Wednesday, August 22, 2007

COMMENT: On Wafa Sultan, Janet Albrechtsen & Rabbi Stephen Stein

In today's The Australian, and under the provocative headline "Breakout (sic.) of Islam's mental prison", Janet Albrechtsen writes in defence of Syrian-Alawite psychiatrist Dr Wafa Sultan. Albrechtsen cites "an American rabbi". Here's what she says ...

Can this be the woman recently described as an "international sensation"? The woman who drove an American rabbi to publicly accuse her of being "Islam's Ann Coulter"? ...

The American rabbi who walked out on Sultan at a conference complained that she failed to allude to a healthy, peaceful Islamic alternative.


But what did the Rabbi actually say? I reproduce in full the article of Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on 25 June 2006. Readers can decide for themselves whether Ms Albrechtsen has accurately reflected Rabbi Stein's views ...

Islam's Ann Coulter
The seductive and blinkered belligerence of Wafa Sultan.
By Stephen Julius Stein

STEPHEN JULIUS STEIN is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he also directs inter-religious programming.June 25, 2006

RECENTLY I WAS one of about 100 L.A. Jews invited to attend a fundraiser for a Jewish organization that seeks to counteract anti-Israel disinformation and propaganda. The guest speaker was Wafa Sultan, the Syrian American woman who in February gave a now legendary interview on Al Jazeera television, during which she said that "the Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations" and "I don't believe you can reform Islam."

The audience warmly greeted Sultan, a psychiatrist who immigrated to Southern California in 1989. One of Time magazine's 100 "pioneers and heroes," she said she was neither a Christian, Muslim nor Jew but a secular human being.

"I have 1.3 billion patients," she quipped early in her remarks, referring to the global Muslim population.

Sultan went on to condemn inhumane acts committed in God's name, to denounce Islamic martyrdom and to decry terror as a tool to subjugate communities. Those statements all made perfect sense.

Then this provocative voice said something odd: "Only Arab Muslims can read the Koran properly because you have to speak Arabic to know what it means — you cannot translate it."

Any translation is, by definition, interpretation, and Arabic is no more difficult to accurately translate than Hebrew. In fact, the Hebrew of the Bible poses many more formidable translation problems than Arabic. Are Christians and Jews who cannot read it ill-equipped to live by its meanings?

Another surprising remark soon followed: "All Muslim women — even American ones, though they won't admit it — are living in a state of domination."

Do they include my friend Nagwa Eletreby, a Boeing engineer and expert on cockpit controls, who did not seek her husband's permission to help me dress the Torah scroll?

Or how about my friend Azima Abdel-Aziz, a New York University graduate who traveled to Israel with 15 Jews and 14 other Muslims — and left her husband at home? There is no subjugation in the homes of these and other American Muslim women I know. They are equal, fully contributing members of their families.

The more Sultan talked, the more evident it became that progress in the Muslim world was not her interest. Even more troubling, it was not what the Jewish audience wanted to hear about. Applause, even cheers, interrupted her calumnies.

Judea Pearl, an attendee and father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, was one of the few voices of restraint and nuance heard that afternoon. In response to Sultan's assertion that the Koran contains only verses of evil and domination, Pearl said he understood the book also included "verses of peace" that proponents of Islam uphold as the religion's true intent. The Koran's verses on war and brutality, Pearl contended, were "cultural baggage," as are similar verses in the Torah.

Unfortunately, his words were drowned out by the cheers for Sultan's full-court press against Islam and Muslims.

My disappointment in and disagreement with Sultan turned into dismay. She never alluded to any healthy, peaceful Islamic alternative. Why, for example, didn't this Southern California resident mention the groundbreaking efforts of the Islamic Center of Southern California, the leading exemplar of progressive Muslim American life in the United States? Why didn't she bring up the New Horizon School-Pasadena that the center started, the first Muslim American school honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School?

You might wonder why a rabbi is so uneasy about Sultan's assault on Muslims and Islam. Here's why: Contrary to practically every mosque in the U.S., the Islamic Center has a regulation in its charter barring funding from foreign countries. As a result, it is an American institution dedicated to propagating an American Muslim identity.

