Her 15 minutes

Is Wafa Sultan the voice of reason or Islam's false messiah?

beirut 298 (photo credit: AP)
beirut 298
(photo credit: AP)
Wafa Sultan doesn't believe that Israel's war against Hizbullah will succeed. The Arab-American writer, a psychiatrist by training, who sent shock waves throughout the world after she criticized Islam on Al Jazeera last February, says the solution to the problem is much more complicated. "I learned at a very early age to love death as much as my enemy loves life," the Syrian-born Sultan said in a phone interview on July 5. "What kind of mentality is that? How are we going to change it? By crushing houses and smashing people? I don't think so... It might be a short-term solution, but it is not a long-term solution." Islamic teachings that indoctrinate hatred and encourage war, she claims, must be uprooted from school curricula across the Arab world, if not from religious books. Unless one addresses these deeply rooted principles within Islamic teachings, such conflicts will keep repeating themselves, she argues. Sultan, who says she was raised a Muslim but now considers herself "a secular human being," claims she is doing her part by writing articles and books that take issue with the religion's teachings but believes that everyone should play their part. And while the 48-year-old mother of three says she hates Hizbullah and hopes the war between Israel and the terrorist group will be "a chance for Israel to smash Hizbullah," she is also deeply conflicted about the loss of innocent life the war has caused. Many Lebanese residents are poor and have no control as to whether Hizbullah will launch rockets from their home, she said. "I believe Israel has the right to defend itself. Let me be honest... but I don't know how far Israel can go," Sultan said. "I am very confused by this point, to bomb civilian people, Lebanese infrastructure... I am very sad about what's going on." In her now famous February interview on Al-Jazeera that was translated into English and widely circulated on the Internet, Sultan praises Jews for forcing the world to respect them "not with their terror, with their work." "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant," she said during that interview. "We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people." While Sultan has received condemnation and even death threats from some Muslims who have branded her a heretic, many Jews around the world have warmly received her message. "As a Jew who lives in America and has seen the world transformed in the last 10 years, I have hardly ever heard words like yours spoken by a Muslim," wrote one man in an email to Sultan. "If there were only more people like you, then the opportunity to end the bloodshed in the Middle East would certainly be at hand." Since the Al-Jazeera interview thrust her into the international limelight, Sultan has been profiled by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde and appeared as a guest on CNN. In May, Time magazine designated Sultan as one of the top 100 most influential people in the world. Sultan has also received invitations to speak in front of Christian and Jewish groups, including local chapters of the Zionist Organization of America, and has even been invited to come to Israel by the American Jewish Congress. She's hopeful that it's just a matter of time before she can come. "I have nothing against visiting Israel," Sultan said in May during an interview at her upscale Corona home near Los Angeles, but she expressed fears that her Syrian family could be targeted as a result of her visit. Regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said, each side has the right to live in dignity and peace. However, she argues, the root of the problem is largely religious in nature. "The problem is not a matter of land. It's a matter of being Muslim or non-Muslim. Clearly, it is in our teachings... We are against the Jew[s] because they are Jewish," she says of her fellow Muslims. WHILE SULTAN now goes against the grain in her embrace of the Jewish community, she hasn't always felt warmly toward Jews. As a young girl in the small Mediterranean town of Banias, Syria, she was taught by her teachers to hate Jews, particularly Zionists. She recalls having to dress up as Golda Meir and being instructed to look ugly and employ a terrible voice. "I know it's terrible to raise a child that way, so full of hate," says Sultan, a brunette with expressive hands and eyes and a commanding presence. Even as an adult, during her first week in America in 1989, she and her husband, who goes by the American name David, went shopping at a Los Angeles shoe store. When they discovered that the salesman was from Israel, she immediately fled the store barefoot with her shoes dangling in her hands. Her husband, who is also from Syria, told her that her reaction was stupid. "I was raised to be scared of them (the Jews). 'They are not human. They are just a bunch of criminals,'" she was told. "So it's not easy to change yourself overnight." . The more she dealt with the Jewish people, however, the more she realized that there was something terribly wrong in the way she was raised and taught. Since witnessing first hand the execution of her professor by religious extremists in 1979, Sultan said she did everything possible to leave her native Syria. Finally, in 1988, she left Syria with her husband David. Today, they are both American citizens and they have embraced America's spirit of freedom and democracy that Sultan believes is the antithesis of Islamic culture. "Living in a free society has taught me what it means to be free," she said. "I want every one of my people to enjoy his or her freedom too. But Sultan's brand of freedom isn't necessarily what some of her community members are searching for - and criticism of Sultan isn't limited to Muslims. In a June 25 column printed in The Los Angeles Times, Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple criticized Sultan for comments she made at a fundraiser for a Jewish organization that aims to counter anti-Israel propaganda. Stein was disappointed to hear Sultan's comments that all Muslim women, even American ones, are living in a state of domination and that the Koran contains only verses of evil and domination. She never alluded to any healthful, peaceful Islamic