Islam's Ann Coulter

The seductive and blinkered belligerence of Wafa
By Stephen Julius Stein, STEPHEN JULIUS STEIN is a
rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he also
directs inter-religious programming.
June 25, 2006,1,7803731.story

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

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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