Maher and Hassan Hathout are the philosophical and spiritual pillars of the mosque. They also have been partners of Wilshire Boulevard Temple rabbis and others throughout L.A. for decades. The Hathouts' mosque has twice endorsed pilgrimages to Israel and the Palestinian territories, its members traveling with fellow L.A.-area Jews and Christians. It invites Jews to pray with them, to make music with them, to celebrate Ramadan with them. This is the mosque whose day school teaches students about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah alongside lessons in Arabic and the Koran. Recently, the Islamic Center joined the food pantry collective of Hope-Net, helping feed the hungry and homeless.

Make no mistake: I am not an Islamic apologist. But Sultan's over-the-top, indefensible remarks at the fundraiser, along with her failure to mention the important, continuing efforts of the Islamic Center, insulted all Muslims and Jews in L.A. and throughout the nation who are trying to bridge the cultural gap between the two groups. And that's one reason why I eventually walked out of the event.
Here's another: As I experienced the fervor sparked by Sultan's anti-Muslim tirade and stoked by a roomful of apparently unsuspecting Jews, I thought: What if down the street there was a roomful of Muslims listening to a self-loathing Jew, cheering her on as she spoke of the evils inherent in the Torah, in which it is commanded that a child must be stoned to death if he insults his parents, in which Israelites are ordered by God to conquer cities and, in so doing, to kill all women and children — and this imagined Jew completely ignored all of what Judaism teaches afterward?

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. We have that in Judaism, in Christianity — and in Islam, right in our backyard. If only Sultan, applauded in many quarters yet miscast as a voice of reason and reform in Islam, were paying attention.


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18 comments:

PmR said...

Of course Islam is NOT evil. Some of its high-profile and influential adherents and blinkered apologists are!

Someone wrote to me:

"The world is not really interested in her story, obviously. She might as well be an Israeli trying to get the world to see things as they are, within some realistic context. Tell me why the world doesn't know or care about Sderot or what took so long to get attention for Darfur and with little results. Most victims are thought to deserve their plight. We now read a little about the Christians of Iraq having to leave. No one cared when the Christians under Arafat had to leave their cities and towns; or the Jews having to leave all the Arab lands. Who really cares, except a few friends and relatives?"

That says it all.

Anonymous said...

It's really quite funny when the bigotted and blind supporters of the world's 6th largest nuclear power pretend to be victims.

PmR, why don't you read what that rabbi had to say. You might learn something about your religion.

Fully Sic said...

It's really quite funny when the bigotted [sic] and blind supporters of the world's 6th largest nuclear power

India?

Irfan, you grandiosely inserted (sic) next to the word "breakout" in the headline.

Why? Prisons have breakouts. Her use of the term, in the headline was therefore quite correct and you are evidently really struggling to find fault with the article. Janet's comment about the Rabbi was minor and wholly inconsequential, yet you've devoted pages to it.

Why didn't you instead discuss some of what Wafa actually said. For example:

`Look at any Islamic country. Tell me what you see. Poverty, backwardness, oppression, dictatorship, miserable lives. Somehow we have to help them change their way of thinking, their way of life. We have to re-create a new generation clean of hatred. We have been consumed by hatred. We are not practising our humanity. It’s very sad.’’

Why is the Islamic world so illiterate and impoverished? Surely it's more complicated than just blaming America, Israel and Janet Albrechtsen.

jr said...

FS, can you prove to me that every single Muslim-majority state is "so illiterate and impoverished"? And why bring Israel into the discussion? What does Israel have to do with it? Why are you so obsessed with the Jewish state?

Anne Aly said...

There appears to be a rather disturbing trend of blind adulation for women such as Sultan and Hirsi Ali who are lauded as 'brave' women speaking out against Islam.
While I have no issue with them expressing their opinions, I do have a problem with the fact that they tend to attribute their particular experiences as Muslim women as generisable for ALL Muslim women. I cannot relate my experiences or indeed my identity as a Muslim woman to the specific experiences of either Hirsi Ali or Sultan. I do not feel oppressed; I do not and have not ever experienced oppression.
Unfortunately, both these women are what I call "tent pissers" (excuse my french): they talk about Islamic reform and package their rants as some kind of genuine concern for the plight of women. But you get more done by being inside the tent pissing out; these women are outside the tent pissing in!

PS: Thanks for your comment on Crikey about our study Irfan.

Fully sic said...

an you prove to me that every single Muslim-majority state is "so illiterate and impoverished"?

Easily done. Search for the Arab Human Development Report. Written by Arabs (so you can't easily accuse it of being anti-Arab), it objectively demonstrates that the Arab world has the highest rates of illiteracy, unemployment and various other 'impressive' such achievements.

