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. Their conversation does not become more gay and abandoned as the evening wears on. Sultan tells me that she will speak tomorrow about freedom of speech."But if you had asked me 17 years ago to discuss this, I would never have heard of this expression," she says. "I have to thank the West not only for the freedom but for teaching me how to speak."A Rebel in the War Over Islam’s FutureWafa Sultan is not the sort of person you would peg as a firebrand. In no way striking, she could pass unnoticed down any street in any country. She’s a generic human female, not tiny, not tall, not young, not old, not fat, not thin, not dark, not light, not plain, not pretty. She wears her hair short and close to the face: functional, rather than stylish. When she dresses up, she wears an unobjectionable blue suit.Sultan, who was a psychiatrist in Syria, has lived in the U.S. since 1989 and resides in an unremarkable Southern California town of subdivisions and shopping malls that sit in the shadow of the Santa Ana Mountains. She’s an American citizen. She has three children; the youngest, a girl of 16, was born in the U.S. Her husband runs a smog-checking garage.Only Sultan’s accent and uneven English give her away as anything other than an ordinary middle-class American wife and mother. That, and her forthright vehemence.Indeed, by the simple and courageous act of speaking her mind in an eloquent and blunt manner, Sultan has taken the humdrum materials she’s made of and hurled them into one of the most important and most violent ideological battles of our day: the fight over Islam’s future.Sultan is one of the most vocal and intransigent of Muslim refuseniks, a loosely knit collection of Westernized Muslims who will not accept the fundamentalist view of Islam, which they called "Islamism." In a statement entitled "Manifesto of the 12," issued in March 2006, 12 prominent writers and intellectuals — including Salman Rushdie; Bernard-Henri Levy; and Irshad Manji, the lesbian feminist Muslim author of The Trouble with Islam Today — condemned Islamism as a totalitarian creed. They spoke out against the treatment of women in Muslim society as well as the curtailment of freedom of expression that has been imposed on the faithful — and sometimes on outsiders, as well — by certain Muslim individuals, groups, and theocracies. The Manifesto 12, as they’ve been called, are rebelling against what they see as a liberal weakness in the West that grants a respectable status to Islamism because it is — like Orthodox Judaism or born-again Christianity — a manifestation of faith.Although associated with these people, and by nature a classic refusenik, Sultan thinks of herself more as just plain Wafa Sultan. She’s not part of an organization or group, nor is she really interested in meeting with other refuseniks or in making some kind of common cause with them. She’s an individual operator. Unlike the Manifesto 12, for example, Sultan does not talk about Islamism, but about Islam. She makes no bones about what she’s referring to. Most refuseniks would not say that Islam itself preaches violence; that the words of the Koran, Islam’s holy text — which believers take as a recitation of the word of God — extol violence. But Sultan says that. She’s not really interested in reforming Islam — often, she sounds as if she thinks it would be better just to toss the religion onto the garbage heap of retrograde, rejected things that democratic progress has left behind. Among the refuseniks and reformers, Sultan is a rogue element, out there on her own. "I am myself," she says. "I’m enjoying my apostasy."Attacking Islamic Culture & PoliticsTwo years ago, no one in the West knew Sultan’s name, although she had been writing blistering attacks on Islam in the Arab-American press since September 11, and indeed well before that. She had begun writing political and social commentary on Islam from the first months after she arrived in America, as if simply getting away from Syria had uncorked the flow. Because of her writings, she had received veiled and not so veiled threats, and in response to these she had occasionally backed off slightly. "My husband said you have to slow down," she recalls. But September 11, she says, "was a major turning point for me. I said to myself, ‘Enough is enough. 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. 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. "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. Among moderate Western Muslims, we don’t even see her as remotely influential…. She proclaims stereotypical thoughts that most people in the West already have. No one on Earth is listening to Wafa and changing his or her mind. She’s preaching to the choir, and the choir isn’t even in the Muslim world…. Like other refuseniks, she falls into the hands of the kinds of people who believe in those stereotypes and use them for political reasons."But Sultan is not troubled by such arguments, which she sees as mere quibbles. "I just don’t think there are good things in the Islamic religion. I think people are fooled, including Muslims. If you know, the way I do, the classic Arabic in which the Koran is written, you know what it really says. In translation, whether it is into English or Malay, the ideas are made nicer."Salman Rushdie told me that in Pakistan he’s described as a drunk who hangs out with the Mossad [government intelligence agency of Israel]," she continues. "Look, I just don’t care if I seem supported by these people. Someone has to say what I have to say, and I am going to say it."Sultan does not characterize herself as an especially political person, declining to comment on the latest headlines about withdrawing from Iraq other than to say "I don’t understand what’s going on, but I believe the media is not providing us with the whole picture." Asked whether she would ever consider running for office, she replies, "Not at all. No way." She’d rather focus on reeducating the next generation of Muslim children: "This is my dream: to be one of the founders of a new way of teaching in the Arabic world. I’m writing children’s books now, and I have more than 500 stories. I want to teach Muslim children how to accept people who are different from them, because as a child, all I was taught was to reject people who were different from us."Addressing the WorldThe big day — the first anniversary of the publication of the Muhammad cartoons — is a hurried one in Copenhagen. After a quick breakfast meeting, we all head over to the Danish parliament for a panel about the cartoons. I travel with the Sultans in Ibrahim Ramadan’s car. Wafa prefers to go in this car, rather than in a limousine, because it is a run-of-the-mill vehicle that no dignitary would ever use. It doesn’t look to her like a probable target."Relax," her husband tells her. "Everything’s fine."Once we enter the ornate parliament building, Sultan seems to feel safer. But she’s still wound tight, like a rubber band ready to be flicked. She knows that after the panel here, she has another television interview, on a national Danish network. She’s almost collapsing with exhaustion, and she tries to get out of the interview. Pressed a bit by her Danish hosts, however, she surrenders to the inevitable. And it is amazing how she rises to the occasion.Watching her that evening as she was interviewed in English with Danish subtitles, I couldn’t help but be impressed with her passion and her seriousness. Perhaps it was the verve of nervous fatigue, but no matter its source, Sultan’s drive and commitment are persuasive, whether or not one agrees with her point of view.Also, she looked good. Under the television lights, her hair seemed to have coppery highlights I had not noticed in person. Her plain blue jacket seemed to have a deep green, silky sheen that almost made it glamorous. And her eyes had a sparkle, a glitter — if you liked her message, you might have called their intense shine enthusiastic; if you didn’t, you might have called it fanatic. The things she said made her interviewer’s eyes pop out, because he was of the moderate school and clearly reflected a general Danish opinion that perhaps the publication of the cartoons, given the violence that followed, might have been ill-advised."Publishing these cartoons was the first crack in the walls of our prison," Sultan told him. "Absolutely. Islam is not just a religion but also a political ideology that preaches violence and applies its agenda by force … I have been advised by friends to polish and soften my message and to soften my way of saying it. I tried but I failed. I see the truth as naked, and I feel it is more powerful to stay naked. I cannot, just in order to make it look better, put a nice dress on it."Domestic PeaceI have driven out from L.A. 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.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:12

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