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 home?
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.