Activist Alia Salem had just finished watching the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, detailing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, when she received a text message from a Muslim mother asking for help. Her daughter was in an inappropriate relationship with a Muslim clergy member from whom she had sought counseling. The clergyman had used his authority over the young woman to coerce her into a sexual relationship and the mother had no idea where to turn.
Salem said the young woman desperately needed an advocate to navigate the criminal act — in 17 states it is a felony for clergy members to have sex with anyone they are counseling — but couldn't find any organization within the U.S. Muslim community equipped to handle such issues.
"I considered it a moment of divine intervention," Salem said. "I saw patterns happening across the country, across communities. But in our Muslim community, there was no specific mechanism to call out such abuses, to investigate whether allegations were true, to prevent (the perpetrators) from going somewhere else and doing it again."
Irving-based Salem, who founded Facing Abuse in Community Environments to address such situations in the community, said Muslims are at a crossroads right now as they determine how to address sexual misconduct and abuse, especially among religious leaders and scholars, who often benefit from a heightened level of devotion from their adherents.
It's a conversation that must be had. After the Harvey Weinstein allegations opened up the floodgates for sexual harassment stories to emerge, every major industry was forced to reckon with the sexual predators within its own circle. Religious communities weren't exempt. The #ChurchToo campaign, much like the viral #MeToo, served as a platform for victims of abuse in Christian communities to be heard. The Muslim community is in desperate need of such a reckoning, as well.
Like many religious societies, Islam still struggles with open, honest conversations about sex and sexuality. Talking about sex is taboo — an interesting standpoint, considering traditional Islam did not share such prudish sensibilities. Traditionally, Islam teaches that sex between partners is an important spiritual and physical act and places great importance on the sexual pleasure and needs of the woman. Over time, however, many Muslims adopted a more cultural, patriarchal mindset about consensual sex, even in the confines of marriage. If discussion about consensual sex is mired in shame, it's virtually impossible to talk about the issue of sexual assault. Overcoming those hang-ups is a challenge that Muslims are going to have to tackle.
It's particularly important given recent high-profile sexual misconduct scandals within the community that have divided Muslims around the world. In November, two Muslim women in France accused prominent theologian and Oxford professor of Islamic Studies Tariq Ramadan of rape. Ramadan, who has denied the allegations, was placed on leave from Oxford last month.
Many Muslims took to social media to express their feelings of disgust and betrayal at the alleged actions. Others rushed to defend Ramadan, saying the accusations were part of an Islamophobic agenda to slander and silence a respected Muslim scholar. Twitter became a hotbed of accusations against the first accuser, Henda Ayari, with some calling her an attention-seeking whore trying to cash in on Ramadan's fame. Others tweeted that she was "manipulated by Israeli agents" as part of a Zionist conspiracy to discredit Islam. She was eventually placed under police protection after receiving death threats.
Mona Eltahawy, feminist author of Headscarves and Hymens, said Islamophobia puts Muslim women between a rock and a hard place when trying to report sexual assault. Many victims keep quiet for fear of painting the entire religion in a negative light.
"Islamophobia is real and racism is very real, but justice is more important," she said. "We can't use the threat of Islamophobia to silence the most vulnerable people impacted by this. As a community, we handle such issues abysmally because we don't want to talk about the difference between consensual sex and abuse. Until we are able to have that conversation honestly, we're going to stumble, fail and muck around in denial."
That denial is particularly pervasive when it comes to the actions of religious leaders. A recent investigative report by The Associated Press shined a spotlight on rampant sexual assault of children by clerics at madrassas throughout Pakistan. There were hundreds of cases reported but very little done to prosecute or even remove suspected clerics from their positions of power. An official likened the situation to the widespread abuse in the Catholic Church, a religious system that closed ranks. Victims were often seen as somehow responsible and any criticism was seen as an effort to malign the entire religion.
UAE-based freelance journalist Annam Lodhi said the culture surrounding sexual abuse in Pakistan and much of the Muslim world remains one of silence and shame.
"During childhood, children are told it is their fault if they fall during playing, if they get a bad grade it's because they don't concentrate enough and if someone is abusing them, what did they do to attract it?" she said.
After being publicly groped in Pakistan in 2011, Lodhi said she was advised to stay silent and was questioned about the appropriateness of her attire, even though she was wearing hijab and traditional clothes. She said she had no idea how rampant sexual abuse was until she started writing articles about harassment and rape, many of which detailed abuse at the hands of clerics.
"No one believed the stories," she said. "They thought they were all fabricated. Pakistanis believe that (clerics) are pure."
That mentality remains prevalent among Muslims in the U.S., particularly because some religious figures take on an almost rock star quality among their followers. Dallas-based Islamic teacher Nouman Ali Khan was known for his spirited Quranic lectures that married conservative Islamic teachings — particularly on male-female relationships — with modern-day scenarios that were easily relatable to young Muslims around the world. But his clean-cut image took a hit in September when he was accused of inappropriate relationships with a number of women, some of whom worked for him or came to him for spiritual counseling.
The news set Muslim cyberspace on fire, with Muslims around the world claiming that the accusations were gossip and lies stemming from jealousy among religious figures aiming to tarnish his career and women that he had considered for marriage. Even after screenshots emerged of shirtless selfies and questionable and threatening texts sent to various women, Khan supporters brushed off the evidence as either photoshopped images or unbecoming flirtations that may have been distasteful from a religious leader, but not criminal.
The women, however, claimed that they had been threatened with lawsuits if they came forward. Some Muslims considered them vengeful scorned women and questioned their religious purity for even engaging in such conversations with Khan. And Khan's critics, some of whom are prominent religious leaders tasked with investigating the claims, were dismissed as gossipmongers eager to bring down a beloved figure with a global following.
Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh, associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University who specializes in Islamic civilization, said Muslims often feel they don't have tangible heroes to look up to, which fuels the backlash.
"Once we have a hero, especially one that is relatable, without an accent, that can deliver a talk without stumbling and makes Western people listen and nod along, we can't deal with the disappointment when the person turns out to be a human being who makes mistakes," he said. "If we actually admit that he may have committed those bad behaviors against women, we're essentially gutting our own community."
While Khan's alleged actions — he has said publicly that he is imperfect but is the victim of a witch hunt — hardly compare to some of the horrific accusations of rape and sexual abuse that raised against other religious leaders, the reaction to his possible indiscretions demonstrate why so many Muslim women prefer to stay silent about sexual harassment or abuse they may have experienced.
The current global focus on sexual abuse may provide the perfect time for Muslim women to empower themselves to speak out. Salem, the founder of Facing Abuse in Community Environments, said the group has continued to receive reports of sexual misconduct by Muslim religious leaders from around the world. She said her goal is to investigate those claims in a thoughtful, pragmatic way. If there is wrongdoing, the community must clean house.
"We are at a watershed moment for sexual harassment and violence against women and it's time for us to come forward and say this is not okay and we're not going to tolerate it," Salem said. "Too often there is a tendency to idolize people in positions of power and subconsciously feel like God must love them to elevate them so high. But Muslims have to have the emotional intelligence to cope with what is happening in the world and just accept that maybe their favorite teacher is just gross."
Shaheen Pasha is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.