Muslim who says that violence has destroyed Islam gets violent threats
By Jeremy Reynalds
Four weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims. Today, as a result of an unusually frank interview on Al Jazeera television on February 21, Sultan, 47, is internationally known, regarded as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.
The New York Times reported that in the interview, which has been viewed on the Internet more than a million times and has reached the e-mail of hundreds of thousands around the world, Sultan bitterly criticized radical Islamics who she contends have distorted the teachings of Muhammad and the Koran.
Sultan said the world's Muslims, whom she compared unfavorably with the Jews, have descended into self-pity and violence. She also stated the world has not been seeing a clash of religions or cultures, but a battle between modernity and barbarism, a battle that the Times said she believes the forces of violent Islam are destined to lose.
In response, clerics throughout the Muslim world have condemned her, and her telephone answering machine has filled with dark threats.
Internet chat groups have also been buzzing. One writer in a radical Islamic forum asked, "You know why the Islamic Al-Jazeera pick her and no one else from the enemies of Islam to the debates about Islam which is live on air? Because she is the most stupid among them. She talk like robot, like she is brainwashed ... surely not the person to bet on in a debate.(sic)"
Another writer on the same forum dubbed Sultan "an opportunist who say what the Amerikkans want to hear and by doing so she is winning both money and fame.(sic)" One writer on the Ummah.net forum dismissed Sultan as "just another fool eating the breadcrumbs off of the table of the west."
But, the Times reported, Islamic reformers have praised her for saying out loud, in Arabic and on the most widely seen television network in the Arab world, what few Muslims dare to say even in private.
"I believe our people are hostages to our own beliefs and teachings," the Times reported she said in a recent interview. "Knowledge has released me from this backward thinking. Somebody has to help free the Muslim people from these wrong beliefs."
Some of those writing on the Ummah.net forum praised Sultan. One writer commented, "every line that lady uttered was spot on."
Another writer on Ummah.net with an on-line name of "Fallen Angel" wrote in part, "Many points this woman, made were very valid, no matter what way you look at it. People have the right to believe whatever they want. It is Muslims that go around, threatening to kill others, for questioning their faith."
Perhaps her most inflammatory words on Al Jazeera, the Times commented, were when she compared how the Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking about the Holocaust, she told the Times, "The Jews have come from the tragedy and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling."
She continued, "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. 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."
The Times reported that Sultan's controversial views came to the attention of the American Jewish Congress, which has invited her to speak in May at a conference in Israel. "We have been discussing with her the importance of her message and trying to devise the right venue for her to address Jewish leaders," Neil B. Goldstein, executive director of the organization, told the Times.
Shortly after the broadcast, the Times reported that Muslim clerics in Syria denounced her as an infidel. One said she had done Islam more damage than the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, a wire service reported.
Sultan is, she told the Times, "working on a book that -- if it is published -- it's going to turn the Islamic world upside down. I have reached the point that doesn't allow any U-turn. I have no choice. I am questioning every single teaching of our holy book."
The working title of the book is, Sultan told the Times, The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster.
Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim. Sultan told the Times she continued with her faith into adulthood.
But, she told the Times, that all changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.
"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!'" she told the Times. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."
Along with her husband, Sultan made plans to leave for the United States. Their visas finally arrived in 1989, and the Sultans and their settled in with friends in Cerritos, Calif., a prosperous bedroom community on the edge of Los Angeles County.
After a succession of jobs and struggles with language, the Times reported that Sultan has completed her American medical licensing, with the exception of a hospital residency program, which she hopes to do within a year. Her husband runs an automotive-smog-check station. They bought a home in the Los Angeles area and put their children through local public schools. All are now American citizens.
But, the Times reported, as she enjoyed as comfortable American lifestyle, she was burning with anger. She started writing, first for herself, then for an Islamic reform Web site called Annaqed (The Critic), run by a Syrian expatriate in Phoenix.
An angry essay on that site by Sultan about the Muslim Brotherhood caught the attention of Al Jazeera, which last year invited her to debate an Algerian cleric on the air.
In the debate, she questioned the religious teachings that prompt young people to commit suicide in the name of God. "Why does a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up?" she told the Times. "In our countries, religion is the sole source of education and is the only spring from which that terrorist drank until his thirst was quenched."
Her remarks set off debates around the globe and her name began appearing in Arabic newspapers and Web sites. But it was not until her February 21 appearance on Al Jazeera that she attracted global attention. Her appearance was translated and distributed by the Middle East Media Research Institute, known as Memri.
Memri said the clip of her February appearance had been viewed more than a million times.
"The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations," Sultan told the Times. "It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality."
Sultan told the Times she is no longer a practicing Islamic. "I am a secular human being," she said.
The other guest on the program, identified as an Egyptian professor of religious studies, Dr. Ibrahim al-Khouli, asked, "Are you a heretic?" He then said there was no point in rebuking or debating her, because she had blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran.
Sultan told the Times that she regarded his words as a fatwa, a religious condemnation. Since then, she said, she has received numerous death threats on her answering machine and by e-mail.
One message said, the Times reported, "Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see." She also received an e-mail message in Arabic, that said, "If someone were to kill you, it would be me."
Sultan said her mother, who still lives in Syria, is afraid to contact her directly, speaking only through a sister who lives in Qatar. She said she worried more about the safety of family members here and in Syria than she did for her own.
"I have no fear," she told the Times. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."
Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be viewed here and weekly at www.americasvoices.org. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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