alternative such as the "groundbreaking efforts" of the Islamic Center of Southern California, which is dedicated to a progressive Muslim American way of life, has very good relations with Jews in the area and even has a regulation in its charter barring funding from foreign countries, he wrote. "The more Sultan talked, the more evident it became that progress in the Muslim world was not her interest," Stein wrote in the column. A WRITER in Arabic for 16 years with a penchant for reading self-help books, Sultan says she is busier today than ever with invitations to speak and requests from media around the world. She is writing her new book The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster, which she hopes to complete by year's end. She continues to write articles critical of Islamic and Arab culture on the Annaqed Web site, which means "The Critic" in Arabic. (It was founded by an Arab Christian living in Phoenix.) The mostly Arabic-language site, which is strongly critical of Islam, claims to feature political, religious and social issues addressed to the Arab mind and often "in defense of human rights." Her book, which she hopes will be translated into English from Arabic, will challenge verse after verse in the Koran, she said, in an effort to change how Muslims perceive God. "The suicide bomber is nothing but his God," she said. "In order to change him, you have to change his God first." Sultan is a severe insomniac who composes paragraphs and memorizes them in her head while lying awake at night, cooking dinner and even driving. Though she passed her medical exams in the US country, she has yet to be accepted into a psychiatry residency program and believes her calling must be healing of a different sort. Much of the controversy that surrounds Sultan comes from her opinion that Islam and the Koran - not its interpretation by Muslims - are "the source of every problem we have in the Middle East" including the disrespectful way she argues women and non-Muslims are treated in Islamic culture. "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. It is a clash between freedom and oppression, between democracy and dictatorship," she said to Al-Jazeera. "Islam is the whole issue, the whole problem," Sultan reiterated in May, "Muslim people are hostages to their teachings. Islam is the only source of knowledge they are allowed to access[...]." "You have to teach them that they are hostages; when they realize that, they will move to the next step... They are looking for a change. I know that." Many practicing Muslims argue Sultan is simply repeating the Orientalist view of the religion, which makes broad and inaccurate generalizations about the religion from Western-colored lenses. Member of Knesset Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, who also heads the Islamic movement in Israel, said that Sultan has nothing to contribute to building a moderate, liberal and modern Islamic society based on religious morals and principles. Sarsur is afraid of two dangerous phenomena in the Arab and Muslim community, he said. The first is radical Islamic religious fundamentalism, and the second is the radical secular fundamentalism to which Sultan subscribes. "What is dangerous in radical secularism is they cannot tolerate those who are different from them," he said. "This is what I'm scared of. She represents those who cannot tolerate - who want to delete completely those who believe in an Islamic way of life, and believe me, those who believe in the Islamic way of life are the vast majority of Muslims in the world." Unlike Sultan, who blames all Muslims without differentiation, Sarsur said he accepts moderate Islam as a basis for life and can live peacefully with those who differ from his beliefs. Dr. Asad Ghanem, an Arab-Israeli political scientist at Haifa University, said he could not recall having heard the name Wafa Sultan and said she is certainly not influential in the Arab world. Apparently Sultan has internalized the Orientalist view of Islam created by the West to understand the East and to make its fight against Islam more legitimate, Ghanem said after hearing some of her statements made to The Jerusalem Post. It's not a conflict between cultures or a clash of civilizations, argues Ghanem. It's also not the way they grew up as Muslims. "The way the West wants to control our areas, our resources, our way of thinking is the source of the conflict," Ghanem said in a telephone interview, noting that Israel is part of the West and part of America's hegemony. "For sure, there is a lot of hatred for the West, but the source is the rejection of western domination rather than something that is inherently part of our education." Just as it was true a century ago - when western Europe clashed with the Ottoman Empire - the West has sought control over the East mainly for economic reasons and to ensure its hegemony over the East, Ghanem said. Sultan's beliefs, which he says lend legitimacy to the hatred of Islam, are one way of being influential in the West by supporting their concept of Islam, he said. Sabiha Khan, a Muslim woman who most recently served as the spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Southern California for five years, said, "She's another (part) of this industry of making fame from maligning Islam." "She's not very relevant to our lives. We don't look at her as a reformer. She made a name by being sensational... saying incorrect, inaccurate, downright Islam-hating statements." While her comments about violence and terrorism have aroused great interest in the West in the post-September 11 era, many Muslims say Sultan - as many others before her have done - mistakenly blames Islam for those extremist elements that do not reflect the actions or views of the majority of the world's more than 1 billion Muslims. "It's like saying if you are born Catholic, you are automatically a child molester," said Khan. Sultan, who has said that she doesn't believe Islam can be reformed, insists she is acting out of a concern for Muslims and Arabs around the world. "It's time for children - Muslim children - to learn how to love." "They are my people. I have no hate in my heart," she said. "I do feel pain for them. They lack the freedom to think, the freedom to speak. That's why I am doing this job. I want to be their savior."