Friday, April 21, 2006

Anonymous Dissenter to Wafa Sultan

Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera February 2006

In two blog entries over a month ago, March 13 and March 14, I blogged on the Muslim dissident-of-the-week, Wafa Sultan.

I haven't heard much about her since then, but I don't doubt that Googling would turn her up. My interest in her was twofold. First, I try to keep up with the controversies over Islam, about which, I occasionally post. Second, I have a scholarly interest in Huntington's clash-of-civilizations thesis, about which, I have published (pdf).

Wafa Sultan had brought the two interests together in an Al-Jazeera interview on February 21:
"The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression ['clash of civilizations']. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: 'I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.' When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must reexamine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels."
I cited these words in my two previous posts on Sultan and noted in my post of March 13 that she "is thinking of the Muslim distinction between the Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (Realm of War), which assumes a state of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims." Someone noticed my March 13 entry and left this message:

I saw Wafa Sultan being interviewed on Al Jazeera and she struck me as a very vicious and ignorant propagandist. She seems to enjoy the sheer publicity and controversy she is creating, but really shows no intellectual substance or open mindedness. Her angry and occasionally insulting polemics are both flawed and potentially dangerous. Revising the Quran? Changing the fundamentals of Islam? She must be kidding! Or maybe not, which would be the height of stupidity and arrogance, since religions are not reformed by antagonizing the faithful, attacking their Prophet, insulting their holy book, and presenting their history in an extremely negative and one-sided way. Wafa Sultan reads (well, I'm not sure how much she really reads; better to say, "judges") the history of early and medieval Islam using the values and principles of our present 21st century reality. The outcome is a sort of incoherent political speech, with all the extreme metaphors that come to mind, denouncing as barbaric the religious and cultural tradition of one billion people (Muslims) and elevating the Western civilization (or what Sultan makes it to be) into something of the new true faith or global religion. Sultan's views and the way she puts them across can hardly generate any rational or healthy discussion of the issues, but rather stir and alienate. Her characteristic blindness to the extremist-fundamentalist streaks of other main religions, including Christianity and Judaism, now and in the past, leaves her with no credibility whatsoever. In many ways Wafa Sultan is the medievalist here, and I mean a Western medievalist, both in terms of ignorance and misrepresentation of Islam, its Prophet, and history. Medieval Muslims were on the whole a million times more civilized and tolerant than Wafa Sultan and the fictitious "civilization" she defends. From what I saw of her, she is no scholar; she is an awful discussant and a lousy polemicist at best. The fact that she is given all of this media attention is no indication of popularity or genuine scholarship. People like to check out all kinds of weird things, and she is no exception. In a sense she is the "intellectual" equivalent of the Prophet’s Danish cartoons. Those who applaud her views need to look more carefully at what she says and how she says it (and what she doesn't say too). I can't believe that a supposedly smart journalist and writer like Thomas Friedman would fall in the trap and quote her at length in his piece on the US debate about the collapse of the Dubai ports deal. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised; he’s done that before too.
This is an eloquent, impassioned rebuttal of Wafa Sultan and her admirers that does not descend into sheer ad hominem (though it's pretty harsh on Sultan), and I appreciate that.

I also don't agree with everything that Sultan says. For instance, in the Al-Jazeera interview cited above, she makes the following claims:

We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people. The Muslims turned three Buddha statues into rubble. We have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a mosque, kill a Muslim, or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people, and destroying embassies.

This is incorrect and easily refuted. In 1994, Jewish doctor named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque at Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs during morning prayers and opened fire on those worshipping, killing 29 worshipping Muslims and wounding 125. I can't immediately think of any Buddhist cases like this, but as for Christians destroying mosques and killing innocent Muslims, one need only recall the what the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries did to Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s when the Yugoslavia fell apart.

Her argument is thus flawed by factual errors. And she is angry. There's a reason for that anger:

Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.

But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of
Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.

"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."
This information comes in an article by John M. Broder, "For Muslim Who Says Violence Destroys Islam, Violent Threats," The New York Times (March 11, 2006), which I cited in my March 14th entry.

