By Mark Ellis
As a child she was taught to believe the Jews were monsters that wanted to kill Arab children. By God’s grace, she overcame a culture of hatred and found a new reason for hope after she settled in the United States.
“I grew up in a culture of jihad and martyrdom,” says Nonie Darwish, the founder of Former Muslims United. Although born in Cairo, she spent her childhood in the Gaza Strip because her father, Colonel Mustafa Hafez, headed Egypt’s military intelligence there. (Egypt controlled Gaza until 1967.)
Her life changed dramatically at only eight-years-old when her father was killed by an explosive device planted in a book by a double-agent working for Israeli intelligence.
After her father’s assassination, her mother moved the family back to Cairo. She lived there during a turbulent period, which included the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel. “In school, we recited poetry wishing ourselves to be martyrs in the jihad against Israel,” she recalls.
In the mosque, messages were filled with the call to jihad. She heard curses at the end of every service against infidels, Jews, and non-Muslims. “I bought all the propaganda like everybody else,” she notes. “I really believed it as a child.”
Her mother sent her to a Catholic school run by British nuns, because many of the elite in Egypt considered this a superior option for their children’s education. After that, she attended the America University in Cairo. “I was lucky to get a western education,” Darwish says. “It was a liberating experience.”
As a young woman she wondered about her lack of feeling toward Islam. “I didn’t like Islam, but I thought something was wrong with me,” she says. She began to wonder, Why don’t I want to pray like devout Muslims? Am I an atheist?