"Unlikely journey from obscurity to fame, rags to riches."
She has been described as a hero, a reformist, a crusader, and a brave woman who defied the Muslim world and stood up for what she believed in. In 2006, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people "whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world." Dr. Wafa Sultan has been honored countless times for her now famous appearance on Al-Jazeera television opposite a Muslim cleric named Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouly on February 21, 2006.
In that memorable clip widely distributed by MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Sultan referred to the current conflict between the West and militant Muslims as "a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another that belongs to the 21st century... a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality." The clip spread through the internet like wild fire and landed Sultan in the LA Times, the New York Times and CNN among others. MEMRI estimated that the video was viewed at least one million times.
All of a sudden, and out of obscurity, Sultan found herself the center of both attention and controversy. On the one hand, she became the darling of many right wing media pundits and mainly pro-Israel groups who viewed her as a beacon of reform that stood up to what was wrong with Islam and Muslims. On the other hand, Muslims contended that by making broad, unfounded and ignorant proclamations about their faith, Sultan was nothing more than a pawn playing into the hands of Islamophobes, and an opportunist who intentionally pushed the divide between the Islamic world and the West to further ulterior motives that included fame, fortune and immortality.
Reformist or opportunist, Sultan continues to enjoy the spotlight as she routinely figures prominently as a guest speaker at many functions and fundraisers across the country. As her fame grows, so do her admirers and detractors.
Born in 1958 in the coastal town of Baniyas, Syria, Wafa Sultan grew up in a modest middle class Alawite family. She attended the University of Aleppo where she majored in medical studies (source: wikipedia).
In an interview with the New York Times, Sultan claimed that in 1979, gunmen from the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor before her eyes. It was then that her disillusionment and anger with Islam started. According to the same interview, Sultan, her husband Moufid, who goes by the Americanized name David, and their two children applied for a visa to the United States in 1989 and eventually settled in with friends in Cerritos, Calif.
Post 9/11, Sultan reportedly began writing for an Islamic reform Web site called Annaqed (The Critic) run by a Syrian expatriate in Phoenix. She wrote an angry essay about the Muslim Brotherhood and her writings eventually drew the attention of Al-Jazeera television, which invited her to debate, first an Algerian Islamist in July 2005 and then Dr. Ibrahim Al-Khouly, a lecturer at the prestigious Al-Azhar University, in February 2006 (New York Times, March 11, 2006).
It was the second debate, excerpts of which were translated and circulated by MEMRI that garnered her worldwide attention. Sultan went from obscurity to fame in a matter of weeks.
While Sultan’s admirers have nothing but praise for her, detractors charge that many of her public claims do not corroborate with facts. Moreover, they assert that the reasons behind her rise to fame have more to do with her personal life than with her desire to reform Islam.
Adnan Halabi*, a Syrian expatriate who met and got to know the Sultans when they first came to the United States, spoke at length about the Wafa Sultan that very few people know.
According to Halabi, Dr. Wafa Ahmad (her maiden name) arrived in California with her husband Moufid (now changed to David) in the late 80s on a tourist visa. Contrary to what she told the New York Times, they came as a couple, leaving their two children back in Syria.
Another source named Nabil Mustafa, also Syrian, told InFocus that he was introduced to Moufid Sultan through a personal friend who knew the family well, and both ended up having tea at the Sultans’ one-bedroom apartment one evening in 1989. It was then that Moufid told Mustafa the story of how he was reunited with his two children. According to Mustafa, Moufid Sultan told him that a short time after they arrived in the country, his wife, Dr. Wafa Sultan, mailed her passport back to her sister Ilham Ahmad in Syria (while the passport still carried a valid U.S. tourist visa). With Ilham bearing a resemblance to her sister Wafa, the plan was to go to the Mexican Embassy in Damascus and obtain a visa to Mexico, making sure that the airline carrier they would book a flight on would have a layover somewhere in the Continental United States.
With an existing U.S. visa on Wafa Sultan’s passport, Ilham Ahmad had no trouble obtaining an entry permit to Mexico. Shortly after, Ilham and Wafa’s two children landed in Houston, Texas. She and the children then allegedly made their way through customs and were picked up by Moufid and brought to California.
Taking advantage of an amnesty law for farmers, the Sultans applied for permanent residency through a Mexican lady who worked as a farm hand. She helped Moufid with the paperwork by claiming he had worked as a farmer for four years. The application went through and the Sultans obtained their green cards.
As incredible as the story sounds, Mustafa told InFocus that to the best of his recollection, this was the exact account he heard from Moufid Sultan. Halabi, who is not acquainted with Mustafa, corroborated the story, which he heard from Dr. Wafa Sultan herself but with fewer details. Dr. Wafa Sultan declined InFocus’ repeated requests to be interviewed or comment on the allegations. InFocus contacted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to check on the veracity of the story but an official said that they would look into the allegations, which could take months to investigate.
Halabi alleges that Ilham Ahmad lived as illegal resident with her sister Wafa for years until she met an Arab Christian named Khalid Musa Shihadeh whom she ended up marrying (they were married in Nevada on 12/8/1991 and filed for divorce in 2002). It was during that time that Halabi got to know the Sultans well.
