For Sidrah Ahmad-Chan, the moment felt surreal.
Listening to a Muslim psychologist speaking about patterns of abuse while on stage at the American Islamic College on Saturday (Jan. 11), she pulled up Twitter.
“First panel discussion and I am already reeling,” typed Ahmad-Chan, a Toronto-based researcher studying gender-based violence and Islamophobia, who was one of about 100 other attendees at the newly launched Hurma Project’s first conference. Started by prominent Canadian Islamic scholar Ingrid Mattson, the three-day research conference was the first to focus entirely on abuse in Muslim spaces.
“We are actually having conversations on spiritual abuse and sexual abuse in our community,” Ahmad-Chan wrote. “It’s actually happening. Been a long time coming.”
Over the past two to three years, scholars and advocates say, North American Muslims have risen up in an unprecedented movement to openly confront sexual and spiritual abuse perpetrated by Muslim religious leaders.
“I’m definitely seeing an increase in people willing to talk about these issues,” said Phoenix-based certified sexual health educator Angelica Lindsey-Ali, who founded the Village Auntie Movement two years ago and has worked with victims of Muslim religious leaders accused of sexual abuse. “The unfortunate part is that it isn’t necessarily by choice. In some cases, I think the recognition of the rampant spiritual abuse in the community has forced them to have to talk about these issues.”
The conference comes in the wake of several explosive scandals impugning well-respected Islamic teachers, including Bayyinah Institute founder and superstar preacher Nouman Ali Khan, who was caught in a sexting scandal and accused of luring women into sexual relationships disguised as secret marriages; Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Swiss Islamic scholar and author who is currently awaiting trial over charges of raping multiple women who accused him at the height of the global #MeToo movement; and Usama Canon, whose organization Ta’leef Collective published a statement saying the founder “deeply betrayed the sanctity of the position of spiritual teacher” through “verbal abuse and abuse of authority,” as well as actions of a “more serious nature.”
“The rise of these celebrity sheikhs is a fairly recent development, just in the past few years,” said UNC Chapel Hill professor Juliane Hammer, who attended the Hurma Project conference and whose new book examines Muslim activism against domestic violence. “And with that rise comes the possibility of this kind of exposure. Because every person, especially men, in positions of such power is prone to abuse.”
Advocates also attribute the new movement to a number of other developments: the growing sensitivity to women’s leadership and access in Muslim spaces; the explosion of sex abuse scandals and crises in a number of other faith traditions, which showed that Muslims are not unique in struggling to stamp out the problem; increased social and political visibility of Muslims; and the broader #MeToo movement, which empowered survivors to share their stories and offered a roadmap for accountability.
“The #MeToo movement was definitely a catalyst and gave a roadmap and a sense of urgency to people who were sitting on a secret,” Lindsey-Ali said. “But the reality is that now is just the time that Allah is finally bringing to light the fact that there are abusers in the community. Allah is the Reckoner.”
Most new initiatives are approaching the issue of sexual abuse by wrapping it into a broader category of “spiritual abuse,” which encompasses all abuses of religious authority by faith leaders. That includes physical abuse, fraud and embezzlement and initiation of secret, temporary or child marriages and also hints at the damage such abuse can inflict on a victim’s own relationship with their faith.
Zahra Ayubi, a Dartmouth professor researching gender and Islamic ethics, cautioned that use of the phrase “spiritual abuse” as a euphemistic catch-all term may minimize the damage of sexual violence and confuse the vulnerable communities it aims to protect.
Others see it as a critical strategic move.
“Calling it spiritual in order to get people to talk about it can also be a very intentional strategy,” Hammer observed. “If they walk in and say, ‘I want to talk about sexual abuse by religious authority figures,’ people want to shut down the conversation. So advocates are looking at where the community is and what will allow them to talk about it.”
Ten years ago, the Chicago-based non-profit Heart Women and Girls was the only national initiative openly discussing sexual violence in Muslim spaces. Public health advocate Nadiah Mohajir founded the organization 10 years ago to offer sexual and reproductive health programming to local Muslims, making the argument that a lack of sex education enables sexual abuse.
In 2015, Mohajir became a leading voice on effectively dealing with sexual abuse in Muslim communities when a prominent Chicago-area imam, Mohammed Abdullah Saleem, was charged with committing sexual assault and battery against minors at the Islamic school he had founded. Despite vocal backlash against the accusers by the conservative cleric’s supporters, Mohajir and other local scholars, lawyers and therapists urged victims to speak up and worked with other local schools to develop stronger policies to protect their students.
Mohajir’s team is no longer alone in its uphill battle.
Two years ago, Facing Abuse in Community Environments (Face) launched and began publishing reports investigating incidents of sexual abuse in U.S. mosques and naming alleged perpetrators. In Shaykh’s Clothing sprung up three years ago to document incidents of spiritual abuse and offer resources addressing the root causes of the problem. Lindsey-Ali’s Village Auntie Movement takes a traditional African approach in teaching Muslim women about their “sacred sexuality” and their rights in the marital bed. Muslim poet-turned-rapper Mona Haydar’s 2017 song “Dog” calls out the “sheikhs in my DM / begging me to shake it on my cam in the PM.”
Two weeks ago in Chicago, at the Muslim American Society and Islamic Circle of North America’s annual conference, Muslim leaders held a panel on “breaking the taboo” of sexual and domestic abuse. Maryland’s Family and Youth Initiative has published a toolkit on spiritual abuse. The Peaceful Families Project will soon host a training session for imams and Muslim chaplains on preventing and responding to domestic violence. And this week in London, the women’s group Hawaa Empowerment will host a discussion on sexual abuse in Muslim communities.
“What’s happening right now is different from before,” Ayubi confirmed. “Prior to this, the main paradigm with regard to sexual abuse, and what people like to call spiritual abuse, was one of silence. That’s going to change with these new initiatives.”
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Source: Religion News Service