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

Portrait of a Controversial WomanWafa Sultan is in Copenhagen. She loves Copenhagen; the city is a candy box to her, filled with unexpected treats: canals; narrow streets; old, baroque, gold-encrusted Gothic buildings; flatboats stuffed with tourists; the naked statue of the Little Mermaid sitting blithely at the water’s edge; fairy-tale spires and gilt balustrades; gargoyles and street performers; and in a corner of one park, and also at the intersection of two major roads, the heroic statue of a cobbler’s son and teller of tales, Hans Christian Andersen. Sultan, who emigrated to the United States from Syria two decades ago, is a seasoned traveler, but this is her first encounter with the airy, ethereal town. Although Syria and Denmark couldn’t be more different, Wafa Sultan shares something with the Danes. Like her hosts, she recently and suddenly found herself shoved to the forefront of the international debate over Islam’s future.In September 2005, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in various unflattering ways and associating Islam with terror; in the space of six months after the cartoons’ publication, more than 130 people had been killed in anti-cartoon riots around the world. That same year, Wafa Sultan made the first of two incendiary and highly controversial appearances on Al Jazeera television in which she claimed that Islam, at its very roots, provoked violence. "The clash we are witnessing around the world … is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century," she said in a February 2006 appearance. "It is a clash between civilizations and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality."Sultan, who, although born and raised a Muslim, renounced the practice of Islam long ago, is in Copenhagen as a guest of a group called the Democratic Muslims, an organization whose mission is to bridge the gap between Danish civil society and the country’s substantial Muslim community. The group was established in the wake of the cartoons controversy, and Sultan is to speak the next day.Sultan is staying at the Marriott, and she can’t get to sleep. Is it because her schedule is so full? No. Is it because she is often called an infidel? No. Is it because her mother and brother in Syria will no longer speak to her? No. Is it because there are two formal fatwas — and who knows how many informal ones? — against her? No.In fact, it’s because the 49-year-old is a classic insomniac who has been to sleep doctors and sleep clinics but who has still not found anything that can reliably get her to sleep. "It’s awful," she says. "Sometimes I take melatonin, but it doesn’t always help." The additional brush of jet lag has lent an even darker cast to the two half-moons beneath her eyes. Yet she plunges on through her demanding days.At dinner, Sultan is wearing a fanciful pink rose-strewn cashmere sweater, stacked heels, and a nice pair of slacks. In spite of her fatigue, she radiates emotion and a fiery authority. Even her way of walking seems targeted. She has pointed herself at a goal, and that goal may be an eventual remaking of Islam, or just a comfortable seat at the table tonight. One has the impression of someone who believes fervently in achieving her own ambitions.In the near distance, we can see the tall silhouettes of two Danish security guards at the entrance to the restaurant, watching, wandering, patrolling the perimeter. Of the people at our table, at least two have received multiple death threats. Luckily, in addition to the Danish security men, we have David Sultan, Wafa’s big, handsome, easygoing husband and protector, at the table. He’s the kind of person who immediately makes you feel reassured and defended. "I don’t go anywhere without him," Sultan says, patting David lightly on the arm. "So he’s very tired too." Her husband smiles wanly over her head.I nod and dip a piece of bread into a small bowl of hummus. Sultan, as usual, does not partake. I almost never see her eat. The waiter is standing there, expecting her order.David listens."Just soup," she says.Both Sultans have soup.Neither of them drinks alcohol, their abstinence a habit left over from their dry youth in the Muslim world.

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