Dr. Wafa Sultan first made headlines after 9-11, when she spoke out against Islamic world-spawned rumors that the attacks had been perpetrated by Jews and the CIA. Four and a half years later, she sparked more controversy when she appeared on Al Jazeera, where she argued against Samuel P. Huntington’s theory of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ between the Muslim and Western worlds, and instead painted a picture of the conflict free of cultural relativism, as one of modernity vs. barbarism. Last year, she rocked boats again with the publication of her biography A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Radical Islam (St. Martin’s Press, 2009).
In 2006, Dr. Sultan was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influenial people in the world, for expressing openly critical views on Islamic extremism rarely aired by Muslims. She made it to the front page of the New York Times, and her collection of YouTube videos has been viewed well over a million times.
It has been a lonely and oftentimes terrifying quest. But Dr. Sultan doesn’t look back.
Since the psychiatrist escaped her native Syria for California in 1989 she has made it her life’s work to open the Western world’s eyes to Islamic reality, reeducate the Muslim world, and create a moderate Muslim revolution. This job has cost her her homeland, her relationship with most of her family, and her and her family’s personal security.
It has been a lonely and oftentimes terrifying quest. But Dr. Sultan doesn’t look back. She is proud to have been one of the firsts to speak up and create change in both the Muslim and Western worlds. She takes great comfort in the conviction that she is fighting for truth, for life, and for good over evil.
In an exclusive phone interview from a secret location, she reveals why, against all odds, she is confident that she and those who think like her, will prevail.
Q1. Why did you leave Syria when you did?
I believe that if you give the chance to any Muslim woman or man to leave their country, most of them will not turn it down because of the miserable situation we live in, in all Islamic countries. Our situation is a product of our Islamic teachings, which we are forced to follow, and which are not humane.
My turning point was when the Muslim Brotherhood gunned down my professor.
The very painful turning point for me happened in 1979, when members of the Muslim Brotherhood gunned down my professor at the University of Aleppo Medical School right in front of me. Dr. Yusef al Yusef happened to belong to the same Islamic sect as the Syrian president. As they shot him, they shouted “Allah is great!” At the time I didn’t realize it would eventually lead me to become who I am today, but it pushed me to start asking myself what kind of Allah are we worshipping. One who inspires men to kill.
Of course my account of events has been refuted. Some say it didn’t happen on campus, some say I wasn’t there to see it. Others say it didn’t happen at all. This is the only way these people know how to defend themselves. They have never learned how to challenge, logically, so when something goes against them they say it’s not true, or that somebody else did it. This is their mindset.
Q2. What is the problem with Islam?
For many years after my professor was murdered, I struggled with a deep psychologically conflict about what was behind the evil that day -- Islam itself or bad people who hijacked Islam? It was extremely difficult for me to admit where the problem lay, but I have come to the conclusion that the problem is deeply rooted in Islam. Muslims are victims of their own religion, not the other way around.
The world has to understand that this is the root of the problem. It’s Islam. It’s not fundamentalist Islam. It’s not political Islam. It’s not Wahhabi Islam. It’s not militant Islam. Growing up in Syria I never heard any of these terms. The problem is with Islam itself. It is violent by nature.
If you leave the Koran aside for a moment and look at the life of Mohammad, the role model for every Muslim man, you will see what I mean. In one “heroic” story, the prophet beheads 80 Jewish men, rapes their women and kills their sons and fathers in front of them. Tell me, how can you interpret this story in a humane way? Islamic third graders have been learning that story for the last 1,400 years.
The problem with Islam is that it is lacking a moral code. There are no ethics. The only responsibility a Muslim has is to worship Allah; nothing beyond that. The most important human values are missing here – feeling responsible for and regretting bad deeds. If you don’t take responsibility for your bad deeds, what else is left for human beings to build a good life?
It follows that the problem in Islamic countries is not only with our governments, not only with poverty and lack of education. Islamic societies fundamentally lack ethics. This problem is deeply rooted in Islam. Once you are able to solve the religious part of it, the political part will be easily solved.
Q3. If Islam is a battle against the “infidel,” why are Jews more often the focus of Islamic attack than Christians?
We are raised to hate, to believe that we are only to worship Mohammad and to destroy all people who do not worship Mohammad. We are brainwashed to believe that Islam is going to take over the world. Our major goal – that we learn at a very early age – is to destroy whoever doesn’t believe in Islam, especially Jews.
To answer why Jews in particular, we have to go back to Mohammad’s life. Mohammad taught that you have to keep killing Jews until the judgment day. One legend has it that on judgment day the Jews will try to hide behind anything they can find and everything on earth - rocks, bushes, and hills - will whisper Jews’ locations to the Muslims so they can find and kill them. All things on earth that is, except for a certain type of tree, which will sympathize with the Jews and refuse to give away their hiding places. One Imam on Arabic television told his audience that that is the reason why the Jews in Israel plant so many trees – to hide behind them on judgment day.
