The impact of Islamic ideas in the Middle East
While you read the following story, try to figure where it took place. Where in the Middle East might you expect a woman to receive such humiliating treatment?
For good reason, the woman in this story (a physician) and her husband (an academic) decide to immigrate to the U.S. to pursue a better life; he sets off first to get established and she’s to follow, with their children. That requires obtaining passports for them. When the time comes, she applies for the passports in person and brings with her a legally valid power of attorney signed by her husband. But her application is flatly denied.
Why? The clerk tells her that the power of attorney gives her the right to dispose of her husband’s property, but “not the guardianship of his children.”
“But they’re my children, too, sir,” she replies.
“A woman is not the guardian of her children. Do you understand?” This apparently is the conventional Islamic way.
Her only option, the clerk explained, was to find a man from her husband’s bloodline to declare that he permits her to obtain a passport for the children.
So she found a distant relation on her husband’s side, a ne’er-do-well whose distinction in life was to elude sobriety. To induce him to help her, she resorts to stuffing the equivalent of a dollar bill into his pocket. He shows up at the appointed time, and gives his consent before the passport clerk. The woman, writing about the incident years later, poignantly reflected:
When we left the building I had the passports in my hand, but the anger grew inside me. A knowledgeable and respectable woman and a doctor, I was not considered fit to be the guardian of my own children, but a drunkard of no moral worth had the right, for one dollar, to become my guardian and the guardian of my children.
I fled my prison [i.e., her home country] with suitcases containing nothing more than painful memories.
Where would you say this story took place? Did it unfold in the hyper-religious Islamist monarchy of Saudi Arabia? That, after all, is a regime that, in the name of piety, prohibits women from driving and from leaving home without a male chaperone. It’s a reasonable guess.
But this incident occurred in Syria — not even close to being an Islamic theocracy. Syria is ruled by the Baath party, a political outfit that is quasi-nationalist and nominally secular. The woman in the story is Wafa Sultan. She became known in the West for her fiery, eloquent confrontations with Muslim clerics on Al Jazeera, and her courageous defense of Western civilization against the barbarity of Islamist ideology. What this story highlights — like other anecdotes in her recent memoir, A God Who Hates — is the depth to which Islam shapes the society even in Middle East regimes that aren’t particularly religious.
The book is a moving, at times disturbing, look at Syrian culture from the eyes of a thoughtful observer, one who comes to question the life she’s born into. While I don’t share some of her conclusions (specifically about human nature and free will), I came away impressed with Dr. Sultan’s courage and insights on the impact of religious ideas on the Middle East.