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.”