Belated comments on Wafa Sultan

Several weeks ago, an Arab-American woman, also of Syrian origin like myself, caused a huge stir after a haughty Arabic language debate with an Algerian Muslim cleric.

Watch the video with subtitles

Ms. Sultan became the toast of the West. I received glowing notification from a wide variety of colleagues and political acquaintances. Overnight, Ms. Sultan became the neo-cons favorite Muslim.

They just don't get it. While I do respect Ms. Sultan for her courage, her articulate manner, and her confidence, she is entirely the wrong messenger. I explain why in a letter to the editor published by the LA Times. Basically, Wafa Sultan is to Muslims as Michael Moore is to Republicans.
"I would like to congratulate Sultan for her well-intentioned efforts to promote reform in the Arab and Islamic world. Yet despite her courage and fortitude, I am sad to say that her tactics, such as a recent debate with a Muslim cleric on Al Jazeera, will actually weaken the noble cause of reform. To understand why, we need only rely on our basic political common sense and the concept of "know your audience." Reformers should remember that Arabs and Muslims, in general, are ultraconservative and deeply religious. Therefore, they are unlikely to respond in a positive manner to a woman appearing on Arab TV unveiled, proudly asserting that she does not believe in God. Sultan's appearance on Al Jazeera had the approximate impact of a tattooed, body-pierced, pro-abortion, flag-burning, gay communist debating Rush Limbaugh on the Fox News Channel, trying to sway the audience toward a liberal philosophy. Would anyone consider that a successful tactic?

Even more troubling and perplexing, however, is the fact that my conservative Republican colleagues continue to heap praise on ultraliberal atheist Arabs. This obvious failure to know our audience and promote messengers with credibility indicates just how little progress we have made in understanding the Arab and Muslim mentality — and how poorly equipped the United States remains to properly encourage much-needed reform and implement successful policies in this critically important region."
Several reform-oriented Arab friends of mine became rather cross at me for levying criticisms against Ms. Sultan. Her courage, they seem to feel, elevates her beyond reproach. I completely reject that view, and stand by my position.

Another colleague emailed me with a different take on things and a valuable nugget of information that adds a whole other dimension to Ms. Sultan's unsuitability as a messenger of Islamic reform.

He writes:
"She was not interested in reforming Islam .. she was interested in taking revenge from Islam. She just wanted to hurt them. She is Alawite by the way..."
If she is in fact an Alawite she is in no position to broadside Islam with credibility. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and while many of their beliefs overlap with Islam, they are considered heretics by many mainstream Muslims.

So Wafa Sultan, an Alawite, angrily challenging a Muslim cleric is analogous to a Mormon appearing on EWTN and telling Cardinal Keeler that Catholics are ignorant for fussing over the virginity of Mary. I don't need to tell you how well that would go over.

Bottom line: we have been evaluating Arab and Muslim reformers with slightly less scrutiny than Enron accountants. Time to get real.

More on this topic coming soon.

O --- This letter first appeared in the LA Times in March, 2006.