Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Islam On The Couch
Wafa Sultan's new book A God Who Hates, her first in English, is more subtle than the title suggests. That probably doesn't make her any safer. The recipient of daily death threats, Sultan moved with her husband to a new address, under a new name, the day before the October book release. But the nuance of her dissection of Islam does make the book more compelling than a standard polemic. Now a California-based psychiatrist and writer, Sultan spent her first three decades in her native Syria. A God Who Hates is a memoir of her slow-motion divorce from Islam, escape from dictatorship and immigration to the U.S. Though she had loved words and books since childhood, her family wanted her to study medicine and in any case free speech was out of the question in Syria, so it was only after she moved that she began to gain prominence as an Arabic-language writer.
Her new book is also a psychological analysis of the origins of Islam and an inquiry into the nature of God. Her conclusion: Islam is rotten in its very foundations and a danger wherever it spreads.
That kind of position raises skepticism among tolerant Americans, even--or especially--secular ones. Those of us who subscribe to no religion tend to see them all as similarly irrational. Sure, Islam is full of bizarre and oppressive dictums, but aren't the Bhagavad Gita and the Torah, not to mention the Bible? And didn't Christianity manage to move beyond the Inquisition and the Crusades, suggesting hope that Islam can move beyond its most violent and attention-getting extremists? Moreover, Islam has within it reformers and scholars, peace-seekers and feminists. Why decry the religion as a whole?
Wafa Sultan takes us back to the very beginning. Born in a terrifying desert environment where survival dictated raiding or being raided, Islam, she argues, is rooted in fear. Humans create their gods, and so humans who are afraid create a god who can slay the things that frighten them. Hence Muslims created a god who is not only "the Compassionate" and "the Merciful," but also "the Compeller," "the Humiliator" and "the Harmer."
"All these are attributes they bestowed upon their ogre and subsequently internalized in an attempt to merge with their ideal," Sultan writes. At some point it stops mattering whether god is a human invention, because his influence is real.
This has a direct bearing on the kinds of governments that end up existing in modern Muslim societies, Sultan argues. Western geopolitical strategists tend to define Baathist Syria as secular, as they did Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The point of that argument back in 2003 was to suggest that Hussein was unlikely to ally with religious fundamentalists like al-Qaida. On a purely political level this was probably true; Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian dictator's father, really did crush the Muslim Brotherhood. But Sultan suggests that the very reason dictatorship--secular or otherwise--can prevail in a place like Syria is Islam. In a telephone interview she said, "I believe that dictatorship in our Islamic countries is the product of Islamic teaching. I believe that Mohammed was a dictator."
Sultan also draws a direct connection between Islam's roots in visceral fear and the oppression of women in many Muslim countries. The god who hates, she says, specifically hates women. It's probably not a coincidence that some of the great feminists of the Muslim world started out as doctors. I'm thinking of Egypt's Nawal al-Sadawi and Bangladesh's Taslima Nasreen, but Sultan, too, has done her time in hospitals. Doctors see all the horrors kept private in the name of decency and respectability and, more often than not, religion. As a medical student in Aleppo, Sultan worked in a gynecological clinic where she saw constant evidence of domestic violence and rapes by male relatives; the patients were typically seeking abortions or hymen repair to hide the evidence and avoid punishment.
Somehow, though, this more benign description of Sultan's commute to work captured just as much about the place she lived: "It was nerve-racking and exhausting to be in any public place any day of the week, if you were a woman." Sultan's observation of Aleppo in the late 1970s is an accurate description of most Muslim Arab big cities today--and a good many other places. Which brings us to the weakness of her argument. This is an absorbing book, full of Dickensian details like her habit of plucking Lebanese newspapers from the trash as a little girl just so she could read. Ultimately, though, it blames Islam for sexism and many other ills, often in sweeping terms. This leaves us with no explanation for the systematic human-on-human horrors inflicted elsewhere in the world. In Sultan's view, humans created the Muslim version of god, but that god is now so powerful that once he gets his clutches into a person or a society he is nearly impossible to escape. I'm more optimistic: If humans created him, they can change him too.
Sultan is right, though, that fear is on the march, that the "ogre" she describes has come to America. A slew of U.S. publishers first knocked on her door in 2006, when she received a flurry of attention for saying "Be quiet! It's my turn!" to a Muslim clergyman on Al Jazeera. She didn't have a book ready then. When she submitted a proposal two years later, enthusiasm had waned and some publishers told her they feared Muslim reaction. (St. Martin's Press ended up buying it.)
It's not a unique publishing tale these days. Yale University Press recently decided to withdraw all images from a new book, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, also published in October, about the Danish caricatures of Mohammed first printed in 2005 that aroused violent global protest. (Yale omitted not only the caricatures but several previously published historical and artistic images.) And in 2008, Random House canceled publication of The Jewel of Medina, a historical novel about Mohammed's wife by Sherry Jones, saying in a statement that it had received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment." It was published in the U.S. by Beaufort Books.
The fear is here. For trying to explain it's logic, Sultan now has to bow to it too.
Elisabeth Eaves is a deputy editor at Forbes, where she writes a weekly column.