Halabi alleges that the Sultans lived in dire poverty. "Their rent was over $1,000 per month and Moufid was only making $800," he said. Dr. Wafa Sultan was forced to rent out a room in her apartment and work at a pizza parlor in Norwalk, Calif. where a personal friend used to pick her up and drop her off daily. This same friend used to help the Sultans out with groceries and occasionally loaned them money just so they could make it through the month. "It was a serious struggle," Halabi recalled. "The Sultans lived hand to mouth for years on end." Further, Halabi said that at no point during the period he knew the family did Sultan ever discuss religion, politics or any topic relevant to her current activities. "She is a smart woman, articulate and forceful, but she never meddled in religion or politics to the extent she is doing now," Halabi said.
As to the claim that her professor (thought to be Yusef Al-Yusef) was gunned down before her eyes in a faculty classroom at the University of Aleppo, Halabi said the incident never took place. "There was a professor who was killed around 1979, that is true, but it was off-campus and Sultan was not even around when it happened," he added.
InFocus contacted the University of Aleppo and spoke to Dr. Riyad Asfari, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, who confirmed Halabi’s account. "Yes, the assassination took place off-campus," he said. Dr. Asfari was keen to add that no one had ever been killed in a classroom anytime or anywhere at the university.
Syrian expatriate Ghada Moezzin, who attended the University of Aleppo in 1979 as a sophomore, told InFocus that she never heard of the assassination. "We would’ve known about the killing if it had happened," she said. "It would have been big news on campus and I do not recall ever hearing about it." Moezzin, who lives in Glendora, Calif., added that government security was always present around the university given the political climate in Syria at the time.
What are perceived as inconsistencies and half-truths like these convince Sultan’s critics that the motive behind her invectives against Islam and Muslims is other than her alleged desire for reform.
These same critics allege that Islamophobes are most certainly behind the likes of Sultan. They argue that the clip that made her famous was distributed by MEMRI, a media group that purports to independently translate and distribute news from the Middle East when in reality it is promoting a pro-Israeli slant. In an article titled, "Selective Memri," published on August 12, 2002 by the British newspaper The Guardian, investigative reporter Brian Whitaker wrote: "The stories selected by MEMRI for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel."
According to Whitaker, the founder of MEMRI is an Israeli named Yigal Carmon. "Mr - or rather, Colonel - Carmon spent 22 years in Israeli military intelligence and later served as counter-terrorism adviser to two Israeli prime ministers, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin... of the six people named (as MEMRI’s staff), three - including Col. Carmon - are described as having worked for Israeli intelligence." (The entire article can be obtained at:
Another feature of deliberate bias and media myopia, critics say, is the fact that the Al-Jazeera clip was edited intentionally "out of context" to reflect one single point of view and promote Sultan’s arguments through American-style media sound bites, reducing the other debater to a mere punching bag.
InFocus was able to obtain a translated transcript of the Al-Jazeera debate. An example of this bias critics allege is Sultan’s much-rehashed quote, "It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality."
In the transcript, Shaikh Ibrahim Al-Khouli responded by saying, "…here we must ask a question, who facilitated the conflict and indeed initiated it; is it the Muslims? Muslims now are in a defensive position fighting off an aggressor... who said Muslims were backward? They may be backward in terms of technological advances, but who said that such are the criteria for humanity? Muslims are more advanced on a human level, in terms of the values and principles they endorse." (Entire transcript can be viewed at:
InFocus also found out that the web site called Annaqed (www.annaqed.com) she supposedly wrote for before being noticed by Al-Jazeera Television is not an "Islamic reform Web Site" as was reported in the New York Times article, but rather an Arab nationalist blog run by a Syrian Christian who defines it as being "in line with Christian morality and principles." The site is also replete with anti-Muslim writings.
Sultan’s detractors include not only Muslims but members of the Jewish community as well. In an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times (June 25, 2006) and titled "Islam’s Ann Coulter," Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who attended a fundraiser for a local Jewish organization where Sultan was a speaker, wrote, "The more Sultan talked, the more evident it became that progress in the Muslim world was not her interest.... She never alluded to any healthy, peaceful Islamic alternative."
The rabbi mentioned that Judea Pearl, father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, "was one of the few voices of restraint and nuance heard that afternoon. In response to Sultan’s assertion that the Koran contains only verses of evil and domination, Pearl said he understood the book also included ‘verses of peace’ that proponents of Islam uphold as the religion’s true intent. The Koran’s verses on war and brutality, Pearl contended, were ‘cultural baggage,’ as are similar verses in the Torah."
He added, "Sultan’s over-the-top, indefensible remarks at the fundraiser, along with her failure to mention the important, continuing efforts of the Islamic Center (of Southern California), insulted all Muslims and Jews in L.A. and throughout the nation who are trying to bridge the cultural gap between the two groups. And that’s one reason why I eventually walked out of the event."
In the end, Dr. Wafa Sultan will remain a conflicting figure. Loved by some, reviled by others, she does not seem to be afraid to voice her opinions. She once said, "I don’t believe you can reform Islam," and claimed that the Qur’an was riddled with violence, misogyny and extremist ideas. Her Muslims detractors believe Sultan does not even qualify as a Muslim reformer since she has publicly rejected Islam and declared herself an atheist.
As for the Sultans’ financial troubles, Halabi told InFocus that ever since Dr. Sultan gained notoriety those troubles are a thing of the past. "She bought a house for herself and bought another for her son," Halabi said. "She also bought two smog-check stations, one for her husband and another for her son," he added. When asked about the source of her material well-being, Halabi was unsure.
As to the reasons that may have pushed Sultan to be so outspoken and vocal against Islam in a post-9/11 world, Halabi sympathetically remarked, "Poverty. It drives people to sell their soul."