My assumption is that during Mohammad’s time the Jews were more stubborn to keep their religion than the Christians. Jews are described in the Koran as more hostile to Islam than Christians. This may be why they are a greater Islamic target.
Q4. How do you hope to change Islamic countries?
I am a well-known writer in the Islamic world, where I am in contact with millions of readers via my website. When I write something that in the West sounds very basic, like why it’s not good to lie, it is very controversial because they have never heard about that before.
The way to change things is through education and exposure to different thoughts.
This kind of basic values education is the number one tool. These people have been prisoners for the last 1,400 years. The only way to change things is to give them the chance to be educated and the freedom to be exposed to different thoughts so they can reach their own conclusions.
For many years, I have criticized Islamic teachings and I feel as though I have created a vacuum for Muslims in the Arab world. Now I am at a stage where I am building a value system to fill this gap. When you take something, you have to replace it with something else. I am teaching my readers basic ethical values: how to say sorry if they do something wrong; how to say thank you; why not to lie; how to be honest with their children; and how to take hatred out of their way of life. I am amazed at the positive responses from my readers.
I would like to enlarge my impact. Just last week I received an email from a university professor in Morocco who is building a civil movement against Islam with is students, and he asked to me to join them, to inspire them.
I also try to lead by example. It is very hard to take the road not traveled. It is human nature to look for the road that has been taken. But when you take the road not traveled it leads you to a place where no one else has been. In taking my journey I have inspired millions of Muslims. I have no doubt that I am making a positive change in the Muslim world. I believe that the seeds I am planting now are going to yield great results three or four generations from now.
Q5. How do you hope to change Western countries?
When I first started I thought I only needed to reeducate my people in the Muslim world and to create a new mentality, clean of hatred. But after I was introduced to the West, I unfortunately found out that the West needed to be reeducated, too.
The West will never defeat Islamic terror without first understanding the Muslim mindset.
I hope to help people in the West understand the Muslim mindset. They will never succeed to defeat Islamic terrorism unless they first understand that mindset. You need to understand your enemy’s values in order to prevail over them. The war against terror has to be fought on an ideological front, as well as a military one. Islam as a political ideology has not been challenged for the last 1,400 years. Western appeasement has given Muslims the message that they are right.
I say that with a broken heart, but you are fighting against someone who is willing to die in order to kill you, so what can you inflict on him? The West is left with only two options – to kill them or be killed.
Already the situation in Europe is terrifying. I don’t feel safe there. Muslims leave their countries looking for positive change in the West, but when they arrive there they don’t feel pressured to change. They are playing two games: living Western lives and telling the West they are ‘moderate’ and for change, while at the same time telling their people back home a different story. In 50 years, I can see more and more Muslims in Europe and in the U.S. And if we lose the West – if we lose America – where else can we go?
Q6. Why is it taking the Western world so long to wake up?
Here in the West, we need to elect people who are willing to challenge Islamic Sharia. It will take political power to stop it. And in order for people to know what kind of leaders to elect, they need to be educated about Islam.
But it’s more than just a lack of education or understanding. There are also conflicting interests. The West needs Saudi oil and in Islamic culture; when you need me, I own you. For the last 30 years, the Saudis have been looking to empower Islam in the West, through the Muslims who live here. Now, the Saudi government is trying to appear more modern and peaceful, but the damage they have caused is done.
At one point, they were offering to pay US$1,000 to any Muslim American who would add ‘Mohammad’ to his name. This was their way to infiltrate Western society.
The Saudi King also has a lot of power in the Islamic world to create change. Everyone in the Muslim world waits to see what the Saudi government will do. And if it’s not in their interests, they don’t do it. They know the West can’t force them because the West needs oil.
It’s a very scary situation. At the same time, I see more people in America waking up. I am almost sure the West will win this ideological war. The question is, at what cost? How may lives will have to be sacrificed?
Q7. How has your life changed?
My life has changed in so many ways over the last 20 years. For starters, we have to move every six months. I have received more death threats from more places in the world than I can count. It’s become a way of life for me. It doesn’t mean I’m not afraid, but I try to overcome my fear and I very much enjoy that process of overcoming.
Due to death threats, we have to move every six months.
Of course I can never again return to Syria, or go to any Islamic country again. It’s heartbreaking because so much of my family is there, and friends, and childhood memories. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t affect me. It’s like when you uproot a tree from its place, it dies. There will always be something missing inside me and I will probably feel that for the rest of my life.
There are other psychological aspects. I don’t consider myself “clean” yet. It’s not easy to clean out who you are and what you were told for the first 5-10 years of your life. It hasn’t been easy to undo the damage that was done. I am still working on it. Living in the U.S. and being exposed to different belief systems and values has helped a lot in that process. I have also been blessed with a good, supportive husband.
I didn’t convert because I don’t believe in any other specific religion. What I believe is that there is some sort of superpower and it’s for good. Whenever I reach a point where I ask myself, ‘why did you do it?’ it is that power that I feel connected to. It’s that source of positive energy that keeps me going. It fills me with the passion and the power to continue.