Monday, April 10, 2006


Dr. Wafa Sultan is a 47-year-old Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles. She is married and has three children. She is the last person one would expect to be at the center of an international controversy.

As a result of her outspoken remarks about the violence associated with Islam, she has been threatened with death by Muslims who are outraged by her comments. Yes, it's as ironic as it is absurd; Muslims threatening to kill a fellow Arab for saying their religion is too violent.

Her trouble began when she wrote an angry essay about the Muslim Brotherhood for an Islamic reform Web site called Annaqed (The Critic), run by a fellow Syrian living in Phoenix. The essay came to the attention of Al Jazeera, which then invited her to debate an Algerian cleric on the air last July.

In the debate, Dr. Sultan 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 asked. "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 name became widely known throughout the Muslim world and her remarks initiated debates there and elsewhere. But her notoriety reached a zenith when she appeared on Al Jazeera once again, on Feb. 21. A Middle East Media Research Institute called Memri translated her appearance and distributed it widely, claiming 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," Dr. Sultan said. "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."

She contrasted the ways in which Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking of the Holocaust, she said, "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 went on, "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."

She concluded, "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."

She also proclaimed that she no longer practiced Islam. "I am a secular human being," she said.

The other guest on the program, Dr. Ibrahim al-Khouli, an Egyptian professor of religious studies 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.

Dr. Sultan said she viewed his words as a formal fatwa, or religious condemnation. Since then, she said, she has received numerous death threats on her answering machine and by e-mail.

Because her mother, who still lives in Syria, is afraid to speak with her directly, she will contact her only through a sister in Qatar. And it is the safety of her family members here and in Syria that she worries more about more than herself.

"I have no fear," she said. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."

Some Islamic reformers have proclaimed her as a voice of reason and have praised her for speaking out boldly, in Arabic no less. From her extraordinary platform - the most widely viewed television network in the Arab world - she dared to discuss a topic few Muslims will broach even in private.

Yet there are others who view her as as a heretic and an infidel who deserves to die.

"I am questioning every single teaching of our holy book," Dr. Sultan says. "I believe our people are hostages to our own beliefs and teachings,"

One thing is certain, she is a woman of great courage and strong convictions. "Knowledge has released me from this backward thinking. Somebody has to help free the Muslim people from these wrong beliefs."

But, unfortunately, Dr. Sultan is a woman and an American; the two things Muslims respect the least. As a result, it's unclear how enduring her message will be, or how weighty it will be in the Muslim world. But if others, particularly men, jump on her bandwagon instead of abandoning her, then perhaps a movement can be started that will continue this much needed debate.

However, trying to debate rationally and reasonably with the irrational and the unreasonable is a fool's game.

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