifty years old, took a six-year-old as his wife.
"A fish doesn't know it is in water," goes the old saying. Perhaps nothing dramatizes this point so vividly as Western women who marry Muslim men, travel with those men to their natal countries, and are shocked to discover that rights they took for granted as universal ceased to exist once they stepped across a border and put their Western homeland at their back. One can see one such woman, Stephanie, sobbing in a 2016 EXMNA video. "I was certain that I was going to find a way to bring my daughters back, so I bought them a bunch of clothes, but they haven't had a chance to wear them yet," Stephanie says, with unbearable poignancy. The camera shows Stephanie's slender fingers fondling princess dresses she had purchased for her daughters, dresses that her daughters will never wear.
Stephanie was born in Canada and married a Muslim man. She had two children by him. She convinced herself that she and her Libyan husband could create a Canadian version of Islam. She could prevent her husband from forcing hijab on her daughters, allow the girls to listen to music, and take gymnastics. "We can mix both and be happy," she thought. Islam, though, she said, demanded that her husband "protect" his children from Stephanie; indeed, to protect Stephanie from herself. Her husband, over the course of eighteen months, hatched a plot to convince Stephanie to put her daughters on a plane so that he could attend grad school in Europe. This was a lie. He had no plans for a European PhD. He lured Stephanie into Libya, at which point she had no rights whatsoever. Stephanie says that in Islamic terms, her husband was kind – because he had the right to kill her, and he did not. It's five years later, and Stephanie has not seen her children since. She may never see them again.
Why did Stephanie make decisions that doomed her to a life of heartache and regret? Especially given the bestselling 1987 book, Not Without My Daughter? And numerous websites dedicated to warning Western women about the potential pitfalls in cross-cultural marriages, websites like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and too many others to list? Maybe this is why. Maybe Stephanie had politically correct teachers who told her that the West is an oppressive, racist, sexist place. They told her, further, that Islam is a religion of peace. These fonts of politically correct ideology emphasized cultural relativism. All religions are the same, they told young Stephanie. All religions are about love.
Wholly Different is a three-alarm wake-up call from Nonie Darwish. Darwish informs her reader that it's not just when it comes to terrorism that Western and Muslim worldviews conflict. Rather, in a thousand little ways, daily life is different. Darwish lists fifty-three features that, for her, differentiate the Western worldview from the Muslim one. Darwish, as a trained journalist and speaker of Arabic, cites canonical Islamic sources to support her points. "Islam and democracy are contradictory and absolutely incompatible," she writes. These are not her words. She is quoting an imam.
Darwish says that every cultural feature is grounded in the foundational texts that inform each culture. The West is inspired by the Judeo-Christian Bible. God is a father who affirms his creation and wants to love us. God is rational. God wants so badly to save us that he sacrificed his only son to die for us. In contrast, the Muslim world is founded on and inspired by the Koran and the life and sayings of Mohammed. Allah is not loving and he is not a father. Allah announces that he does not need humans; if he wanted to, he could wipe humanity out and choose to create some other lifeform. Allah is not only not rational, he is the "greatest deceiver" who can grant or withhold an afterlife paradise as he sees fit. Allah demands that humans not love him, but submit to him, as slaves submit to their masters, and to sacrifice their lives for him.
Darwish is a Christian, but an observant Atheist might have written a similar book. Atheist Richard Dawkins said "I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers … I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse." Atheist Bill Maher said, "The values of Western civilization are not just different, they're better. I know a whole generation has been raised on the notion of multiculturalism … Rule of law is better than autocracy and theocracy. Equality of the sexes, better," and "Islam is not like other religions. It is a unique threat. Christians do not believe that if you leave the religion you should be killed for it … If they were beheading people in Vatican City … don't you think there would be a bigger outcry? This is the soft bigotry of low expectations that we have with Muslim people." Atheist Sam Harris has been criticized for saying things like, "The truth is that Islam is quite a bit scarier and more culpable for needless human misery than Christianity has been for a very, very long time. We have to point this out. To be evenhanded … is to misconstrue the problem."
Western rights did not emerge ex nihilo. They are founded on Judeo-Christian religion and Ancient Greek civilization. Thus the Supreme Court building, for example, is modeled on the Parthenon, and while the building's frieze depicts lawgivers from various cultures, the figure at its center and apex is Moses, the Jewish lawgiver. He holds two tablets, representing the Ten Commandments. The rights we in the West take for granted are not universal, but rather are specific to the West, and based on our unique history. When we give up our foundations, we give up our rights.
