Monday, March 20, 2006

Women at war with the mullahs

Christopher Goodwin, The Times Online:
It would be hard to imagine a place more remote from the violence and turmoil of the Middle East than this quiet cul-de-sac in the southern suburbs of Los Angeles. But as David Sultan opens the front door of his home he glances up and down the street anxiously.

He has good reason to be nervous: ever since Dr Wafa Sultan, his wife, appeared on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network, last summer she has been receiving death threats. During that and a second broadcast in February Dr Sultan, who was brought up as a Muslim in Syria, denounced the teachings and practice of Islam asbarbaricandmedieval”.

The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilisations,” the impassioned 47-year-old told Al-Jazeera’s stunned audience across the Arab world. It is a clash between civilisation and backwardness, between the civilised and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality. It is a clash between human rights on the one hand and the violation of these rights on the other, between those who treat women like beasts and those who treat them like human beings.”

The broadcasts have caused an unholy stir in the Muslim world and virtually overnight have turned Sultan, previously known only to a few for her writings on, a small Arab-American website, into one of the most controversial figures in the international debate about Islam. The broadcasts have been downloaded more than 1m times from the internet and she has been interviewed on CNN and profiled by The New York Times and Le Monde. READ MORE

While some acclaim her as “a voice of reason” others have denounced her as a “heretic” and insist that she deserves to die. What seems to have most infuriated many Muslims were Sultan’s comparisons between how Jews and Muslims have coped with the tragedies that have befallen them.

The Jews have come from tragedy and forced the world to respect them,” she said, “with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling.

“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. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them.”

Sitting in the airy living room of the spacious modern home where Sultan and her husband live, it is hard to believe this small, neatly dressed woman could be at the centre of an international firestorm. Just as improbable is that the most important and controversial critics of Islamic fundamentalism, violence and intolerance are, like Sultan, women, mostly from Islamic countries.

They include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician, who has strongly criticised Islamic attitudes towards women and the widespread practice of female circumcision in Muslim north Africa; Irshad Manji, a Canadian lesbian of Pakistani descent, whose book The Trouble with Islam Today chastises Islam for its aggression towards women and for its anti-semitism; Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam and Muslim academic and author, who has infuriated traditional Muslims by leading Friday prayer for Muslims in New York, a role traditionally taken only by male imams.

Other Muslim women in the front lines of the clash with Islamic governments are as diverse as Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani village woman who was brutally gang-raped in 2002 as reprisal for an alleged transgression by her 14-year-old brother, and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003 for her defence of the rights of women and children in fundamentalist Muslim Iran.

Death threats against these women are commonplace. Irshad Manji has had to install bullet-proof windows in her home. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has to travel everywhere with bodyguards after the threats against her and the death the film maker Theo van Gogh, her friend and collaborator.

Sultan never imagined her life would take this path. She was born to a large middle-class family in the Syrian port city of Banias. Her father was a grain trader, her mother a housewife. She has nine brothers and sisters. The family was devoutly Muslim and Sultan, who studied medicine at the University of Aleppo in Damascus, says she never had any reason to doubt her faith. But in 1979, when she was a student, she witnessed a horrifying crime. As she stood chatting with some other students on the university courtyard, armed members of the Muslim Brotherhood began shooting at one of her teachers, killing him on the spot.

“They filled his body with bullets as they shouted ‘Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! (God is greatest!)’,” she recalls. She says they killed him because he was an Alawite, a member of the same Muslim sect as the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, whom they wanted to overthrow, even though he had nothing to do with politics.

This was the turning point of my life,” says Sultan. She began to reread the Koran closely, gradually coming to the conclusion that the violence and oppression of most Muslim governments and some of those fighting against them stemmed directly from the teachings of Islam.

I began to question every single teaching,” she says. She noticed that there are too many verses in the Koran which say you must kill those who are non-Muslim; you must kill those who don’t believe in Allah and his messenger. I started to ask: is this right? Is this human? All our problems in the Islamic world, I strongly believe, are the natural outcome of these teachings. Go open any book in any class in any school in any Islamic country and read it. You will see what kind of teachings we have: Islam tells its followers that every non-Muslim is your enemy.”

Sultan, who worked as a family practitioner in Syria after qualifying as a doctor, also speaks about the virulent anti-semitism that was inculcated in her and all Syrian children. This made her so terrified of Jews that she refused to act the part of the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in a school play.

Until I came to United States I used to believe that Jewish people are not human creatures,” she says. “Unfortunately this is the way I was brought up, to believe that Jews don’t have our human features, they don’t have our human voices.”

In the first week she was in the United States she and her husband went to a shoe shop in Hollywood. Her husband asked the clerk where he was from and when he said that he was an Israeli Jew, “you can’t believe what I did”, she says. “I ran away without shoes, barefoot. My husband followed me. He said, ‘How stupid you are.’ But I said, ‘I cannot tolerate him.’ I was scared to death because he was from Israel; I reacted in a very bad, negative way, because of the way I had been raised, for the past 30 years of my life.”

Sultan and her husband, who met when they were at university, moved to the United States in 1989 with two of their children. They have since had a third. As they struggled to establish themselves — for four years she worked as a cashier in convenience stores until his small business began to prosper — she started writing about Islam, at first for local Arab newspapers, until her writings brought threats against them. Three weeks before September 11 she helped set up the Annaqed (The Critic) website where she and other writers from the Muslim Middle East have been able to put forward their critical views of Islam.

Sultan, who is now close to completing her US medical qualifications — she plans to practise psychiatry — has written two books that can be read in Arabic and is finishing a third The Escaped Prisoner: When God is a Monster — which she hopes will also be published in English.

Sultan has no intention of stopping her attacks on Islam even though she and her family in Syria have been threatened. Two of her brothers have been interrogated by the Syrian secret police, she says, since the Al-Jazeera broadcasts. In fact, Sultan’s long intellectual journey has brought her to a radical conclusion: that reform of Islam is impossible.

Muslims have been hostages of their beliefs and their teachings for 14 centuries,” she says. “I believe the time has come and the truth should be spoken. I know that I am waging a very difficult war. It is going to take years. I might not be able to see it in my life, but I am strongly sure that the next generation will see the fruits of my writing and my message.”