At Whittier College in California, the dignity of women and protection of their rights are top priorities – so long as they don't interfere with the political agenda of campus Islamists.
Whittier President Sharon Herzberger, who was honored at a WNBA game last month for her commitment to the advancement of women, typically receives glowing press coverage like this and this. Children's Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman, a feminist icon, delivered this year's commencement address. Earlier this year Herzberger appointed a new dean for Whittier College Law School: Penelope Bryan, a scholar of family law who works to end discrimination against women in divorce cases.
With this record, one would think the school would have enthusiastically welcomed a speech by Nonie Darwish, a native of Egypt who is scheduled to speak there this afternoon (12:30 P.M. Pacific Time) about the persecution of women under sharia. Darwish was invited to speak by the Whittier Republican Leadership Council.
But her talk, which is being sponsored by the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, has drawn fire from student and faculty Islamists alike. And according to Brad Mahlstedt, head of the Whittier Republican group, the administration has responded to the pressure in a cowardly way.
When Mahlstedt contacted school officials in July, they indicated that a speech by Darwish (who converted from Islam to Christianity) would not be a problem. Yet after some Muslim students complained, officials reversed themselves. They urged that Darwish's appearance be delayed until after Ramadan so as not to offend members of the school's "diverse" student population.
Eventually Law School Dean Bill Carnahan agreed that Darwish could speak today. "I have spoken with members of our Muslim community, and there is no opposition, (albeit, some disappointment) with having Ms. Darwish speak in the month of September, so September 22 is fine," Carnahan wrote in an e-mail to Mahlstedt.
Mahlstedt says that in the weeks leading up to the speech, opponents of Darwish's message have posted messages on Facebook and Twitter defaming her and suggesting she was somehow unqualified to speak about sharia. And while this slander campaign has been taking place, Herzberger and Bryan have been silent. Mahlstedt told IPT News that it is "hypocritical" for "Bryan and Herzberger to be totally absent in all of this. After all, these are individuals in leadership positions who get honored at WNBA games and have written law-review articles about discrimination against women in divorce hearings. Why then are they absent when it comes to standing up for Darwish's advocacy against the mistreatment of women under sharia? This is disgraceful."
"Without ever researching the speaker, this administration was outright hostile to the idea of having Darwish speak on our campus due to the 'offense' it might cause," he said." Essentially Whittier Law School sought to stifle the very free speech they are supposed to be teaching us to promote and protect by attempting to prevent the event from happening in September."
Why should Muslims "find it offensive to hear from a woman speaking out about a radical sect of Islamic fundamentalists that circumcise women, behead homosexuals and deny women equal rights to their children and equal rights under the law?" Mahlstedt added. "Instead of getting behind a heroic woman standing up for freedom and human rights, Whittier has cowered at the thought of offending someone."
One of Darwish's harshest critics is Whittier law professor Seval Yildirim. Yildirim signed this petition (she is signature number 2552) calling for the release of imprisoned terrorist financier Sami Al-Arian. She signed this petition urging President-elect Barack Obama to boycott Israel, calling the Jewish State "racist" and charging it with perpetrating "crime[s] against humanity." And she joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations in suing to force the Philadelphia Police Department to allow a Muslim policewoman to wear a head scarf while on duty. Mahlstedt said that after hearing reports that Yildirim was discouraging Muslim students from attending Darwish's lecture, he tried to persuade her to change her mind. Yildirim refused, calling Darwish "uneducated, unqualified and a hate speaker," Mahlstedt said.
Yildirim told IPT News she "fully" endorses the right of students to "hear all points of view on any issue." She added that Nonie Darwish "is not an academic, a lawyer, nor [sic] a qualified Islamic law scholar" and "her past speeches reflect a hateful and inaccurate perspective against Muslims." Yildirim did not provide any evidence for her assertion that Darwish has ever engaged in "hate speech" and there is none to be found in her writings.
For Islamists, Darwish's life story – in particular her rejection of sharia and admiration for democracies like the United States and Israel – makes her a very dangerous person in the modern war of ideas.
She grew up in a Muslim household in Cairo and Gaza. Her father Mustafa Hafez was a high-ranking Egyptian intelligence officer, selected by President Gamal Abdel Nasser to orchestrate fedayeen attacks on Israel from Gaza in the 1950s. After hundreds of Israelis were murdered by the fedayeen, Israeli agents assassinated her father in Gaza on July 11, 1956. Nonie Darwish was eight years old at the time. Nasser turned her father into a shahid (martyr) for the Palestinian cause.
In her book, Now They Call Me Infidel, Darwish described how she became disillusioned with radical Islam after living in the Middle East for 30 years and witnessing Sharia's "cruel and inhumane" treatment of women. When Darwish was a teenager, the family maid became pregnant as a result of rapes by her boss at a home where she previously worked. "My mother, who did not want to send her back to her family because of the possibility she would be killed, sent her to a government facility," Darwish recounted. "A year later, we learned that the young maid was killed by her father and brother to protect the family honor."
As she grew up, Darwish became increasingly disillusioned with the treatment of women under Islam. In 1978, she moved to the United States with her husband, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and converting to Christianity. After the September 11 terrorist attacks Darwish began writing columns critical of Islamist radicalism and the silence of moderate Muslims. She created a group named Arabs For Israel, which describes itself as an organization of Arabs and Muslims who "respect and support the state of Israel" and want a "peaceful and diverse Middle East." The group calls for "constructive self-criticism and reform in the Arab world" and rejection of "suicide/homicide terrorism as a form of Jihad."
These views have unsurprisingly made Darwish a target for Islamists as she speaks at campuses across the United States. Darwish recounted that at Wellesley College, "a large number of female members of the Muslim Students Association attended. As I described the plight of seven Iranian women awaiting death by stoning for sexual violations, I saw no compassion towards their sisters in Islam. I saw only rigid faces and hardened, unsympathetic hearts. Some even made faces at me as I spoke. These young, educated Muslim women live in America under the protection of the U.S. Constitution, far removed from the harsh realities of Sharia law I experienced."
It remains to be seen how far the Islamists and their allies are prepared to go to disrupt Darwish's speech tonight. Mahlstedt continues to receive angry e-mails and other messages from students claiming Darwish is somehow "unqualified" to speak, with one angry student claiming Darwish was unfit because she lacked academic "credentials" like a doctorate. As for the fact that she had experience living under sharia, that supposedly disqualified Darwish because, in the opinion of this student, "her views are quite skewed because of what she has lived."
"Would you contend that a woman in the Nazi camps is unqualified to talk about the Holocaust?," Mahlstedt fired back. "If not, then why would you contend that a woman who lived the horrors of a sharia law system in Egypt is not qualified to speak about her experiences?"
And while the Islamists try to silence Nonie Darwish at Whittier, prominent feminist role models like school President Sharon Herzberger and law School Dean Penelope Bryan appear to have gone AWOL.