Throwing Flames on the "Clash of Civilizations"
She speaks in a voice as impassioned and rhythmic as Malcolm X’s at his best: “The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras,” the woman says. “It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship....”
The woman is Wafa Sultan. Until her 15 minutes of flaming Islam on Feb. 21, she was an unheard-of psychiatrist living in a Los Angeles suburb, a 47-year-old Syrian expatriate who, as a medical student at a Syrian university in 1979, watched as Muslim Brotherhood gunmen barged into her classroom and shot her professor: “They shot hundreds of bullets into him shouting ‘God is Great,’” she told The New York Times. “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.”
Religion as Unreason
Some of us Catholics, as I’m sure some of us Protestants, Jews and Shintoists, have had the same reaction, with or without the unhappy benefit of watching fanaticism in action before our eyes. Baptism by blood or fire isn’t the only prerequisites for a conversion to reason. History’s morgues are rich enough to supply unending evidence that every religion at one point or another — the Torah’s many Koran-like commandments to commit unspeakable acts against one’s children or against women and children in enemy cities among them — has produced its armies of madmen scorching earth in gods’ names.
So Wafa Sultan wasn’t onto something original in her Feb. 21 segment on al-Jazeera. She was just applying it to Islam, which happens to be the religion currently boasting the greater proportion of theocrats, tyrants and armies-of-one bomb squads.
Wafa Sultan, American Idol
That didn’t stop her from becoming America’s idol, especially among conservatives and evangelicals looking to the West as good and Islam as evil. (Her al-Jazeera clip was downloaded 1 million times by March 2006.)
They quote Wafa Sultan’s attractive, if historically gimpy, phrases: “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 have 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.”
All Religions Have Their Terrorists
Not to start playing that silly game of comparative terrors, but Sultan must’ve not checked the latest State Department designations of terrorist organizations. It includes Israel’s Kahane Chai, whose members have murdered Arab civilians, including in mosques. Sultan must’ve also missed news of the ethnic war between the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority and the Hindi Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, where more than 60,000 people have been killed since the mid-1980s.
To put it more bluntly--as Martin Amis does in "The Second Plane" (Knopf, 2008)--"All religions, unsurprisingly, have their terrorists: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, even Buddhist. But we're not hearing from those religions. We are hearing from Islam."
"Islam's Ann Coulter"
The more serious problem with Sultan, however, is how she has taken her fame — based on some necessary observations about present-day Islam — and turned it into a sword that sees Islam and the Koran as exclusively evil, backward, repressive. “In a world far too often dominated by politicians imbued with religious fundamentalism of all flavors — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — we need the thoughtfulness, self-awareness and subtlety that comes from progressive religious expression,” Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein wrote in the Los Angeles Times after attending a fund-raiser for Israel and hearing Sultan, a guest speaker, score applause by bashing Islam as if she were Pat Robertson in drag (Robertson considers Islam “violent at its core.”
“We have that in Judaism, in Christianity — and in Islam, right in our backyard,” Stein wrote. “If only Sultan, applauded in many quarters yet miscast as a voice of reason and reform in Islam, were paying attention.” Stein’s piece was entitled “Islam’s Ann Coulter.”
That about sums up Wafa Sultan if she chooses to inflame the belligerence of America’s Islam-bashers rather than enlighten their glass houses’ dim blurbs — and her own.