Another changed mind: Dr. Wafa Sultan
Many--if not most--of you have probably heard of Dr. Wafa Sultan by now.
She's the talk of the blogosphere (try doing a Techorati search and see how many links turn up), a woman of immense courage who's risked speaking out against the Moslem religion and the uses that have been made of Islam lately. She's an American and a psychiatrist, born in Syria but living and working in this country.
Dr. Sultan is one of those "moderate Moslems" that many have been seeking, Diogenes-like, and she is nothing if not outspoken. This recent profile in the New York Times caused quite a stir, and she's received a number of death threats from those who were somehow able to obtain her phone number.
Dr. Sultan's notoriety began with an interview on Al Jazeera (a partial transcript may be found here) in which she accuses the Moslem religion of oppressing human rights and of religious intolerance. A few quotes:
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. 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. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings. What we see today is not a clash of civilizations. Civilizations do not clash, but compete.
Host: I understand from your words that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West, and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?
Wafa Sultan: Yes, that is what I mean.
Not very PC, is Dr. Sultan.
According to the Times profile, Dr. Sultan is writing a book that she believes is "going to turn the Islamic world upside down." I hope she lives to finish it. Recently she's been Salman Rushdiezed, and there seems to be a target painted on both her front and her back.
I have a special interest in Dr. Sultan because she's a "changer," and a psychiatrist as well. What occasioned her change? Here's what the Times profile has to say about that:
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."
So here we have Sultan's 9/11, her personal watershed moment, and a very traumatic one it was. She and her husband began to plan to emigrate to America, but the move took them ten years to accomplish.
Recently, as Dr. Sultan's anger and drive to do something about what she saw happening in the Arab/Moslem world increased, she started writing for this website, "Annaqed." That, in turn, prompted the invitation to speak on Al Jazeera. Now, as a result, she needs protection from those who would kill her because of what she's done.
I've written earlier about how change sometimes happens quickly and sometimes gradually (see this post, in particular the comments section). Dr. Sultan seems to have been subject to both types. The original sudden shock was her presence at the shooting of her teacher by thugs shouting the name of Allah, but she's also been evolving more slowly ever since, from private to public figure.
Dr. Sultan is sophisticated and knowledgeable enough about the forces arrayed against her that she must have known what the reaction to her statements on Al Jazeera would be, and so her "coming out" was at grave personal and familial risk. How does a person get such courage (courage which I doubt I'd have, by the way)?
Dr. Sultan's description of witnessing the murder of her professor certainly explains something, but when you really think about it, it actually doesn't explain all that much (I'd love to get a chance to interview her and ask a few more questions). That 1979 classroom was full of students, but I doubt many of them had a similar reaction to Dr. Sultan's.
My hunch is that something in this woman was already primed for a change, and the terrible incident only provided the spark. Granted, it was an especially dramatic and horrific event, and she witnessed it up close and personal, maximizing its impact. The nature of the incident itself--the murder of a professor, representing the forces of knowledge and science, by gunmen invoking the will of Allah--was both a personal tragedy and a metaphor for her present cause. Dr. Sultan, already a medical student at the time, probably had a special scientific and logical bent, as well as an interest in human behavior and motivation, and I imagine that these qualities provided at least part of the impetus for her resultant turn away from strict adherance and blind acceptance of all the tenets of her faith and towards intellectual freedom and the defense of human rights.
But even that doesn't explain the mysteries of the human heart and mind, the wellsprings from which she draws her formidable bravery. My guess is that some of this is rooted in her relationship to her parents and siblings, and how they may have encouraged her independence of mind, and perhaps her husband as well (he seems to have been supportive right from the first).
And some people just seem to have a deeper integrity than others, and feel driven to speak out no matter what the personal consequences may be. They are heroes of a very special sort.
I recall reading a book some time ago that attempted to analyze those people who made the decision to save or protect Jews in Poland during the Holocaust, at the risk of their lives and those of their families as well. The book, by Nechama Tec, is called When Light Pierced the Darkness," and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in these questions.
Some of those "savers" were motivated by money and personal gain, some by political dedication (Communists were overrepresented, for example), some by religious faith. There was a significant number, however, who didn't explain their actions by any of those things, but who seem to have been motivated by something else. I think that same something may be what's driving Dr. Sultan. And what is that something?
I'm doing this from memory, but I would state it this way: they couldn't live with themselves if they didn't act. These people were often a bit puzzled as to their motivations; they couldn't explain them too well, and seemed to think "anyone else" would have done the same. This of course is demonstrably incorrect; most people did not do the same; most people don't have the courage. But the ones who do have it appear to have come to some sort of peace with the danger involved, and to have decided that the shame/guilt they would feel about doing nothing is greater than their fear of the consequences of acting. I believe this is what's going on with Dr. Sultan.
Dr. Sultan is no longer religious, but she has nothing against anyone else practicing religion. Her motivation is human rights and tolerance of all faiths, and she throws down the gauntlet in this exchange from the Al Jazeera interview:
Wafa Sultan: I am not a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. I am a secular human being. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I respect others' right to believe in it.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli: Are you a heretic?
Wafa Sultan: You can say whatever you like. I am a secular human being who does not believe in the supernatural...
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli: If you are a heretic, there is no point in rebuking you, since you have blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran...
Wafa Sultan: These are personal matters that do not concern you.
Dr. Sultan knows exactly and precisely what is happening here: she is declaring herself in front of the entire Al Jazeera audience in such a way as to be labeled a heretic and be placed under penalty of death. Her declaration of the Enlightenment creed of personal and religious freedom, "These are personal matters that do not concern you," is one of the bravest acts I've ever seen.
Is Dr. Sultan afraid? She says not, except for worry about the safety of her family back in Syria. The following is the statement of hers that led me to believe that she shares the motivation of those Holocaust rescuers who declared that they simply could not do other than what they've done, whatever the personal consequences. Her decision was made some time ago, and now it's more important for that she speak out than to protect her life or even the lives of her relatives:
"I have no fear," she said. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."
I wish the best of luck to Dr. Sultan on her journey; she will undoubtedly need it. Let us all hope (and pray, if we are religious) that she lives a long and productive life; that her message reaches--and touches--those who need to hear it; and that others of her persuasion find the same sort of astounding courage within themselves to speak out, as light pierces the darkness.