What does Israel have to do with it?

I mentioned it in passing, as the very same Muslim countries who are illiterate, impoverished and backward, might not be if their leaders looked inward for a change rather than consistently blaming everything on... Israel and the USA.

As Wafa Sultan said: The Jews have come from the tragedy (of the Holocaust), and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror, with their work, not their crying and yelling. Humanity owes most of the discoveries and science of the 19th and 20th centuries to Jewish scientists. Fifteen million people, scattered throughout the world, united and won their rights through work and knowledge. 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 must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them.

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JR said...

Doug/Anon@1023am, now that your dad has joined the Christian Democrats, can you try and be a little more careful about what hate messages on this blog?

Irfan Yusuf said...

So what you are saying, fully sick, is that Arab countries are necessarily Muslim countries and Muslim countries are necessarily Arab countries.

Wow. I learned something new. Clearly Indonesia couldn't be a Muslim country. After all, they aren't mentioned in the UN report you cited. Neither could Pakistan.

Anyway, you are saying we can judge all Muslims using the example of Muslim countries. There is only one Jewish state in the world. It would go broke without American aid dollars. Can we therefore deduce something about jews?

Finally, fully sick, a word of advice. When you spend too much time wearing those white witches' hats and standing around burning crosses, it can cause some brain damage.

Anonymous said...

There is only one Jewish state in the world. It would go broke without American aid dollars. Can we therefore deduce something about jews?

Nonsense. Israel, despite having no easy oil resources to mooch off, has developed a massive agricultural, technological and scientific industry. In other words, they don't sit around waiting for their next handout but try to create a future for themselves and their children.

The US assistance is almost entirely to assist with defence - and would not be needed at all, if the Arab countries weren't so hell-bent on killing Jews. For the Arabs then to resent the US money is rather hypocritical (but what does one expect from a group that burns down greenhouses which gross $100 Million annually and then cries that they have no income).

As a comparison, you might like to note that Egypt gets billions of dollars of US aid money as well. Compare and contrast...

Regardless, you have ignored the broader point in your never-ending quest to hold the Muslims harmless in their own shortcoming.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

There is only one Jewish state in the world. It would go broke without American aid dollars.

There are 5.6 million Jews in Israel. Despite the 200 million or so Arabs surounding them and having a go at wiping them out in 1948, 1967 and 1973 (plus all the other skirmishes) they're still there. American aid dollars or not, a people of that tenacity will never be as broke as any of the Arab nations that surround them! Just acknowledge reality, Irf; they might have a close relationship with the US but so what? They're clearly doing something right that their Arab neighbous are not.

an you prove to me that every single Muslim-majority state is "so illiterate and impoverished"?

Well, the Muslim world isn't exactly a shining beacon of academic and scientific progress. Check out this article: http://ptonline.aip.org/journals/doc/PHTOAD-ft/vol_60/iss_8/49_1.shtml

Here's some quotes:

Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone …

According to official statistics, Pakistan has produced only eight patents in the past 43 years …

Rumi Fan said...

So let me get this right. One Alawite Syrian psychiatrist lambasts a faith that regards her cult as heterodox. One Pakistani scientist writes an article about lack of scientific progress. The result is that 1.2 billion people must be maligned, looked down upon and humiliated. Maximum hatred must be generated toward them, all with a view to repeating another Holocaust.

And all this by people who are descendants of victims of the last Holocaust.

There are plenty of prominent Muslims active in human rights, the law and other fields. WHy don't you mention that the last 2 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize were named "Mohamed"?

I get the feeling, Michael, that you are determined to hate Muslims. You are motivated by hatred. I prefer to be motivated by reality.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

What have I said that isn't reality? Is the Islamic world really a bastion of science and learning and I'm missing it? Do the majority of Muslims worldwide actually acknowledge Israel's right to exist?

Forgive me for being sceptical about the Nobel Peace Pize. Like you, I prefer reality. Actions speak louder than words and like Wafa Sultan argues, if Islam continues to prove itself incompatible with civil society then civilised people need to make sure it remains only in the mosque and the home, and nowhere else. I don't consider that attitude hatred, just a commonsense approach to civilised living.

No one is trying to humiliate and look down upon Muslims. You are doing that to yourselves. This is a free and individualist society: we don't care what you do in your own lives. However again Wafa Sultan sums it up nicely: you are free to believe in stones so long as you don't throw them at me.