Darwish describes Islam as a religion driven by a sense of competition with Jews and Christians. Sixty-four percent of the Koran, she maintains, is devoted to denigrating commentary about kafirs, or non-Muslims. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is totally alien to Islam, she says. "Islam has nothing to do with Abraham and Biblical values. In fact, it awards the highest esteem to Muslims who kill the children of Abraham, the Jews."
Darwish charts her intellectual and spiritual journey from simple observations of quotidian reality and larger trends. "Why is it that people in the West stand in line to wait for their turn while in the Muslim world people step on each other to get to be first? Why is it that in the West government leaders leave their office at the end of their term peacefully while in the Muslim world their term ends with either natural death or assassination?" Even in asking these questions, she writes, she was violating cultural expectations. "Asking questions and doubting is taboo in Islam."
Another factor, she says, impeded her maturation in Egypt. "I came from a culture where openly talking about one's true feelings, inadequacies, and vulnerabilities was taboo." That kind of repression prevents personal growth.
Darwish's focus on her natal society's suppression of her self-awareness and admission of vulnerability segues into the portion of the book that excited me the most. Darwish argues that Allah encourages Muslims to hide sin, seeing public admission of sin to be a sign of weakness, while the West encourages individuals to acknowledge and come to terms with their own faults. When Muslims sin, Allah covers those sins to allow the Muslim to avoid public censure. Muslims are forbidden to expose each other's weaknesses to non-Muslims. "Keeping up a good front" becomes a religious obligation. Darwish writes, "Islamic logic does not see confession of sin by Jews and Christians as a virtue or as the starting point to redemption and an attempt to be better people. In Islam self-criticism, admitting sin, praying for forgiveness, and openly exposing one's vulnerabilities and imperfections in a search for the truth is worthy of punishment." Darwish quotes Mohammed, "All of my community shall be pardoned, save those who commit sins openly." If followers of a sheikh witness the sheikh committing a sin, the follower should say, "it is my eyes that committed the sin" for having witnessed a power figure do wrong. The Islamic view of public exposure of sin feeds a culture based on pride and shame. The Koran is replete with references to "shame," "disgrace," "humiliation," and "losers." There is no comparable mention of "losers" in the Bible. In the Koran, in addition to being labeled "losers," Christians and Jews are also called "pigs," "apes," and "unclean."
This emphasis on hiding sin fuels honor killing, and Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, Darwish argues. As a contemporary, concrete example of this advice to conceal sins, Darwish cites Islamweb's 2012 Fatwa number 184937. A woman wrote to report that her husband sexually assaulted their fourteen-year-old daughter. She asked what she should do. The religious expert responded that the daughter should cover herself with hijab and the wife ought to "conceal his sin" and continue to live as his wife.
Islam on Demand, a YouTube channel, features a 2011 lecture by respected sheikh Hamza Yusuf. Yusuf reflects Darwish's words. Islam demands that an individual suppress urges, he says. In the West, Yusuf says, the attitude is "don't harm anyone." In the Islamic worldview, he says, there is a harm when forbidden behavior "emerges into the public space." "What people do behind their closed doors is their own business." Yusuf cites the example of alcohol. If people make and consume wine at home, "that's between them and God. The minute they step into the public space, then that is where sharia says no."
I wrote about this aspect of the difference between Islamic worldviews and the West in 2001:
"Ritualized, religiously mandated confession generated, in the West, a culture-wide valorization of self-examination, subjectivity, individuality, and change … Confession caused believers to examine themselves, admit their errors, work for self-improvement and to develop a linear / teleological mindset – to believe that the future could be better than the past … This absence of ritualized, valorized, narration of sin and redemption to one's fellows does not provide the Muslim with the same cognitive, social or cultural exercise." I hope that others pick up on this theme.
Darwish cites many of the Koran verses and Hadith that call for jihad. One hadith promises that killing a Jew or a Christian offers a Muslim a chance to be redeemed from ever having to go to Hell. Darwish comments on the public relations attempt to redefine "jihad" as peaceful self-improvement. In Islamic texts, she says, jihad plainly means "war with non-Muslims to establish the religion."
Wholly Different will be a rewarding read for those interested in a big-picture comparison of the Muslim world and the West, from an educated observer who has lived decades in both worlds and can support her points with key texts and contemporary examples.