Monday, March 13, 2006

Wafa Sultan: Clash of Civilizations?

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention to the clash of civilizations lately, you might want to read what Wafa Sultan has to say about this and other things in transcripts posted at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), or click on the links there to hear the original Arabic (with English subtitles).

Here's a passage from an interview with Wafa Sultan that was broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV about three weeks ago, on February 21, 2006:
"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 ... [rationality and barbarity]. 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."
Wafa Sultan's original words here were in Arabic, so I don't know if she's accusing the Muslim world of lacking a genuine civilization or of being stuck in a medieval one. If the former, then she's arguing that there is no clash of civilizations because the Muslim world lacks one. If the latter, then she's arguing that there is no clash of civilizations because the Muslim world shares a common civilization with the West (or all of humanity) but is retrogressive.

Either way, hers is a sharp polemic -- and that's her main intention.

Later in the interview, she implicitly accepts a framing of the issue in terms of the "clash of civilizations." First, the Al-Jazeera host insists on the expression:
"Who came up with the concept of a clash of civilizations? Was it not Samuel Huntington? It was not bin Laden. I would like to discuss this issue, if you don't mind..."
Actually, it wasn't Huntington, though he has used the concept, initially for an essay in Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993) and later in his famous book. The scholar who first used the expression was Bernard Lewis, in his Atlantic Monthly essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (September 1990, Volume 266, No. 3, 47-60), and Huntington explicitly cites him.

Wafa Sultan, at any rate, locates the responsibility for the clash of civilizations rather earlier:
"The Muslims are the ones who began using this expression. The Muslims are the ones who began the clash of civilizations. The Prophet of Islam said: 'I was ordered to fight the people until they believe in Allah and His Messenger.' When the Muslims divided the people into Muslims and non-Muslims, and called to fight the others until they believe in what they themselves believe, they started this clash, and began this war. In order to start this war, they must reexamine their Islamic books and curricula, which are full of calls for takfir and fighting the infidels."
Sultan is thinking of the Muslim distinction between the Dar al-Islam (Realm of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (Realm of War), which assumes a state of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, but she doesn't use these expressions here because she's tracing the concept back to Muhammad himself, who didn't explicitly use the expressions but whose message contained a similar distinction, as Sultan notes.

For her outspoken words, Sultan has been condemned as a heretic by various Muslim authorities. In a radio interview for Israel National News, however, she says that most of the letters that she receives from Muslims are very supportive of her and that her opinions are not rare among Muslims but that many fear to express themselves openly.

Let's hope that she's right and that her words will galvanize others.


At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just blogged about that one, too. Did you see the NYT article about her? But perhaps you saw the info, like I did, on Instapundit.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I saw that NYT article and had it in my records but neglected to link to it today (due to time constraints).

I first saw the news about Wafa Sultan a week or two ago but was busy with other things.

The interview has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since it went online (or so I've read), and I'll bet that a lot of Arabs and Muslims are looking at it.

We live in interesting times ... unfortunately.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:26 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

It could be she was implicitly separating Islam into those loyal to each of the two time periods mentioned. Presumably, those loyal to a modern perspective would be capable of accommodating to many Western values. There are some in the West who might also have trouble with that accommodation.

At 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Wafa Sultna being interviewed on Al Jazeera and she struck me as a very vicious and ignorant propagandist. She seems to enjoy the sheer publicity and controversy she is creating, but really shows no intellectual substance or open mindedness. Her angry and occasionally insulting polemics are both flawed and potentially dangerous. Revising the Quran? Changing the fundamentals of Islam? She must be kidding! Or may be not, which would be the height of stupidity and arrogance, since religions are not reformed by antagonizing the faithful, attacking their Prophet, insulting their holy book, and presenting their history in an extremely negative and one-sided way. Wafa Sultan reads (well, I'm not sure how much she really reads; better to say, "judges") the history of early and medieval Islam using the values and principles of our present 21st century reality. The outcome is a sort of incoherent political speech, with all the extreme metaphors that come to mind, denouncing as barbaric the religious and cultural tradition of one billion people (Muslims) and elevating the Western civilization (or what Sultan makes it to be) into something of the new true faith or global religion. Sultan's views and the way she puts them across can hardly generate any rational or healthy discussion of the issues, but rather stir and alienate. Her characteristic blindness to the extremist-fundamentalist streaks of other main religions, including Christianity and Judaism, now and in the past, leaves her with no credibility whatsoever. In many ways Wafa Sultan is the medievalist here, and I mean a Western medievalist, both in terms of ignorance and misrepresentation of Islam, its Prophet, and history. Medieval Muslims were on the whole a million times more civilized and tolerant than Wafa Sultan and the fictitious “civilization” she defends. From what I saw of her, she is no scholar; she is an awful discussant and a lousy polemicist at best. The fact that she is given all of this media attention is no indication of popularity or genuine scholarship. People like to check out all kinds of weird things, and she is no exception. In a sense she is the "intellectual" equivalent of the Prophet’s Danish cartoons. Those who applaud her views need to look more carefully at what she says and how she says it (and what she doesn't say too). I can't believe that a supposedly smart journalist and writer like Thomas Friedman would fall in the trap and quote her at length in his piece on the US debate about the collapse of the Dubai ports deal. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised; he’s done that before too.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I've responded in a blog entry for April 21, 2006.

Jeffery Hodges

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