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
I will say what I want to say, and let them do what they want to do.’ I started attacking Islamic culture, Islamic politics … for me there were no more limitations. I crossed every red line."Sultan remained relatively unknown, for the same reason so many Arab writers, thinkers, and social commentators remain unknown to the West: Like them, she wrote in Arabic. She still does, and she speaks Arabic far more fluently than she does English.Her precipitous rise to prominence came after she appeared on Al Jazeera television as a guest commentator in July 2005, and then again in February 2006. These interviews, which can be viewed on the Internet on YouTube and elsewhere — and have been, millions of times — are less conversations than they are shouting matches, because Sultan was brought on to discuss the value and future of Islam with (a) an Algerian professor of religious politics and (b) an Egyptian professor of religious studies, both of whom took extreme exception to her attitude toward their religion.To an American viewer, the style of the shows is not unfamiliar: two talking heads yelling at each other. But to an Islamic audience, the broadcasts were shocking. Here was an unveiled lapsed Muslim woman who spoke Arabic and looked rather demure, yet was willing — indeed, eager — to shout at a turbaned cleric in public."Here I was, facing the biggest beast on Earth," Sultan says, explaining the visible anger with which she addressed one of the professors. "It was the first time in history that people saw a civilized person — and a woman! — confront this beast." Two minutes before the show ended, the host asked Sultan to sum up, and as she was speaking, her opponent, the Algerian professor, interrupted her."So I turned to him," she tells me, a smile lighting up her face at the memory, "and I told him to shut up. I said, ‘Shut up. It’s my turn.’ Just like that." Those were revolutionary words, Sultan believes. After that, she says, she received hundreds of thousands of e-mails — mainly from women — thanking her. She shakes her head in amazement. "No one had ever seen this before in the Islamic world, a woman telling a man ‘It’s my turn.’ In Islamic culture, women have no turn. So a lot of people gave thanks for this."The Sultan appearances on Al Jazeera were also interesting to foreign-policy makers in the West because Sultan was giving philosophical support to what many of them already believed. Speaking about the Nazi genocide against the Jews, she said, not entirely accurately: "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people. The Muslims have turned Buddha statues into rubble; we have not seen a single Buddhist burn down a mosque, kill a Muslim, or burn down an embassy. Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people, and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind before they demand that humankind respect them."In particular, such words caught the eye of translators at an organization called the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors the Arabic and other Middle Eastern press with, according to some critics, a political bent that causes the institute to focus mainly on material that presents Muslims in an unflattering light. MEMRI put together a short clip of Sultan’s Al Jazeera appearances, added English subtitles and posted the clip on its streaming-video pages. Sultan woke up to find herself famous. That was nearly a year ago, and still no day passes in which she is not invited to speak somewhere, to be interviewed on radio or television, or to travel to attend a conference. She has become a one-woman anti-Islamic-fundamentalism machine. In May, Time magazine named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Among the many groups she has been invited to speak before are the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute, both of them conservative think tanks; America’s Truth Forum, a right-wing national security watchdog group; and the American Jewish Congress, which is very conservative on Middle East issues.

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