How Serious are Wafa Sultan’s Polemics?

Wafa Sultan is the fiesty Syrian-American psychiatrist who has appeared on Al-Jazeera TV and debated Islamic scholars, most famously in late February (around the time of the caricatures controversy) when she gave a heated polemic on the clash of mentalities and eras, between “mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century.”
Thomas Friedman, ever so keen to discover ‘voices of reason’ from within the the Arab world, characteristically caught on with this line and wrote an op-ed, Dubai and Dunces in the NY Times. So did the group MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute,) who excerpted the debate (mostly only Ms. Sultan’s thundrous monologues) and put it on their website. I recommend that you watch it: it’s short, subtitled, simplistic and uncomplicated, and answers every question you ever had about Islamic backwardness -and it’s highly entertaining:

Here is a particularly interesting exchange:
Wafa Sultan: 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.

(full transcript)
Well, I have a feeling that most of these illustrous and enlightened ex-Muslims who have emerged from the darkest depths of this faith are engaging in precisely that kind of behavior which they fight most bitterly against. Maybe I am wrong, but I truly hope that unlike some of the most dogmatic and fundamentalist of clerics of Islam, these critics of Islam do not feel that they need not explain their claims, or substantiate their charges, and that they should be followed unquestioningly. The Individual right to freedom of expression and to engaging in open debate is a worthy value that these illustrous critics of Islam have found in the West and have put to good use, but openness is not the only condition for productive debate. Debate should also be informed debate, otherwise it becomes unsubstantiated and hate-filled polemic. It should also be civic debate, otherwise it becomes a barrage of insults.

From Salman Rushdie, to Ayan Hirsi Ali, to Manji Irshad, and now to Wafa Sultan, the message that most ordinary Muslims around the world hear is this: that Muslims are all ignorant, backward, oppressive, violent, women-abusing, suicide-bombing, jew-hating, religious (bordering on/equivalent to superstitious), fundamentalist bunch -and they are bound to remain so by virtue of their religion.While I do not agree with these charges, or with the counter-productive method in which they are advanced, or with the over-generalized and simplistic mindsets that they are evidence of, I can tolerate them. I think that most ordinary Muslims would tolerate them too. They would not agree with it, they would not like it, they would have their feelings hurt, they would feel misunderstood and misrepresented, but they would not try to take an initiative to kill the people who said these things.

The answer to these charges, however, do not come from the ordinary Muslims. In a behavior that often seems to vindicate those charges, clerics and mullahs issue death sentences, and/or extremists try to kill them. Left in the middle are the ordinary people who have their feelings doubly hurt -first by the insults hurled at them by the first group, then by the injury added as the other group tries to kill the first. They don’t identify with either bunch, either with the flaming apostates and satirists of Islam, or with the most ardent and determined defenders of Islam. At least I don’t identify with either of these groups, and I beg you to tell me if this is a peculiar position: that I ought to be a real man and take a solid and unwavering position in favor of either.


13 Responses to How Serious are Wafa Sultan’s Polemics?

  1. Hajar says:

    All this noise!
    It’s just white noise anymore.
    Noise that means nothing; noise that drowns out the real issues….

  2. sume says:

    I find myself in the same position and have stated so often. If I must use labels, I’m neither an “extremist” or a “progressive” but agree and disagree with parts of each.

    I guess I’m pretty terrible in that I see many of these people as not much more than opportunist.

  3. “From Salman Rushdie, to Ayan Hirsi Ali, to Manji Irshad, and now to Wafa Sultan, the message that most ordinary Muslims around the world hear is this: that Muslims are all ignorant, backward, oppressive, violent, women-abusing, suicide-bombing, jew-hating, religious (bordering on/equivalent to superstitious), fundamentalist bunch -and they are bound to remain so by virtue of their religion.”

    One can forgive poor Salman Rushdie? Can’t one?

    You might actually be over-simplifying their position, and you are not engaging the substance of their claim just a carricature of what most Muslims assume is their position. It’s natural: my near and dear relative rile against Salman Rushdie but have never read his book nor know what he is talking about. If one looks hard enough, one can find enough qualifiers in their writtings to vindicate them of this very strong charge. They ultimately present another interpretation of Islam – as does Tariq Ramadan or those other well known (and I would assume) accepted reformers.

    Well, if this lot misses the point then pray tell who should be listened to? At least they articulate one general thesis rather than provide apologies as the occasion arises: no Islam doesn’t kill apostates, no Islam has no problems with cartoons, no Islam does not condon child marriage and so on and so forth.

    One might say Tariq Ramadan ought to be listened to, but how many Muslims have heared of him (much less agree with him).

    So more rigor is called for all around…

  4. By way of clarification, I do not mean to say that one should necessarily agree with the “ex-Muslims” as you called them (which I believe is not true, Irshad Manji considers herself a practicing Muslim at least). Rather that, they say things and one can find a reasonable strain of thought and effort in what they say.

    Where one does not find much effort is this iterative “no Islam does not condon X” approach. Wait passively for something to happen and then provide a nebulus explanation in a framework that shifts and meanders.

    Also, one really shouldn’t put much stock into this convenient “ordinary” Muslims category. Should we hold it against these “ordinary” Muslims that they did not pour out in say the support of Abdul Rahman?

