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Breaking the Silence


One woman is risking her life to speak the truth about radical Islam.


From Reader's Digest December 2006


The Call

Wafa Sultan and her husband, David, were jolted awake by the sound of a ringing telephone. It was just before dawn on a summer morning in 2005, and Wafa couldn't help feeling nervous as she hurried to take the call. Two of their three children had moved to a nearby suburb of Los Angeles to attend college. Were they okay?

A voice on the line identified himself as working for Al Jazeera television, the Arabic-language network based in Qatar which, in ten years, had become the most influential news channel in the Middle East. The producer explained that based on some pieces she had written on Islam and terrorism for his obscure Arabic-language website, a friend of Wafa's had suggested her as a guest on one of the network's programs.

Wafa was stunned. She was not a professional writer, much less a scholar on the Middle East. Though she had grown up in Syria, she had called California home for 16 years, and her days were now completely devoted to her family.

Then again, she did have strong opinions about Islamic extremism, and she was utterly unafraid to express them. So if Al Jazeera wanted to talk to a wife and mother in Los Angeles about this important subject, sure, why not? Wafa accepted. What no one could have guessed was that she was about to become a controversial new voice in the Islamic world -- and for many moderate Muslims, a model of courage.

Wafa Sultan grew up in Baniyas, Syria, a town on the Mediterranean where her father was a local grain trader. Surrounded by protective brothers, she studied hard and rarely stepped outside the bounds of Muslim propriety. But in 1979, as a medical student at Syria's University of Aleppo, she witnessed a crime that changed her forever.

One day, Wafa sat in a lecture hall with 200 other students, listening to her professor of ophthalmology, Yusef Al Yusef. Suddenly she heard the crack of gunfire and then saw her teacher crumple to the floor. A group of men stood next to the body, guns extended, shouting, "God is great! God is great!" in Arabic. The killers, Muslim extremists, quickly ran out, leaving the students staring at their dead instructor.

Deeply troubled by this fundamentalist violence, Wafa was further shaken when she became a doctor in a large hospital. Newly married to an engineering professor, she came home from work with disturbing stories of treating victims of domestic abuse. Women would walk in with black eyes, bruised backs, broken bones. Wafa could mend their wounds and listen to their complaints, but she couldn't discuss openly what she saw as the root cause: a culture that demands total deference to men, amplified by extremist beliefs.

Wafa and her husband, David, began to whisper about leaving Syria in order to escape the growing poverty and religious radicalization around them.

"Talking about finding a new home was our daily bread," says Wafa. It took a decade, but in 1988 David finally got an American visa, flew to California and sent for his family several months later.

Not Holding Back


Wafa had never been out of Syria before, spoke little English and had two small children in tow: a four-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son. Moreover, she lacked the credentials to practice medicine in the United States, and within a month found herself pregnant with her third child.

To make it through their first few years in Los Angeles, she and her husband worked a variety of service jobs, including trading shifts as cashiers at a Texaco station. Still, being out of Syria made them "so happy," Wafa says.

She took part in the social life of the local Muslim community, yet insisted that her children "live the American life." They were taught English from the start, and while they can understand Arabic, the younger two don't speak it to this day. But the culture Wafa left behind was never far from her mind. She started writing opinion pieces on women, Islam and radicalism for the local Arabic press. Wafa was careful not to be openly critical of religion, instead questioning an interpretation of Islam that seemed to breed terrorists and wife-beaters.

Even so, some thought Wafa had gone too far. After one editorial came out, she received a phone call from a man who warned that "even in America, there are limits." The person on the line claimed to be from a prominent Islamic organization. Intimidation of this sort made Wafa nervous and her editors more timid.

Then came September 11. Watching the World Trade Center towers fall on her television screen, Wafa felt enraged and emboldened. "I don't care anymore. I will write what I want," she told David. Too few people were speaking the truth about radical Islam and she, for one, would stop holding back.

And so Wafa Sultan found herself at the Los Angeles studio last year, being fitted with a microphone and placed before a camera. The host, in Qatar, presented the topic of Islam and terrorism to the audience and then surprised Sultan by introducing another guest, Ahmad bin Mohammed, an Algerian professor of Islamic law.

