Dr. Qanta Ahmed defies most of the usual stereotypes. She’s a staunch defender of Israel, but also a deeply committed Muslim. She’s written a book on gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia, but makes a point of covering her own arms and legs (albeit with fashionable snug-fitting jeans and a stylish white blazer, with toes and fingernails painted in matching color), in compliance with Muslim religious law.
She also leads a rather unconventional lifestyle for an observant Muslim woman, considering that she has never been married at age 44 and spends a great deal of her time trotting the globe. She’s known for her vociferous attacks on political Islam but is still a welcome guest − for the time being, at least − in such countries as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
She’s the daughter of dispossessed Pakistani Muslims, but tends to identify more with dispossessed Jews than with dispossessed Palestinians. She admits to being swept off her feet by every encounter with Israelis, but doesn’t mince words when it comes to addressing the dangers of occupation. And she’s no less enraged by U.S. drone attacks on innocent civilians in Pakistan than she is by radical Islamist attacks against American targets on 9/11 − and, incidentally, she’s treated victims on both sides.
Ahmed is here on her first visit to Israel and is pretty amazed about what she’s seen thus far. It’s a visit that’s been a good few years in the making, as she explains in an interview with Haaretz, held this week at the home of some of her close friends in Israel, during a short interlude in a whirlwind two-week trip.
“I had severe concerns, because I travel a lot in the Muslim world, so I wanted to make sure I had all the right documents with me when I came, but I had no intention of concealing my trip here,” says the British-born specialist in sleep disorders, who currently resides in Manhattan, where, in addition to running a private practice, she is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York (Stony Brook). “I’m not concerned about my safety because I’m in Israel, but I’m concerned about my safety because there are people in these disputed territories − let us call them − [about] whom I’ve been critical publicly.”
Despite her personal roots and extensive travels in the Muslim world, Ahmed says she only became interested in Israel in recent years, thanks to a friendship she struck up with a South African-born, Jewish-American philanthropist who had a sister living in Ra’anana, with whom she immediately hit it off. “Hearing about Israel from Israelis is always the best way to learn,” she says.
That philanthropist is Leslie Sachs, the founder and seed funder of Women’s Voices Now, an organization that seeks to empower women in the Muslim world through an annual film festival (Ahmed sits on its board). His sister is Caron Bielski, chairwoman of Beit Issie Shapiro, a leading Israeli charity largely run by Anglos that assists individuals with disabilities. She is also the wife of the former Jewish Agency chairman and ex-Kadima MK Zeev Bielski, who recently announced his plan to run again for mayor of Ra’anana, a post he held from 1989-2005.
“I met Caron through Leslie, and I became absolutely enchanted,” recounts Ahmed. “She’s now one of my close friends.” Because she is often accused of being a “Zionist in Muslim guise,” Ahmed wants her critics to know that although she is staying at the home of these very well-connected locals, the trip was paid for entirely out of her own pocket and not by any organization or foundation interested in enlisting her in the cause of public diplomacy. Nor is she accepting money for any of the speaking engagements booked during her trip (including talks at Beit Issie Shapiro, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Bar-Ilan University and the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.)
This trip, Ahmed is well aware, may eventually burden her with more than just financial costs, but she’s prepared for that: “Traveling could definitely be a problem now in the Muslim world, but even before this, if you weren’t someone who openly condemned Israel or had a neutral view of Israel, that was considered being pro-Israeli and it created a great deal of problems,” she says. “So who knows? Things may become very uncomfortable for me after this, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to come.”
Especially, she adds, if not coming could be interpreted as joining the boycott against Israel, for which she has particularly harsh words: “One thing I’m unwilling to participate in is mass thinking − that because Israel is an occupier and that because Israelis are not recognized by half the Muslim countries, I’m not going to interact with them. I’m not playing that game. I have empathy for both sides − but I think there’s an unfair portrayal, an unquestioned vilification, of Israel in almost every argument.”
“I have Jewish-American friends,” Ahmed continues. “The husband was born Jewish and his wife converted. They refuse to come to Israel because they don’t like what’s happening. You know what? I needed to go to Mecca, and I don’t like what’s happening there, but I go there. If you want to help move things forward, you have to come and interact.”
Ahmed, who has been a practicing physician for 20 years, grew up in Britain, where she graduated from the University of Nottingham and today holds an honorary professorship at the School of Public Health at Glasgow Caledonian University. In recent years she has also taken up writing, serving as a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and USA Today on issues ranging from Middle Eastern politics to public health. After a year teaching medicine in Saudi Arabia, she wrote her first book, “In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom” (Sourcebooks, 2008).
Her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she says, have been strongly influenced by her own family’s experiences.
“When India and Pakistan were divided overnight by partition [in 1947], my parents − who were little children then − were immediately relocated because they were in Hindu territory,” recalls Ahmed. “When I lived in Saudi or traveled to other countries in this region, one of the most vociferous things I would hear is that, because of Israel, the Palestinians were dispossessed from their property and land.
“I don’t know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any kind of detail or with any kind of authority, but I do know what it was like for my parents to move with their parents because there were new borders, and I’ve seen how they’ve created lives migrating again. I also see how people came to Israel, some of them barely surviving the Holocaust, to a land where they were not used to the climate and where they had no family, and yet somehow managed to build this extraordinary, complicated nation. Some people will think it’s an unfair comparison, but both Israel and Pakistan were created to protect a minority that global powers believed was being persecuted.”
Does that justify the Israeli occupation? No, responds Ahmed, describing the occupation as a “terrible burden” both on the Palestinians and on Israel. “Those who are occupied are not liberated and not autonomous, but the occupation is also a burden on Israel for the same reasons it was on the U.S. in Iraq − it involves huge costs, a huge price and huge risks.”
Still, Ahmed admits, she’s not sure what the alternative is: “I’m well acquainted with Jihadist ideology and suicide bombers in Pakistan, so I don’t know what you do apart from building a wall to safeguard the Israeli territory. How do you relinquish control when there’s a virulent Jihadist ideology and many Muslin leaders outside the region who say that not only shouldn’t Israel be recognized, but it shouldn’t be there at all?”
Her professional medical work, she says, has also been instrumental in shaping her political mind-set. In recent years, at her sleep disorder center, she began treating policemen, firemen and other individuals who were first and second responders when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York City on September 11, 2001. “It made me even more committed to distinguishing violent political Islamist ideology and nonviolent political Islam from what I see as my faith, because I can see the suffering caused by this deviant ideology,” she explains.
Ahmed doesn’t draw the line with radical Islam, coming down strongly on her new adopted homeland for its drone attacks on the tribal territories of Pakistan. “I’ve seen acres and acres of patients suffering from PTSD because of these attacks,” she says, “but am I going to abandon the U.S. because they’re using this barbaric technology with impunity? No, I’m going to stay and try to educate. And by the way, that’s how I feel about Israel, too.”
If there’s one thing that’s impressed her beyond all in Israel, says Ahmed, it’s the level of religious freedom and pluralism enjoyed in the country. “One thing you can’t complain about here is the right to worship as you see fit,” she remarks.
When told that many Israelis would find that statement almost laughable, considering the recent battle over the rights of women to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, she responds: “I’ve heard these arguments in Reform synagogues in Long Island, and I was absolutely agog. But the fact is that at the wall, women are able to pray. In Saudi Arabia, in Mecca, there are now moves to confine where women can pray. American Reform Jews who complain that they’re not recognized here, I invite them to please visit parts of the world that I’ve seen where religious freedom is completely lacking. There’s no comparison. Absolutely no comparison.”