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‘Infidel’ challenges yeshiva students - Provocative author Nonie Darwish talks with Brooklyn teens

Children everywhere are warned not to take candy from strangers, but when Nonie Darwish was growing up in Cairo, she was taught to refuse sweets from people she didn’t know because they could be Jews “trying to poison” her.

Darwish, author of the book “Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror,” spoke to students at a Jewish day school in Brooklyn last Tuesday, telling them that she lived her life learning to hate the State of Israel.

At the age of 30, Darwish moved to California and away from Islam, and converted to Christianity. Twenty-three years later, she realized that the jihad, or, in this context, holy war, she had left back home had come to America: the second plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City, she recalled seeing on TV.

“9/11 was a turning point in my life, to see what my culture of origin had done.”

Darwish has since become an avid supporter of Israel and in 2002 founded Arabs for Israel, a group of Muslim and Christian Jews “who support the State of Israel and the cause for peace in the Middle East,” according to the group’s Web site.

Tuesday’s discussion was part of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School’s, 1609 Avenue J, first annual book day, which included a number of workshops, ranging from Egyptian cuisine and Arabic language classes to discussions about living in terror in the Middle East and polygamy in America.

Among the guest presenters were Stephen M. Flatow, a lawyer whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Israel and who sued the Islamic Republic of Iran for sponsoring terrorism; New York Times deputy national editor David Firestone, who addressed the value of skeptical inquiry; and Darwish, whose book and views on Islam were the focus of the event.

But several experts on Islam questioned some of Darwish’s statements, like those on sharia, or Islamic law, and her critical readings of a number of scriptures.

“According to sharia, you have to be killed if you leave Islam,” Darwish said during her opening speech. “Anybody who kills an apostate according to the laws of Islam will not be punished.”

But the provision of punishment by death of apostasy is suspended in the present world, according to Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, Minister of religion at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens. “Its practical implementation is not in the hands of any Muslim individual or judge or ruler,” he added.

Darwish also read some hadith, or oral traditions referring to the acts and words of Prophet Muhammad, during a workshop. “Jews are apes and Christians are pigs,” she said. “Your prayer will be invalidated if a donkey or a dog or a woman passes in front of you.”

According to Dr. Liyakat Takim, a professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, nobody is sure where the hadith came from. They were passed on orally and documented years after the death of Prophet Muhammad.

“We should remember that in Islam it is the Koran that it is the most authentic literature and that anything that does not agree with the Koran must be discarded,” he said. “Nothing in the Koran says that we must see Jews as pigs and apes, on the contrary, we must respect them because they are people of the book.”

A student asked Darwish if there were other ways of interpreting these hadith, to which she replied that the text left no room for interpretation. “The meanings are clear,” she said.

And if no alternate meaning exists, there is the option of discarding the hadith altogether.

“If anybody quotes anything from the Prophet and it’s not in conformity with what the Koran says, we throw that thing against the wall,” said Dr. Muhsin M.R. Alidina, the director of educational services at the Al-Khoei Center.

Darwish’s statements seemed to have confused a number of students, who gathered to discuss after the session ended.

“She invalidates the religion by saying that there’s no interpretation,” said Aliza Keller, 18.

To Marissa Rosenfeld, 17, it would not make sense for the hadith to be true and have no alternate interpretation.

“I don’t feel like Islam is an invalid religion. If it was, it wouldn’t exist,” she added. “There should be interpretation.”

Overall, Darwish came across as an inspiring and courageous woman for speaking her mind regardless of the consequences, several students said.

“It is people like this that make a difference in the world,” said Noam Benamy, 18.

To Simon Mosery, 17, the Egypt-born author is proof that there are “good people in every kind of people” and that, therefore, one should not generalize.

Melissa Goldstein, 17, said that today she learned a lot about what goes on in the Arab countries, but also realized that Darwish is “pretty extreme in the other direction, very pro-Israel” and she agrees with her.

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