Overlooking the Elephants in the Room

West Michigan became the scene of an imported brand of Middle Eastern conflict over politics and religion recently when Nonie Darwish, a member of the nonpartisan Young America's Foundation (YAF) speakers bureau, presented her view of the world at a lecture organized by the College Republicans in my town.

The YAF speakers bureau includes such colorful personalities as Patrick Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Michelle Malkin, Rick Santorum, John Ashcroft, Ward Connerly and Ted Nugent.

After September 11, Darwish, 59, an Egyptian-born author, activist and translator, decided to speak out against her own Islamic culture because she felt it perpetuated hate against the Jews in the Middle East.

"I learned that hate, vengeance and retaliation are important values to protect Islam and Arab honor," said Darwish, recalling her education as a young girl. "Self-criticism or questioning Arab teachings and leadership was forbidden and could only bring shame, dishonor and violence open those who dared try. Peace was never an option and never mentioned as a virtue."

In her speech, Darwish also railed against Arabs and radical Islam for causing Israeli-Palestinian tensions and pointed to verses in the Quran that invite Muslim violence against non-Muslims.

Darwish came to the United States 15 years ago. She is the daughter of Lt. Col. Mustafa Hafaz, an assassinated Egyptian guerrilla leader of the fedyadeen, a terrorist group that regularly raided Israel.

In addition to the 30 students who attended the lecture, Darwish drew another 15 - 20 peace activists from the local community who were there to protest her message. At first they were silent but as Darwish continued her 45-minute diatribe, they reacted to her with audible snickers and gasps of disgust.

The Q&A was even more surreal. Darwish ignored the students who were seated in the front half of the assembly room and instead turned her attention to the protesters in the back. She first called on two Pakistani Muslim men who argued with her over the details of Muslim life and religion. Then she called on two peace activists.

The students in the room remained largely silent and puzzled by what was transpiring before their eyes until Darwish finally called on one student who asked something on the order of Rodney King's plea: "Can't we all just get along?"

The organizers of the event were noticeably flummoxed by the response of the audience and struggled to know what to do. However, they had admirably adopted a free speech platform and maintained it, especially when two unarmed security guards suddenly appeared to calm down a couple vociferous peace activists who came very short of being thrown out.

After her speech, a small crowd surrounded Darwish to ask more questions, point more fingers and poke more holes in her arguments. The guards, at the prompting of the student organizers, eventually escorted Darwish out.

The evening's program had become one filled with fiery affect lacking in intellectual content and ending up quite a distance away from the intended forum for "enlightened thinking" the organizers attempted to provide.

An English major might characterize the scene as a post-modern drama complete with many obscure levels of context, irony, paradox and identity politics.

It was sad to see the peace activists forget their mission of nonviolence and react rudely to Darwish. They could have been more effective by simply maintaining a silent demonstration in protest to her message.

Equally troubling is the College Republicans' reliance on the YAF, which purports to furnish the aspiring conservatives with political savvy and organizational strategy. What it seems to do instead is to divide the world up into liberals and conservatives and to foment antagonism against liberals.

For example, according to the YAF website (www.yaf.org), the "nonpartisan" group provides conferences, internships and resources to promote the conservative agenda on college campuses and strategies for countering "leftist tactics against your speaker."

The YAF suggests ways students may "maximize funding from the university and private supporters" who would presumably be against them and their politics. It also has a program that teaches students how to fight "anti-military bias and misinformation" by leftists who "continue to belittle our armed forces and to prevent as many students as possible from participating in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and from speaking with military recruiters."

The YAF sponsors the "9/11: Never Forget Project," which it began in 2003 after it discovered that "most college campuses were either completely ignoring the anniversary of the terrorist attacks or scheduling a politically-correct activity instead."

Ronald Reagan is the group's standard bearer and his creed is "the centerpiece of the student programs." The YAF proudly touts its role in the preservation of the president's Western White House, Rancho del Cielo, as a "living monument to Reagan's lasting accomplishments."

Actually, what the student audience's nonplussed reaction to the event perhaps makes clear as we ramble along in this first decade of the twenty-first century is that arguing about religion and politics has become pointless, especially when we refuse to deal with the "elephants in the room" like $4 per gallon oil, two wars we won't end and can't win, global warming, food shortages and price hikes, unprecedented species extinction, sub-prime mortgage failures, crumbling infrastructure, violent weather patterns and destructive earthquakes.

It's time for all Americans to turn the page on the old politics and to start working on the new challenges we face in our world.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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