Among the most moving scenes in film history occurs in "To Kill a Mockingbird," in which the little girl, Scout, who has been watching her lawyer/father plead for the life of a falsely accused black man in the old South, is exhorted by an elderly black spectator in the gallery to rise to her feet. "Your father is passing," he explains.
I thought of that after viewing video of a woman who must be one of the bravest souls on earth. A Syrian-born psychologist who now lives and works in Southern California, Dr. Wafa Sultan caused a sensation when she appeared on Al-Jazeera TV in a debate with an Egyptian professor of Islamic Studies named Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli. Speaking (in Arabic) as if the words could not come quickly enough to keep up with her thoughts, Dr. Sultan offered the most impassioned defense of Western civilization I have heard in a very long time. Certainly she was more ardent for the values we hold dear than most liberal Democrats.
She began by describing the struggle in which we are engaged as one between "two opposites, between two eras." It is a clash, she said, "between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. 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 those rights on the other hand . . . "
Dr. Al-Khouli was clearly taken aback.
Are you saying, the host asked, "that what is happening today is a clash between the culture of the West and the backwardness and ignorance of the Muslims?"
"Yes," replied Sultan, "that is what I mean."
She wasn't finished. Not by a mile. She went on to scorn Muslim clerics who say out of one side of their mouths that Islam forbids them to offend the beliefs of others, and yet characterize Christians and Jews as "those who incur Allah's wrath" or as apes and pigs. She paused to consider the common Islamic description of Jews and Christians as "People of the Book."
"They are not the 'People of the Book,' they are people of many books. All the useful scientific books that you have today are theirs, the fruit of their tree and creative thinking."
Sultan then forthrightly explained that she herself is neither Muslim, Christian nor Jew, but simply a secular human being. She does not believe in the supernatural, but respects the right of others to believe what they wish.
"Are you a heretic?" demanded Al-Khouli in triumphant tones. "You can say whatever you like," she replied. In an age that has brought us the Theo van Gogh assassination, deadly riots over a series of Danish newspaper cartoons, the Pym Fortune assassination, the death threats against Salman Rushdie, Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq, among many others, it requires truly remarkable courage to stare into the Al-Jazeera camera and calmly permit yourself to be labeled a heretic.
Sultan was raised as a pious Muslim, but her faith was shaken when she was studying medicine at the Aleppo University in northern Syria. As The New York Times reported, terrorists from the Muslim Brotherhood burst into her classroom in 1979 and shot her professor as she watched. "They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great.'" It was a turning point in her life. She eventually left her home and moved with her husband and children to the United States.
Sultan's debate is available on The Middle East Media Research Institute's website at www.memritv.org. MEMRI says that the video has already received 3 million hits since it first aired on Feb. 21, 2006.
Courage is among the rarest of virtues. Most people will not risk even the displeasure of their boss, far less their very lives, for something they believe in. Sultan doubtless speaks for millions of Muslims who similarly deplore the barbarism that has come to dominate large segments of the Muslim world. But without leadership like hers, they must feel besieged and beleaguered. Her heroic stand deserves our awe and deep respect. Stand up: Ms. Sultan is passing.