Sultan had no idea that someone else would be on the show to challenge her views. Raised in the Muslim culture, she certainly never expected to be placed in direct opposition to a man.

Given the floor first, Sultan became impassioned as she spoke. "Religion in our countries is the sole source of education," she argued. "It is the sole source from which terrorists drink."

Ahmad bin Mohammed changed the subject to President Bush. "Our guest asked how a youth blows himself up. Wasn't it better for her to ask how a President kills innocent people in Iraq?"

Sultan woke up to the reality of her first appearance on live television: This wasn't just a conversation, but an all-out debate. She drew in a breath and opened her mouth, and the words burst forth like water through a sprung levy. She ran through a catalog of atrocities committed by radical Muslims against innocent victims: "Can you explain the killing of 100,000 children, women and men in Algeria? [Or] the death of 15,000 civilians in Syria? How can you explain the awful crime in the artillery school in Aleppo [where radicals murdered Alawite cadets]? Was this a revenge against America or Israel, or was it to satisfy the savage and barbarian instincts aroused by teachings that call for refusing the other, killing him?"

The two sparred intensely for nearly 50 minutes, sometimes shouting over each other. "He must let me finish!" she implored at one point.

The program, Sultan later found out, was watched by millions in the Middle East. When the taping ended, she left immediately with her husband for the drive back home. "You were great!" he said, beaming. Neither had any idea how drastically their lives would now change.

"A Torch of Light"
Sultan's cell phone was ringing from the time she and David left the station. Soon, death threats were clogging her answering machine. Her name began appearing in Arab newspapers and, ominously, on radical websites. "I was leading a quiet, peaceful life," she recalls, "and suddenly it was totally different."

It was Wafa Sultan's second appearance on Al Jazeera, last February, that brought her worldwide notoriety. This time, she debated Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouli, an Egyptian cleric, and once again gave no quarter. "The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations," she declared. "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 that belongs to the 21st century." To Al-Khouli, she added, "You can believe in stones, brother, as long as you don't throw them at me."

At one point, Al-Khouli proclaimed that Sultan was blaspheming against Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. After the interview aired, Syrian clerics denounced Sultan as an infidel. The death threats mounted.

To many others around the world, though, she boldly spoke the truth. A video clip of the interview, posted by an American think tank, zipped around cyberspace, reportedly receiving six million hits in the space of about four months. E-mails came pouring in to Sultan, many expressing profound gratitude. "Please, Dr. Sultan, don't fear anyone," read one from an Egyptian Christian. "You are a torch of light and a ray of hope." A Lebanese woman living in Canada wrote, "I have been fighting this fight since I was old enough to understand what was worth fighting for. You make me so proud to be a Middle Eastern woman."

The New York Times called Wafa Sultan an "international sensation." Before long, she was giving talks on Muslim extremism at universities, and participating in conferences on Islam in Washington, D.C., and throughout Europe. This past May, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Earlier this summer, Wafa said she was "in hiding" with her family due to threats she still receives daily. Most are via the Internet. "I will be your killer," reads one e-mail. Another message, left on her answering machine, said, "Oh, you are still alive? Wait and see." Fiercely protective of her children, Wafa tries to shield her youngest daughter from the menacing messages, though the girl is aware of them.

Wafa has also paid a price within the Muslim community in Los Angeles. Before she became a known activist, she had a busy social life with other Middle Eastern women. Today, few of her old friends remain. "They begged me to stop," she explains of the women in her circle. Some feared for her life; others reviled her message. Wafa summarizes their reaction this way: "You can't make any change, so why are you risking your life?"

Her answer is that she is uniquely positioned to reform the culture she came from. She is educated, a gifted writer, a captivating speaker and -- unusual for a Muslim reformer -- a woman. Most crucially, she has the courage to say things that others are thinking but won't express.

To be sure, Wafa doesn't please all of Islam's would-be reformers. Some feel her brash style is counterproductive. Others challenge her interpretation of Islam. But Wafa makes it clear she isn't about to stop agitating. She is now focused on a book she's writing, titled The Escaped Prisoner: When Allah Is a Monster. Asked if she will soften her stance to appeal to a broader audience, she replies, "Not under any circumstances." After half a lifetime trapped in silence, she has found her voice.

Last Updated: 2006-11-13





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