Wafa Sultan: Challenging Islamic Fundamentalism

Why do some Muslim extremists want this woman dead? Meet Wafa Sultan, the 49-year-old psychiatrist who has decided to take on Islamic fundamentalism.

By Amy Wilentz
Their conversation does not become more gay and abandoned as the evening wears on. Sultan tells me that she will speak tomorrow about freedom of speech."But if you had asked me 17 years ago to discuss this, I would never have heard of this expression," she says. "I have to thank the West not only for the freedom but for teaching me how to speak."A Rebel in the War Over Islam’s FutureWafa Sultan is not the sort of person you would peg as a firebrand. In no way striking, she could pass unnoticed down any street in any country. She’s a generic human female, not tiny, not tall, not young, not old, not fat, not thin, not dark, not light, not plain, not pretty. She wears her hair short and close to the face: functional, rather than stylish. When she dresses up, she wears an unobjectionable blue suit.Sultan, who was a psychiatrist in Syria, has lived in the U.S. since 1989 and resides in an unremarkable Southern California town of subdivisions and shopping malls that sit in the shadow of the Santa Ana Mountains. She’s an American citizen. She has three children; the youngest, a girl of 16, was born in the U.S. Her husband runs a smog-checking garage.Only Sultan’s accent and uneven English give her away as anything other than an ordinary middle-class American wife and mother. That, and her forthright vehemence.Indeed, by the simple and courageous act of speaking her mind in an eloquent and blunt manner, Sultan has taken the humdrum materials she’s made of and hurled them into one of the most important and most violent ideological battles of our day: the fight over Islam’s future.Sultan is one of the most vocal and intransigent of Muslim refuseniks, a loosely knit collection of Westernized Muslims who will not accept the fundamentalist view of Islam, which they called "Islamism." In a statement entitled "Manifesto of the 12," issued in March 2006, 12 prominent writers and intellectuals — including Salman Rushdie; Bernard-Henri Levy; and Irshad Manji, the lesbian feminist Muslim author of The Trouble with Islam Today — condemned Islamism as a totalitarian creed. They spoke out against the treatment of women in Muslim society as well as the curtailment of freedom of expression that has been imposed on the faithful — and sometimes on outsiders, as well — by certain Muslim individuals, groups, and theocracies. The Manifesto 12, as they’ve been called, are rebelling against what they see as a liberal weakness in the West that grants a respectable status to Islamism because it is — like Orthodox Judaism or born-again Christianity — a manifestation of faith.Although associated with these people, and by nature a classic refusenik, Sultan thinks of herself more as just plain Wafa Sultan. She’s not part of an organization or group, nor is she really interested in meeting with other refuseniks or in making some kind of common cause with them. She’s an individual operator. Unlike the Manifesto 12, for example, Sultan does not talk about Islamism, but about Islam. She makes no bones about what she’s referring to. Most refuseniks would not say that Islam itself preaches violence; that the words of the Koran, Islam’s holy text — which believers take as a recitation of the word of God — extol violence. But Sultan says that. She’s not really interested in reforming Islam — often, she sounds as if she thinks it would be better just to toss the religion onto the garbage heap of retrograde, rejected things that democratic progress has left behind. Among the refuseniks and reformers, Sultan is a rogue element, out there on her own. "I am myself," she says. "I’m enjoying my apostasy."Attacking Islamic Culture & PoliticsTwo years ago, no one in the West knew Sultan’s name, although she had been writing blistering attacks on Islam in the Arab-American press since September 11, and indeed well before that. She had begun writing political and social commentary on Islam from the first months after she arrived in America, as if simply getting away from Syria had uncorked the flow. Because of her writings, she had received veiled and not so veiled threats, and in response to these she had occasionally backed off slightly. "My husband said you have to slow down," she recalls. But September 11, she says, "was a major turning point for me. I said to myself, ‘Enough is enough.

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