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
The Danish Democratic Muslims group is probably the most liberal organization that has invited Sultan so far, and the event represented "the first time for me to be welcomed by something called Muslim," she says.Sultan, who writes with the energy, concentration, and discipline of a Victorian novelist paid by the word, is also working on a book that is part memoir, part jeremiad. Although she passed her medical-licensing exams six years ago, she has been unable to obtain a hospital psychiatric residency. In 2006, preoccupied with her growing fame and full speaking schedule, she stopped trying."I am so exhausted," she says ruefully. "But someone has to do this."Formation of a SecularistWafa Sultan wasn’t raised to be that someone. Born in 1957 in Banias, a small town on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, she grew up under the authoritarian, militaristic but secular government of Hafez Assad. What she does cannot be interpreted as a rebellion against a life lived under theocracy. In Sultan’s Syria, as in Syria today, only family court was run under religious — or shari’a — law. The community, of course, was Muslim and behaved according to conservative Muslim traditions.Sultan’s father, a grain trader, died in a car accident when she was 10 years old, and she and her brothers and sisters were taken care of by their mother and their much older half-brother. With her half-brother’s emotional and financial support, Sultan attended medical school in Aleppo, farther north, and became a psychiatrist. She was her brother’s darling, and he had high hopes for her career. In Syria, women who chose to work or study were allowed certain freedoms as long as the men in their family permitted it.However, according to the tale of Sultan’s conversion to militant secularism, her feelings about the place of Islam in her world changed utterly one day in 1979, when one of her university professors was gunned down outside the classroom. A dozen or so assailants, reportedly from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood — a radical Islamic group that has a following in several countries — pumped him full of automatic-weapons fire, shouting "Allahu Akhbar," or "God is great." "The worst part of it for me, afterwards," Sultan says, "was the sound of ‘Allahu Akhbar’ correlated to the sound of bullets."She stayed in the country for another 10 years, marrying, having children, and working as a psychiatrist in a hospital where, she says, she saw the kinds of problems women faced in Syrian society — a woman whose employer had shoved a conical glass into her vagina before forcing her to have sex in order to keep himself clean; a widow who was raped daily by her husband’s brother in exchange for food for her children.When she was ready to follow her husband to the U.S., Sultan, then 32, was not allowed to obtain passports for her young son and daughter without a release from a male member of his family. Such experiences persuaded Sultan that she needed to get away from this culture forever, and also that it was an evil that had to be either utterly transformed, or eradicated.Even so, her acclimatization to life in America took time: One day soon after her arrival, David took her to a shoe store in Hollywood. She likes shoes. She struck up a halting conversation with the shoe salesman, noticing in the process that he looked vaguely Middle Eastern. Finally, she got up the courage to ask him where he was from and he told her that he was Jewish, actually born in Israel. "And you know what I did?" she says. "I dropped the shoes I was planning to buy, and I ran screaming out of that place into the street because I had never seen a Jew before, and my culture had taught me to hate and fear them." She laughs at the memory.Sultan became a self-described "pump jockey," selling gas at a Texaco station in Southern California. Her husband, who had been a chemistry teacher in Syria, also worked for Texaco. Although she was pumping gas for a living, the stories and opinions she’d been keeping inside for so long began to emerge, and she started writing for the Arabic newspapers published in California, like Al-Akhbar, the Beirut Times, and Al-Watan, and for Arab Panorama magazine. Each time an editor got fed up with her opinions, she would move to a new publication.I ask Sultan whether she believed in Islam as a child. "Absolutely," she says. Absolutely is one of her favorite words.

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