Based on this information and on the fact that Wafa Sultan is an Arab woman who knows firsthand the experience of growing up in a Muslim, Arabic-speaking culture, I'm willing to give her a degree of credibility despite her factual inaccuracies and her angry polemics until I have a chance to see the book she's planning to publish.

Others, like Anonymous, might less willing.

6 Comments:

At 10:38 PM, Anonymous Nathan B. said...

My impression about Ms. Sultan does not involve her being tagged with the word "scholar." I'm not sure why the anonymous poster felt he or she had to prove that Ms. Sultan wasn't a scholar (of religion, of Islam, of medieval history, of theology?--of what, the commenter doesn't say). She's a mental health professional who grew up in the Islamic world, which gives her much more credibility than most, including her anonymous detractor.

It is also not clear to me how her words or ideas could be dangerous, even as the Danish cartoons were not Dane-gerous, except to the feelings of those who get offended by such things.

Her rhetoric about Jews, while not 100% factually accurate, remains illustrative of the differences she talks about.

I do agree with the poster that one does generally not reform a religion by attacking its core, but given the polarizing and us-vs.-them mentality of that core, I think it's a debate worth having.

Ms. Sultan's ideas about Islam have relevance to the wider Islamic world: we might consider the case of Iran, for example: drug abuse, western music, and alcohol are widespread among the younger generation, which makes up a vastly disproportionate share of the population. Quite apart from the nuclear issue, Iran is going to see some substantial changes within the next generation, the most anti-Islamic generation the country has ever produced.

 
At 12:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There's a lot that I could say to Anonymous, but I haven't had time to do so because I like to back things up with citations.

He makes some good points, but I think that he's utterly wrong about the Danish cartoons, and I think -- like you -- that the Islamists need to be challenged.

I just wish that people like Wafa Sultan would speak more carefully and get their facts right.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:45 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Angry as she may be, I would not be afraid to be in the same room with her. There are some religious Muslims, on the other hand, men who speak calmly, applying logic and reason to explain their beliefs, who frighten me profoundly.

The cartoons have served as a wonderful experiment, almost scientific, to ascertain the extent of the ideological absolutism that threatens us all. I wish the publishers had solicited predictions beforehand, to be revealed after the outcome was known. I suspect no one would have guessed how bad things really are.

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Excellent points, JJM, both of them.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Guys; this is Anonymous again. Sorry for this late rejoinder, but I think I need to clarify few points here. You can challenge the Islamists from within their communities and Islamic framework, and this is I think the way that can produce progress and good change; or you can challenge them from outside, as a member of a different religious or cultural group, which, though sometimes inevitable, is more tricky and unpredictable. In either case, though, it is pointless, and even counterproductive, to engage in hyperbole polemics and attacks on the core beliefs and values of Islam itself. By depicting Prophet Muhammad as a pig or as a terrorist you’re simply insulting most Muslims and soliciting outrage and calls for revenge. If you do this from within, you are doomed to failure and perhaps risking your very own life. And if you do it from without, you’re looking like a crusader and you’re just creating more demons to fan the fires of the clash of civilizations. I concur with the need to oppose extremism and dogmatic Islamists, but this must be done carefully and rationally, without denigrating the foundational beliefs of Islam. Any opposition to Islamists that finds it somehow necessary to humiliate Muslims everywhere, no matter how noble its objectives are, is misguided and can be easily construed as a tool of extremism itself. Finally, let me just use jj mollo’s metaphor in its literalist meaning and say that I personally wouldn’t care to be in the same room with either Wafa Sultan or seemingly cool and collected Islamists; If I could choose, I’d rather be with Zhang Ziyi, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, or Scarlett Johansson! Now, wouldn't you?

 
At 7:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I've posted a response where others will also be more likely to notice it:

Response to "Anonymous" on Wafa Sultan and Insulting Islamists

There are some interesting comments that you'll want to read.

Jeffery Hodges

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