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Islam Fatally Flawed, Says Voice From Corona via Al Jazeera

Wafa Sultan, who tells a tale of terror from Syria, draws lots of Western media attention but not as much from Muslims.

March 13, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

She's no longer a Muslim, has never connected with progressive Islamic groups and does not know the writings of Islam's most respected voices of reform.

So why is Wafa Sultan, a 47-year-old Southern California woman, suddenly in the news as a fresh voice of reason and reform about Islam?

In a blunt interview on Al Jazeera television last month, Sultan harshly criticized Islam as violent and unfavorably compared Muslims with Jews. In remarks Sunday at her Corona home, Sultan, who said she left the faith after witnessing an act of religious extremism, went even further, saying Islam was beyond repair with teachings that exhorted Muslims to kill non-Muslims, subjugate women and disregard human rights.

"I don't believe you can reform Islam," Sultan said. Saying Islamic scriptures are riddled with violence, misogyny and other extremist ideas, she declared, "Once you try to fix it, you're going to break it."

Sultan's Al Jazeera remarks have been widely circulated by such groups as the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based translation service founded by a former Israeli colonel, and the American Jewish Congress. She made the New York Times front page and is being plied with interview requests from CNN, Fox, "Good Morning America" and public radio. Her e-mail in-box is filled with messages from well-wishers around the world -- mostly non-Muslims -- praising her "courage," offering donations and pitching proposals to make a documentary about her life.

"This woman, at great personal risk, has decided to come forward not only in English but also in Arabic to discuss what's wrong with Islam and the Muslim world," said Allyson Rowen Taylor of the American Jewish Congress, which has invited her to visit Israel. "She blames the mullahs and clerics for distorting the teachings of the Koran for 14 centuries and speaks about the anger and despair of fellow Muslims."

But the flurry of interest among non-Muslims contrasts oddly with the near silence among Muslims themselves, many of whom say she is a largely unknown figure not causing any particular stir.

"I haven't come across any indication that people are discussing her," said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a University of Virginia Islamic studies professor who was blacklisted eight years ago by Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani for his reformist ideas that women were equal to men and all Abrahamic faiths were equally respectable. "Cyberspace is almost silent."

He said he first heard of her a few weeks ago, when the American Jewish Congress sent him an e-mail with a link to her Al Jazeera interview, which was translated from Arabic into English by the Middle East Media Research Institute. Sachedina said he agreed with some of her remarks, including her criticism that too many Muslim rulers fail to protect human rights. But he objected to what he called her "vilification" of the entire tradition.

Other Muslims questioned why groups outside the faith were so avidly promoting a non-Muslim to criticize Islam, a practice that has occurred before and is a sore spot in the Islamic community, particularly since many respected Muslims also advocate change.

"Reform is alive and well within Islam, but it will only happen by those from within Islam and not those who hate Islam," said Hussam Ayloush, who heads the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Some Muslims, however, have embraced at least part of Sultan's message. Ani Zonneveld of the Progressive Muslim Union in Los Angeles, who has been fighting to gain wider acceptance of female musicians in Islam, said she put the link to Sultan's Al Jazeera interview on her personal website, under the title "Wafa Sultan Rocks!" But Zonneveld said Sultan's critiques were not new. Plenty of practicing Muslims, including Zonneveld, have been outspoken in criticizing the way some Muslims interpret their tradition's teachings on women, human rights and interfaith relations, she said.

Sultan herself says she's making a difference. In her interview Sunday, she said growing numbers of Muslims were getting in touch with her to discuss her views. That's a sign, she believes, that she is causing them to rethink their tradition.

"I am trying to push them to doubt their teachings," she said. "My message is effective, and it's doing the job I want it to."

A Syrian native, Sultan said she walked away from the faith of her family 27 years ago, when she witnessed the murder of her professor by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extremist organization then battling the Syrian government. She said the men burst into her classroom at the University of Aleppo in northern Syria, where she was a medical student, and gunned him down, screaming, "Allah is great!"

"That was the turning point of my life," she said. "I was traumatized. I lost faith in God -- or their God -- and started to question every single teaching of ours."

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