  5. hamesha: says:

    @Sluggish Slug: But perceptions -not reality- are what we deal in when it comes to public opinion. When I say that all that ordinary Muslims think of when they think of Rushdie, Manji etc. I mean just that: they perceive them to be caricaturing and insulting Islam. And this, my friend, is counter-productive -not least for the very message that these learned conscientious objectors are trying hard to deliver. Your relatives riling against Rushdie without reading him is partly their failure, but partly also Rushdie’s. Those who have read Rushdie know that it is not an inordinately wild accusation to say that his parables in the Satanic Verses could be interpreted as a bitter satire of Islam’s prophet and Islamic history. If you concede that Ramadan cannot be a good spokesperson and exponent of a new path because he is virtually unkown to the ordinary Muslim, by the same token you would agree that this other bunch cannot be listened to because they have no credibility and are all too well-known.
    On ordinary Muslims, I beg to differ. I acknowledge that there is such a thing as a ‘silent majority’ in the Muslim world. Trouble is, they are put on the defensive, by those who mock and misunderstand and misrepresent Islam, but also by those who purport to defend it. It is a confused and tragic state of affairs…

    @Sume: I identify. In the absence of this profitable industry, livelihoods would be shattered. No more books to write? TV appearances? Celebrity status? Cult followings? No way…!

    @Hajar: I can only agree. It has become so ubiquitous and everpresent. Yet I think that it is important to sort the noise out so that real voices are heard. If you and I do not take part in it, the noise will not drown out: long live the mainstream media, it will keep it alive and turn it into worse than white noise. It will become consensus. This is why, I think, we should make our share of noise.

  6. Perceptions perhaps, but that’s not substance, and I don’t think any of these scholars/pundits/writers can be held responsible for the general illiteracy of the lot who rush to judgement without understanding the context of what is being said. And as for my relatives, he is faithful to the tenet of his religion (and I suspect would qualify for your ordanriness criteria except that he bayed for Rushdie’s blood, in which case I suspect we would have to insist he is not of the “ordinary” species”) that tells him that he must follow an Imam. If Rushdie was carricaturing Islam, so be it. Does it really reduce the portent of his criticism now? (And by the way, even holy texts carricature each other, should we be suspicious of them?)

    I mentioned Tariq Ramadan because most Muslims (at least those I have encountered) generally find him palatable. Though that is precisely because he is dallied around by the media, albeit the ones given to more nuance than bombast.

    As for ordinary Muslims, well there is a distinct problem here. Individuals partake in different identities. Who is this ordinary Muslim? Is this ordinary Muslims a Shi’ite or a Sunni? Is this ordinary Muslim a Shi’ite living in Saudi Arabia or a Sunni living in Iran? Is this ordinary Muslim living in Sudan, is a member of a particular tribe and is likely to have his daughter undergo FGM since he interprets that as an act ordained by Islam? In either case each is animated by different political realities, causes and motives, and their faith is more attuned to their attendant cultural norms. If a concrete Muslim ordinariness held, then Huntington and his thesis would indeed be more applicable.

    In short, this ordinariness is arbitrary and self-serving, however the silent majority case maybe true. Though one can’t take it and run too far with it. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, whoever begrudged that? Whether this silent majority likes it or not, they will sooner or later have to reckon with the broader questions of modernity and Islam’s position in it.

    And anyway, if this silent majority were so sure in their convictions, then this argument would be entirely mute.

  7. Safrang;

    I insist that we flog this horse sometimes over lunch or dinner or a pint…

    Location and time would be set as either of us moves into the dominion of the other.

    I shall keep you posted of any such development.

  8. Afghan LORD says:


    Thanks much for your kind comments in Afghan LORD and Flickr. I am sorry that coming late here and put my comment, the reason is i do not have much access to the internet nowadays.

  9. Neets says:

    hamesha, i will tell yuo somethin that i had learnt years ago when i passed out of school and into pre-university college. Not everythin in the world has two sides to it. not everything can be seen in black and white. there are shades of gry in between so many that you cant count. though you say you cant relate to either end- right then and there you are being stern on your stand- that you are neither of them. There is nothing wrong with that. it is true that ignorance is far more prevalent in the community cos of the second group of people you mentioned. you are lucky and should be proud of the stand you make and it doesnt have to match with any ‘majority’ belief. cos, seriously speaking, it makes me proud to have stumbled upon a lot of afghani websites tonight- it has broadened my horizons of understanding.

  10. A. Shah says:

    The MEMRI clip of the Wafa Sultan appearance has edited out virtually of the responses from the other panelists. For those interested in reading the full transcript of the discussion between Dr. Sultan and Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli you can find it here.

  11. Leilouta says:

    That is one of my favorite clips ever. I love it.

  12. Zak says:

    The latest fad in the western emdia is to elevate anyone to celebrity status who challenges essentially all the tenets of Islam and then call them reformers.

    The reality is the worlds perceptions and the west are two different things. How much publicity has the Dalai Lamas comments on Islam received? In this globalised world one needs to take a step back and re-examine whats happening. I agree both sides make the argument very hard..but there is a difference..when the westers Islamophobes attack Islam once again they essentially prove the fundos right when they say Islam is in danger…for Muslim moderates the situation is untenable..beings een to side with the west essentially is a death sentence because the majority of Muslims accept things need to change but will not support an imposed change which intends to create a morally relativistic form of Islam which is superficial at best.

  13. […] There is no shortage of controversies surrounding Al-Jazeera. A self-styled “voice of the oppressed south,” it is widely villified in the US as the voice of terror, and in the Middle East for the platform that it provides for dissenting voices (one notable episode being Wafa Sultan’s, opined on earlier in this blog.) […]

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