Hashem said...

Pftt. I love it when Jewish racists pretend to be part of Western culture! Most Jews I know are from the Middle East. Then again, so were Jesus and Mary.

Sutcliffe, you think that the Islamic world is backward. In a sense they are. No Islamic leader murdered 6 million of your co-religionists. Only a Western Christian leader could do that.

You should remember that your lot were murdered for 2,000 years by European Christians. If you think that spreading hatred toward Muslims will divert European attention away from their genetically programmed hatred for you, good luck.

Irfan Yusuf said...

Michael, I personally believe Muslim nations should recognise Israel's right to exist. But Israel should also recognise the rights of Palestinians to a state. I know most Israelis do, even if their friends in Australia and other Western countries don't.

But I fail to see how scientific advancement is related to recognition of a state? And I find it strange that you do not place much value on a peace prize. is it because you hate peace? Would you rather your kids inherited a world at war with itself?

Michael Sutcliffe said...

You should remember that your lot were murdered for 2,000 years by European Christians.

Hashem - If by 'your lot' you think I am Jewish then you are mistaken. There isn't a drop of Jewish blood in me. I just think the Jews are a civilised, progressive, erudite and courageous bunch.

Yes, I think the Islamic world, as a whole, is backward. You quote an example to prove that other cultures and peoples are backward. Sure, we all have violent pasts, but some cultures moved beyond this to an increasingly civilsed progressive future. What I'm saying is that the Islamic world isn't of this ilk, it's still going backward today. Whether it emerges in the future as a progressive force for good, or has to be smashed into oblivion, or something in the middle of these, is what the rest of the civilised world is waiting to see.

Pftt. I love it when Jewish racists pretend to be part of Western culture!

You're drawing a long bow to suggest that Jews aren't part of Western culture. Their contributions have been substantial and they have been prominent in arts, sciences and government in the Western world for a millennium. Ashkenazi Jews are essentially defined as a group by being European for about this length of time.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

Michael, I personally believe Muslim nations should recognise Israel's right to exist.

That's not exactly surprising, Irf. You also argue for Islam in the context of liberal democracy. But that's not my point. My point is that much of the Islamic world, perhaps even a majority, doesn't feel this way and has shown a periodic tendency to try to wipe it out.

But Israel should also recognise the rights of Palestinians to a state. I know most Israelis do, even if their friends in Australia and other Western countries don't.

While there are differing views on within Israel and other Western countries I think you'd find that if there was some indication that peace would ensue then Israel would strongly support a Palestinian state and the rest of the Western world would follow. But a lot of Israelis have a valid fear that it will become a base from which further terrorist attacks can be launched against Israel, so they don't want to forgo the ability to intervene in the Palestinian territories. I personally see no reason to believe this isn't the case.

But I fail to see how scientific advancement is related to recognition of a state?

To be recognized as valid sovereign state in the modern world your country has to be civilised. If you're a rogue state then don't expect full recognition or rights in the international community. Scientific advancement is indicative of civil society and proof that you are probably using reason as your primary means of making decisions (in contrast to religious dogma, for example).

Why does Iran have the respect it does compared to former Iraq, even though both were police states rule by dictators? It's because they show the potential for scientific advancement (as well as democracy and the arts). The Western world feels they have the potential for civilised behaviour and hence they think of Persian culture as having positive value, even though there might be a nut in control. Most of the Western world didn't view Iraq in this light and saw it as a backward, thuggish, tribal culture controlled by warlords and a dictator, with no hope of producing good and hopelessly remaining in poverty despite being oil rich.

And I find it strange that you do not place much value on a peace prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize is just as much a media event as it is recognition of achievement. Perhaps even more of the former than the latter. My experience of the popular media is that it's not a particularly good judge of things like this.

If someone has won the Nobel Prize for physics or medicine you can be pretty sure their contribution has been significant in that area. Yasser Arafat had a Nobel Prize for peace. Nelson Mandella has been accused of torturing people and he's got one. Frederik Willem de Klerk got one and a lot of people think he was involved in political assassinations. Forgive me for being cynical, but I think this is a slightly questionable award. I rank it in a similar category to being Time Magazines person of the year.

Would you rather your kids inherited a world at war with itself?

This is exactly what I fear and why I believe we need to have the courage to deal with radical Islam now through things like the War on Terror, rather than wait until it really is a world at war with itself.

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