This acceptance speech was delivered at the 29th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 2006. Wafa Sultan preceded her talk by showing the internationally noted Al Jazeera interview that prompted the award.
By Wafa Sultan
Good morning, everyone. I am so grateful to be with you today. Freedom From Religion Foundation — what a name. What a relief for Muslim women to be free from religion.
I hope I will be able to express myself with my limited English. I wished this morning I had brought my daughter Angela with me. Angela is 16, and she always claims that no one can understand her mom's gibberish English but her. Today I hope Angela is wrong, otherwise I'm going to be in big trouble. When I received your invitation, I did some research on you. I was so impressed by your mission, and by what you're trying to do for the sake of this great country. You're trying to make sure that state is separated from religion. And that's what we need in the Islamic world, in order to heal our wounds that have been opened and bleeding for the last 1,400 years.
But I still have a question for you, and the research I found didn't help me much in finding a convincing answer. It seems to me we both have reached the same spot in our lives. But my question to you: how did you arrive at this destination, being an American? For a woman like me, to be manipulated by nothing but fear--fear from our imagined god--is how I reached this destination. Our imagined god was nothing but a brutal monster who micromanages the human life at a very early age precisely. At the age of five, I started forming, I mean in school, learning about our so-called god.
Do you know what I had learned at this age? God will burn you in hell forever if you say the word "no" to your parents. God will cut you into pieces if a man sees a strand of your hair. God will force you on Judgment Day to walk on needles if you enter the bathroom with your right foot. God will barbeque you if you pass gas while you're praying. But if you believe in his rule, you will live forever in his paradise. By the age of 10, I became mentally paralyzed. Walking on a road of eggs, trying not to crush them, in order to avoid the cruelty of our monster.
I say by the age of 10 because a young girl is considered a woman at this age. At that age, I received the first message from our imagined god through his man, prophet Muhammad. The message said: "A woman is nothing but a shame. Her marriage will cover up one-tenth of this shame, and her grave will cover up the rest of it."
I was consumed with shame until the day I left my country, and believe it or not, I'm still struggling to get out of this trap. I was born in Syria, in a Muslim family with devoted Muslim parents. In 1979, I was a medical student at the University of Aleppo in Syria. Already at that time, the Muslim brotherhood committed very ugly and troubled crimes against Syrian innocent people, as al-Qaida and other criminals do now. I had witnessed the killing of my beloved teacher with my own eyes. They filled his body with bullets while screaming: "Allah Aqbar! Allah Aqbar!" It means "God is the greatest." This event was the turning point of my life. I lost trust in God. And I decided to fight his ideology of hate. I began desperately to search for a new place where I can do that freely. And here I am, announcing: I divorce my monster! Not only that, I decide to fight him in order to liberate other innocent brains from his bars. Supported by people like you, I will win this war.
Do you have any idea how many women in Syria, for example, have secretly rejected religion?
You would be surprised if you knew the percentage, but they have to feel protected in order to come out of hiding, unfortunately. I receive too many emails from so many women in the Islamic world, telling me: "Go ahead, go ahead, we are behind you," but unfortunately they're afraid for their lives.
Taslima Nasrin has been issued a fatwa. Have you had one?
I receive death threats on a daily basis, and deep in my heart I feel peace. I will do it for the rest of my life. As I said in my interview on Al-Jazeera, they might be able to kill me but they will never ever kill my message.
It looks like our country is turning to theocracy. Those in power would turn it into a theocracy if they could. Do you have any fear about that, and do you have an antidote for it?
Coming from the Islamic culture, it's very hard for me to see it, because whatever happens, I still appreciate this country. That's all I can say.
Is it typical in debates about the Muslim religion to bring up irrelevancies about people slaughtered by the colonies and how this country was founded and so on?
Very typical. They always justify what they're doing by saying, "Look, somebody else did it, so we are free to do it." Just make me part of your mission. Give me the opportunity to help you. At the same time, I will help myself move forward. By helping you, I will help my message, to spread my message.
The West has not got so much to do with religion as with rebellion against religion. My question is how should we proceed in this country to enable Muslims like you to speak up without fear?
I believe the West doesn't know much about Islam. I believe we have to educate the West about the Islamic teachings. I believe the first step is to change the Islamic teaching of children in our Islamic countries, from slandering the other to universal virtue taught by humanity. We have to create a new generation with a new process of thinking. I always ask, "Can Islam be reformed?" and my answer is no, it can't. Islam has to be transformed, not reformed, because we have to stop this ideology of hate. The whole world has to unite in order to do it.
Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-American psychiatrist, is a former Muslim who is now a secular humanist. She grew up in Banias, Syria, and was a medical student at the University of Aleppo. Sultan riveted the world with her debate with a Muslim cleric on Al Jazeera TV in July 2005 and again in February 2006. She and her husband came to America in 1989, live in Southern California and have three children. All are American citizens. Sultan was named as one of Time magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World." The working title of her book is "The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster."