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
"As a little girl, I accepted what I learned in religious school." She is picking at her breakfast at the hotel in Copenhagen. "They told us that we must love death as much as our enemy loves life, because this life is very short anyway. I believed it."Western InfluenceSultan is not the only one who has been invited to attend the cartoon-publishing anniversary here. Joining us for dinner that night are Mona Eltahawy, a young Egyptian-born political commentator from New York who has been spending time here writing a book on the Muslims of Denmark; and Irshad Manji, whom the New York Times has called "Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare." Also at the table are Ibrahim Ramadan (of Egyptian origin) and Fathi El-Abed (of Palestinian origin), both Danish citizens now and members of the Democratic Muslims organization.During dinner, amid the impassioned talk, I ask Sultan whether she thinks all her writing and speechmaking, all that she has to say, will in the end have an impact on the Muslim world."Absolutely," she replies, Without even stopping to think, she goes on, "You will see the generation of Wafa Sultan." She takes a sip of water. "This will happen not next year, but in 20 years, my effects will be felt." Sultan believes that strong and uncompromising opinions like hers will help start Muslims questioning the very creed by which they live; at the very least, she’d like "to see them separate the state from religion."At one point, as the long meal wears on — with everyone gossiping, exchanging information and e-mail addresses, discussing Yasser Arafat’s widow and how much money she got from the late Palestinian leader — El-Abed, the Palestinian Dane, leans over and says to me quietly, "You know, I have to say that I was initially opposed to including Wafa in this conference."I ask him why."Because," he says, "she is being used by the wrong people."Sultan later tells me that one of her own brothers, who still lives in Syria, has a similar opinion, claiming that she has received "a million dollars from the Jews" to say the things she says. She raises her eyebrows and shrugs. Her mother also has rejected her, as have five of her eight sisters. Other Muslims not so personally threatened by Sultan’s outspoken positions say that she is being manipulated, whether consciously or not.Clearly, the fact that her message appeals so widely to non-Muslim Westerners, not just Jews but Christians as well, has put Sultan in a questionable position among Muslims. They often see Westerners as, if not an actual enemy of Muslims in general, then as a condescending and often dangerous hoard of bumpkinish know-nothings who are intent on deriding and condemning one of the world’s monotheistic religions.Sultan laughs off these concerns. "They say I am being manipulated by Jewish groups and the Americans," she’d told me just that morning. "But I say I am being manipulated by statistics and facts. Jews have won more than 120 Nobel prizes; how many have Muslims won?" (Actually, more than 150 prizewinners have been Jewish; at least nine, Muslim.)While it attracts certain Jewish and Israeli groups to her, as well as anti-Islamist U.S. organizations, Sultan’s recitation of these "facts and statistics" drives moderate Muslims crazy. Iranian-born American Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, an advocate of Islamic reform and the author of the book No god but God, is irate about Sultan’s entrance onto the international media scene."Wafa Sultan is a very courageous and extremely smart woman," he says, "but essentially there is no difference between her line and that of the extremists in the Muslim world." Aslan, who is a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy and holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard University, has clearly thought carefully about Sultan’s role in the current debate over Islam and its future."She makes ludicrously sweeping statements from a position of absolute ignorance, based solely upon personal experience, with no knowledge of Islamic history," he says. "What interests me about Wafa is not so much her, as the reaction to her. If you have an Arab or a Muslim refusenik, someone in the West who, in a dramatic way, denounces her religion or the backwardness of her ethnicity, she becomes an instant hero. It’s really absurd.

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