Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wafa Sultan and the nature of Islam

They were just five words, but they swept through the Muslim world like a brush fire nearly four years ago, launching a scorching backlash that endures to this day. “Be quiet. It’s my turn,” the Syrian-born American, Wafa Sultan, said in February 2006 to a Muslim cleric she was debating on Al Jazeera.

A woman interrupting a man? In public? In Islamic societies, particular in the Arab world, a Muslim woman could be killed for such behavior, for it challenges the very nature of relations between the sexes. Nor can such a woman, even a highly educated psychiatrist like Sultan, live in safety just by escaping the Middle East. Today, facing death threats, Sultan lives in hiding in the United States.

The drive behind Sultan’s outburst, and the years-long anger that fueled it, is chronicled in her controversial new book, A God Who Hates.

In it, she tells her life story of professional success but personal humiliation in an Islamic society, and she describes Islam as an inherently destructive ideology, that keeps its adherents in backwardness and its women and children in slave-like conditions.

Her book is not only riveting but important, for it forces attention on an issue of great debate – what is the essential nature of Islam, and how should the West respond to terrorism and the ideologies that drive it?

On one side are those who believe that Islam is a moderate, mainstream religion, little different from Judaism and Christianity, one that can live in peace with, and thrive within, modern Western society.

Key adherents of this view include Irshad Manji, who lives as an openly gay and feminist Muslim in Canada, lectures and writes widely, runs the Moral Courage Project at New York University and is author of the provocative book, What’s Wrong with Islam Today; M. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician who earned his medical degree on a Navy scholarship and is founder and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy; and Zainab Al-Suwaij, a women’s rights advocate who is co-founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

On the other side are those who believe that Islam is inherently aggressive and anti-Western, that it demands anti-Jewish and anti-Christian violence and that it’s not really a religion at all but a political ideology.

Along with Sultan, leading subscribers to this view include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali native who fled to the West, served in the Dutch Parliament, now serves as a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, requires round-the-clock protection, and is the author of two heartrending books about her life, The Caged Virgin and Infidel; and Brigitte Gabriel, the Lebanese-American journalist, founder and president of the American Congress for Truth and author of two books that urge the West to confront Islam, Why They Hate and They Must be Stopped.

This unresolved debate over Islam shapes the disjointed response of Western governments to attacks on their people and property that seem motivated by religion. Some officials blame Islam, some blame a radical perversion of an otherwise peaceful religion and some studiously avoid any notion that Islam has connections to violence, pointing instead to social pathologies or the personal demons of the perpetrators.

It’s a debate that has played out this year over, for instance, the Fort Hood massacre, allegedly perpetrated by a Muslim Army psychiatrist who praised suicide bombings and ranted about the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the ongoing saga of Rifqa Bary, the 17-year-old Ohio daughter of Muslim immigrants who converted to Christianity and fled her family out of fear that they would have her killed for abandoning Islam; and the recent beheading in Buffalo of a Muslim woman allegedly by her husband, a prominent local Muslim leader from whom she had filed for divorce.

This debate over Islam is tough and explosive, and I admit to uncertainty about which way to lean.

The Koranic verses, the “hadiths” (sayings) of the Prophet Mohammad, and the “fatwas” (opinions) of Islamic scholars that Sultan and others cite in tying Islam to violence are compelling. So, too, are the Islam-based justifications for death and destruction by terrorists around the world.

But, equally compelling are the examples that Manji, Jasser and Al-Suwaij have set in reconciling Islam with modernity, peace and human rights and in confronting the perpetrators of violence in the name of Islam.

It is a debate in which the West must engage more openly, however uncomfortable that might be. To put it bluntly, only if we know what we’re facing will we be able to confront it effectively.

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