Lifestyle/Technology | Wafa Sultan finds it harder to prick the American than the Arab mind on the problems with Islam | Susan Olasky

NEW YORK—I'm sitting across from Wafa Sultan in a midtown Manhattan deli while Christmas muzak ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" variety) plays. She's in New York to promote her book, A God Who Hates. It's a memoir of her life under Islam and a polemic against that religion, which she doesn't believe can be reformed. She knows this isn't a message Americans want to hear: "It's hard for you to believe that people can be evil."

Her position is politically incorrect and in December wasn't garnering much media interest. That was different from her experience in 2006. Then she was already well-known in the Arab world for her writings about Islam. The television network Al Jazeera invited her to appear on a program to discuss links between terrorism and Islamic teaching. "I was so happy to do it," she says.

She was not in the same studio as the host and another guest, an imam who came originally from Algeria: "I was shocked to find I was debating." The debate took place in Arabic, with the imam calling her bad names and interrupting her constantly. "The host asked me to sum up my thoughts. He gave me two minutes. I began to speak and the imam interrupted again. I said to him in Arabic, "Shut up. It is my turn."

She explains the significance: "It was the first time in Islamic history a woman on national TV told a man, and not only a man, but an imam, 'Shut up, it is my turn.' And I found out that the most interesting part of the statement was 'it is my turn,' because women in the Islamic culture don't have a turn."

The debate circulated on YouTube. ABC and The New York Times covered it. Wafa Sultan became a recognizable figure and a target of extremists. In California she has to hide her identity when she goes out, donning a wig and sunglasses. In Europe she needs bodyguards: "I gave a speech in Paris a year ago and I felt I was on the West Bank. Seventy-five percent of the audience was Muslim."

Sultan's critique of Islam grows out of her own experience growing up in Syria, where she was one of 12 children raised in a Muslim home: "I came from a very oppressive culture, especially as a woman. I had no rights or hand in my own destiny." She did have the advantage of coming from a relatively secular family and living in a small city on the Mediterranean with a large Christian community.

The interaction of those communities made the form of Islam in her hometown less strict. She was able to go to medical school and eventually become a psychiatrist. Despite her professional success, Sultan found Syria to be an oppressive place to live as a woman. In 1989 she moved to the United States with her husband.

Sultan uses words like brainwashed to describe the power Islam exerts over the people who live under it. She says Islam uses fear to control people: "You're not allowed in the Islamic culture to ask, you have to take whatever is taught without any questions. You aren't allowed to leave Islam, to convert to any other religion."

Sultan describes how the brainwashing affected her mother and a sister. Her mother came to California after not seeing her for seven years: She "gave me a very hard time in America. She was not used to freedom." If Sultan asked her husband for a glass of water, her mother would lecture her: "She was a maid to her husband. She hated to see me a free woman."

Sultan says her mother would tell her, "You're just a woman. You're just a piece of woman. Do you think you're going to make any change?" Sultan's mother, like 70 percent of Muslim women, is illiterate: "How are you going to change their minds? She has never read. She believes whatever she hears."

One of Sultan's sisters also visited. Sultan tried to engage her in conversation about Islam. The sister refused, saying, "Walls have ears." Sultan still can't believe it: "In my home, thousands of miles from her house, she wasn't able to speak her mind. She was brainwashed by fear."

When I told Sultan about one educated American woman who had converted to Islam, she reacted dismissively: "She has never lived in an Islamic country. Does she know how Muhammad treated women? How can she explain that Muhammad married a 9-year-old girl when he was 54? How can she explain that Muhammad forced his son to leave his wife for him and he slept with her the very same day [he] beheaded 800 men in one night and slept with the Jewish woman Sophia the very first night he killed her husband, her father, and her brother? How could a very educated woman explain these acts toward women? I would love to ask her this question. Maybe she's like my mom and has never gone deeply into Islam."

Sultan notes that some Muslims, aware of this history, "are justifying Muhammad's acts because you can find similar acts in different religions"—but she states that "Muhammad, it is written in the Quran, has to be the role model for every Muslim. His acts are applicable now and acceptable now." She says she is asked, "Why do you say Islam cannot be reformed? Look in the Middle Ages—they were able to go back and reform Christianity.'" Her response: "They reformed Christians but not Christianity. When they went back to the life of Jesus they were able to reform their behavior, because Jesus was very peaceful. But the problem with Islam: If you go back to the life of Muhammad you're going to get Osama bin Laden. How can you reform it?"

Sultan hasn't always felt the freedom to make her case as strongly as she now does. Sept. 11, 2001, was a turning point for her as well as for millions of others. Before that she feared bringing financial ruin to her family, as one Muslim organization had threatened to take her to court for insulting Islam: "They knew they were going to lose, but financially they could destroy you. I was afraid. I backed off a little bit. I softened my message a little. But after Sept. 11, I said, 'Enough is enough. Let them take me to court.' After Sept. 11 I was free to say whatever."

And Muslim antagonists have responded with whatever. Sultan says imams have reacted with threats to her internet writings and to three of her books published in Arabic. After one appearance on Al Jazeera, she recalls, the station apologized to the Arab world for letting her insult Islam, and "a well-known Egyptian imam who lives in Qatar said clearly this woman left Islam and now is attacking it." That charge is serious: "Once you leave Islam you have to be killed. It is the duty to kill whoever leaves Islam without a question. So I consider it a fatwa."

Although the negative emails—mostly from men, who have greater access to the internet—still come, Sultan says she is getting more positive email: "They are opening their mind to the truth. I believe in the power of repetition. I repeat over and over and over, trying to penetrate their minds." She gets letters from people telling her they have converted to Christianity and are hiding it out of fear: "People tell me we have 1.3 billion Muslims. . . . I believe more Muslims are leaving Islam than people becoming Muslim."

Sultan's critique of Islam puts her in a complicated position: "In the Arab world, Islam has become our identity. It has taken over our culture. We can't distinguish between Arab culture and Islamic culture. . . . It's written in my language. It's my history." But she's hopeful: "I see the change taking place. When it comes to my Arab readers, I am very optimistic. When it comes to the West, I am less optimistic. It's harder for me to penetrate the American mind than the Arabic."