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
to Sultan’s house, miles and miles through rush-hour traffic on a Friday. We’re both back from Copenhagen. This dinner in the far-flung suburbs is an Arab thing. What happened was this: In Denmark, I mentioned to Sultan that I love Middle Eastern food; then she was naturally obliged to invite me to dinner; of course, I said yes. And now, no matter how insane the traffic (and she and I both realized it would be bad), no matter how late she and her family will have to wait for me before they can eat, I must appear at their door, and they must be glad. This elaborate structure of politeness is one of the many virtues of the world that Islam has created over the centuries.I bring a box of chocolates.It is difficult for me to reconcile the demure person who greets me at the door of her stucco house with the one I know from Copenhagen, who gestures in public with a firm downward slice as if chopping into her opponents’ arguments or her interviewers’ obtuseness. Here in the quiet of a suburban evening, everything feels safe and comfortable. There are floral wreaths on the walls, family photographs everywhere, and widescreen televisions in the two living rooms. Sultan’s thin, blond, fashionable older daughter, a college freshman, is there with her fiance. David Sultan is genially presiding. Their younger daughter, a high school student, is out for the evening, and their son, the eldest child, no longer lives at home.The dinner has many courses, because we are in Syria now, even if we are in California. There is kibbe, a kind of fried meatball; stuffed squash; cabbage and tomato salad; pickles and hot peppers; and a fragrant Syrian pot roast. Wafa Sultan is a good cook.Because of Sultan’s writings and speeches, her older daughter has had problems with Muslim groups at school. But in general, Sultan tries to shield her children from her work. "I want them to live their American lives," she says. "They don’t know how dangerous [my work] is and I don’t want them to know — it’s too destructive to live in fear." For their part, when they are not traveling to one of Sultan’s speaking engagements, Wafa and David unwind by hanging out and taking care of the house and kids, although unwinding is not a verb that applies much to Wafa Sultan. Every three months or so, the Sultans head to Vegas, where David likes to do a bit of gambling, something that (by the way) is strictly forbidden by Islam.Their elder daughter, who was born in Syria, seems singularly incurious about her heritage. She tosses her hair — she has other things on her mind: college, clothes, her wedding in June. She tells the story of how she and a friend were watching TV one day when religion came up on the program. Her girlfriend said, "I think I’m Jewish."She grins. "And I’m, like, ‘Oh… I think I’m Muslim!’" Sultan brings out the dessert: Syrian sweets made by her sister, one of the three siblings who support her in her work, and who now lives nearby. We taste them. Super-hyper sweet and delicious, like all well-made Arab sweets."I make them even better than my sister," Sultan says, laughing."These remind me of the Middle East," I say. And then a shadow passes across her face."You know, deep down," she says quietly, "I always have in me something that misses Syria." Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2007.

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