Viewpoint: Wafa Sultan misses mark

Nancy El Gindy
April 17, 2006

CAIRO -- Dr. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-American psychiatrist, has attracted much media attention in recent days because of her brash criticism of Muslims. As a result of a recent Al Jazeera interview, she has received worldwide attention because of her controversial views on Islam, which seem to echo the views of some in the Western world.

Sultan states that the "clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations". However, in the same breath she concludes that the supposed conflict between the Muslim and Western worlds is "a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality". And the objects of her criticism are Muslims.

Contradictions and sweeping statements like these fill Sultan's discourse. She is correct in arguing that violence and terrorism will not lead to solutions but to problems, but few mainstream Muslim scholars would argue that Islam condones violence. Thus, Sultan paints all Muslims with the same brush, ignoring the fact that the Koran is being misinterpreted, or misused, to promote violence by only a small minority.

"When the Muslims divided people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and made calls to fight 'the others' until they believe in what Muslims believe," Sultan claims, "they started this clash, and began this war".

By using such rhetoric, Sultan is helping create the perception that more conflict exists than actually does. By doing so she is playing into the hands of extremists who would like very much for a real war to be fought between the Muslim and Western worlds. Furthermore, mainstream Muslims are not seeking to expand the reach of Islam through the use of force, and examples of contemporary forced conversions are few and far between.

Sultan also claims "we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people". She emphasizes that Jews gained respect and freedom from discrimination not through "crying and yelling" or committing violence, but through their "knowledge" and "work". Yet, the history of the founding of the state of Israel is rife with terrorism - before, during and after World War II, the Zionist terrorist groups Irgun and Lehi ran a network of terrorists in Palestine and elsewhere who sought to force the British out of their League of Nations-granted mandate over Palestine.

Finally, Sultan proceeds to do the history of science a great disservice. "Humanity owes most of the discoveries and science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to Jewish scientists," she states. She follows this by praising Christians and Jews for their rational secularism, arguing that Christians and Jews are not "people of the Book", the Muslim phrase for followers of the other Abrahamic faiths, but "people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their free and creative thinking."

This, of course, flies in the face of the important, if much earlier contributions of Muslim scientists to modern science.

During the Dark Ages, when Christian Europe believed that scientifically provable assertions that contradicted the Bible were heretical, and even sentenced scientists to death as heretics, Muslims had already separated science from religion. If it hadn't been for the scholarship of Muslims, even Aristotle and Plato's works might not have been preserved for posterity.

Muslims were the inventors of algebra, pharmacology and optometry. Harvard's George Sarton, a renowned historian of science, states "modern medicine is entirely an Islamic development". Johann Weger was among thousands of European physicians between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries who learned medicine from the works of ar-Razi and Avicenna. In the eleventh century, Haytham made many of the same discoveries in optics that Newton made, only several centuries earlier.

Such sweeping generalizations as Sultan makes are simply wrong. Muslims are neither better nor worse than other groups. Blaming Islam for the mistakes and actions of a few is misguided. Indeed, most "Islamic" terrorists have political aims, not necessarily religious ones, although they support their actions with perverted readings of Muslim religious texts.

Despite her apparently good intentions - to force Muslims to reconsider their approach to the modern world and to combat prejudice among Muslims against those of other faiths, particularly Jews - her arguments and combative approach to these issues are strengthening divisions, and creating a perception that an insurmountable wall exists between Muslims and the West.

Rather than creating more divisions, Sultan could have used her outspokenness to promote greater discussion, and to educate Muslims and non-Muslims about each other's cultures and contributions to human progress, and to work toward defusing the real and destructive conflicts, such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the war in Iraq, which are the primary causes and venues for such divisions as do exist.

Those in the West and Muslim world who seem inclined to call Sultan a hero for criticizing and pointing out problems that are already well-known and understood would do better to look to those whose intentions are not to create divisions through unfounded criticism, but to resolve them through constructive actions.

Nancy El Gindy is a student at the American University in Cairo and a former participant in the Soliya Arab-American online dialogue program. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service


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