A visitor to this site has asked me to comment on an article by one Mona Charen entitled, Stand up: Wafa Sultan is passing on a website called Townhall.com. This is a US website which prides itself on being an exchange for conservative thoughts and ideas. Charen worked in the White House Office of Public Liaison in the 1980s during the Reagan regime and is the author of two fairly well known books: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First and Do-Gooders: How Liberals Harm Those They Claim to Help – and the Rest of Us. I am not quite sure why I have been asked to comment on this because 1) I am English, 2) I am not a media commentator and 3) the article in question does not relate to anything I have written about before. I am also not sure what kind of comments the visitor is expecting: are you interested in the author’s style, the author’s opinion, the subject of the article’s opinion or what? Anonymous just says, ‘Your comments would be appreciated…’
Okay, well my first comment would be, if you’re going to ask me to do something some common courtesy would be nice. What’s your name, where are you from, why do you want me to comment on this? Are you Muslim, are you a searching agnostic, are you a journalist on a mission of entrapment? But, okay, I know, it’s not going to happen; everyone loves anonymity. So on to the article…
Charen argues that Dr. Sultan, who describes herself as a secular human being, deserves deep respect for her heroic defence of Western civilisation. The title is derived from a scene in the film adaptation of that provocative novel, To Kill a Mockingbird:
‘..the little girl, Scout, who has been watching her lawyer/father plead for the life of a falsely accused black man in the old South, is exhorted by an elderly black spectator in the gallery to rise to her feet. “Your father is passing,” he explains.’
The author says she thought of that scene ‘after viewing a video of a woman who must be one of the bravest souls on earth.’ Apparently Dr Sultan took part in a debate with an Egyptian professor of Islamic Studies, broadcast on Al-Jazeera. Charen tells us that she agued that there 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 those rights on the other hand…’ etcetera, etcetera.
I see great bravery all over the world. One brave soul was found by a BBC journalist sitting under a tree after the earthquake in Pakistan last year; she had lost every member of her family and her home, yet her words were filled with faith, to the extent that it was incomprehensible to that foreign correspondent. Those firemen who ran into the World Trade Centre buildings as they collapsed five years ago were incredibly brave souls. The children of Iraq and Palestine are also brave souls. The children who survived the massacres of Dunblane and Beslam are brave souls. Dr Sultan herself must have been brave to have moved on in life after men burst into her classroom and riddled her professor’s body with bullets in front of her while they shouted ‘God is Great’. And yes, she may well be brave for sitting in an Al-Jazeera studio, expressing views presumably contrary to those of her audience. The very fact that something involves bravery, however, does not always mean it is commendable. A suicide bomber must have to be extremely brave – or else intoxicated – to do what they do, but we would never say they deserve our respect.
This is the main argument of Charen’s article however. Apart from getting in a few ‘from the Muslim’s mouth’ jibes as a result of Dr Sultan’s views, she expends seven hundred words telling her conservative friends that the woman is brave and therefore demands their ‘awe and deep respect.’
Dr Sultan’s Opinion
As far as Dr Sultan’s opinions are concerned, I can only go on the basis of what is reported in Charen’s article as I have not heard the actual broadcast nor read its transcript. The author says she started by describing the struggle as one between “two opposites, between two eras,” 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 those rights on the other hand.”
Out of context, there does not appear to be anything wrong with this, but I suspect that she means something very different from what I would mean. I am not a pacifist, but I am opposed to modern warfare. Thus I would describe the use of vacuum bombs, cluster bombs, cruise missiles, high-altitude bomber planes, chemical weapons and suicide bombs all as acts of barbarity. As an individual I have only ever hit another person once in my entire life and that one occurrence was an accident. The clash that I perceive is therefore not between ‘civilisations’ – if they even exist – but between ways of thinking.
Charen reports that the host asked Dr Sultan if her view was that ‘what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?’ Dr Sultan apparently said that this is what she meant. According to the author she went on to say about the Jews and the Christians, ‘They are not the “People of the Book,” they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their tree and creative thinking.’
I do not agree with this argument at all. She is framing the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’, but this is not a reflection of reality. This is the thesis which states that Muslims have not produced anything since the great age of science several hundred years ago, but this is not the case. The concept of ‘The West’ is a convenient category, but it is not a reality. There is no such thing as “the contribution of West”, for what we actually have are the contributions of individuals. Christians, Jews and Atheists have all produced useful scientific works, but so have Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Travel down to Oxford and you will find leading neuroscientists who are Muslims. In my own circle of friends there is a Muslim who is designing algorithms to detect cancer tumours automatically through medical imaging, having completed his PhD on artificial intelligence; there is another working in genetics, who just so happens to be the son of a well known scholar of the Qur’an and Hadith. The contribution of Muslims to science is in fact vast, but it is not recognised by those who foster the artificial construct of “The West”.
Why am I asked to comment on this article? Is it the latest attempt to provoke Muslims, to encourage us to react as some did to the Danish cartoons? Are we all meant to call for the woman’s head, to scream and shout, march and burn down embassies? Are we meant to act like animals so that the conservatives can say, ‘Look at those irrational Moslems – they do not deserve freedom and respect. Let us wage war in their lands.’ Charen began with a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. Should we point out that it was people with views not very dissimilar to those expressed on that site that were lynching black people less than fifty years ago? In England we all read the novel in secondary school and some of us understood what it was about.