(RNS) — 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."
That silence, Ayubi said, was in large part due to Muslims' unwillingness to unearth the skeletons in their closet while already facing heightened scrutiny and surveillance due to anti-Muslim sentiment. Some Muslim leaders have therefore prioritized ensuring victims' silence, she argued, whether by guilting them out of speaking out or pursuing legal action, pushing them to handle incidents through informal mechanisms like arbitration, or even requesting male relatives help convince victims to remain quiet and avoid embarrassment for the family.
That fear persists despite data showing that levels of sexual abuse by Muslim leaders are not extraordinary. A survey last year by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that 8% of U.S. Muslims say they personally know someone who has experienced unwanted sexual advances from faith leaders – about the same as the general public and other major faith groups. (Muslims are about as likely as other faith groups to have reported the incident to community leaders, but are the only group more likely to have reported the incident to law enforcement, per polling.)
Now, activists are increasingly "calling out the fallacy in crying Islamophobia," Ayubi said.
"Stamping out abusers will always help clean up the image of the community," she noted. "The stereotype that Muslim women are oppressed is already out there. Rejecting the abusers from our communities would actually show that sexual abuse is not tolerated by Muslims and that women are, in fact, heard and valued and have an important leadership role within our communities."
That's the model championed by Face, the Texas-based non-profit created by Muslim community organizer Alia Salem to work toward exposure, accountability and consequences for those who abuse their authority.
"Our goal is to be a mechanism to help victims, to be a place where vulnerable people can go in the first place," Salem told RNS. "Because there are no other mechanisms to interrupt the process of abuse, someone might get fired, but nothing stops them from getting hired at another place."
Salem was watching the film "Spotlight" when she received a message from a Muslim mother seeking help in dealing with the Texas imam she claimed had groomed her daughter for sex. The imam allegedly requested sexually explicit images from and later had intercourse with the young woman in a motel, all while promising to consider her for marriage.
"I realized there was nobody to help," Salem said. "There was literally nobody to do anything that would have any long lasting, sustained impact. ... I thought, 'Holy crap, this is happening. And we have to do something about it, because nobody else is going to. We have a moral obligation.'"
Salem's training in organization development soon kicked in. She launched Face, spent a year thoroughly investigating the imam's misconduct, then published a bombshell report that documented the results. A judge soon ruled that Imam Zia ul-Haque Sheikh was guilty of sexual exploitation, clergy malpractice and grooming, winning the victim a landmark $2.5 million judgment.
A second 11-month investigation by the group accused Phoenix-based imam Moataz Moftah of sexual battery, child abuse, misappropriation of charitable zakat funds and falsely presenting himself as single in order to pursue female congregants while in fact having two concurrent concealed marriages.
Salem attributes the success of Face's evidence-based methods to the increasingly "robust" willingness of American Muslim leaders and community members to support such work in the past two years, as well as the #MeToo movement and the shock at prominent leaders' recent falls from grace.
"We've gotten a lot of pushback, that we're exposing the community to more harm, et cetera," Salem said. "But even if people don't like our methodology, the positives outweigh the negatives because they're like, 'Well, we don't want something like Face to exist, so let's create something else.' And that's what our goal is anyways."
The Hurma Project is one of the most prominent developments in the movement. Rooted in a distinctly scholarly, religiously based approach, its founder, Ingrid Mattson, is well-known globally as the first woman, first convert and first North-American born president of the Islamic Society of North America.
The project, Mattson explained, "was established to uphold the sacred inviolability of each person who enters Muslim spaces" from abuse or exploitation by anyone holding or invoking religious knowledge or authority. She pointed to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad describing an individual's physical body, property and honor as having the same hurma, or sacred inviolability, from exploitation, abuse, mutilation and harm, as the holy city of Mecca.
Advocates agree the conference was a crucial step in naming the problem. But many say there is a long way to go. One attendee told RNS that conference moderators failed to include content warnings in its proceedings, even when presenters detailed graphic sexual violence, and instead suggested there was a blanket warning for sensitive content throughout the conference.
"Certain harms wouldn't have happened if it was led by survivors, and if the voices of actual survivors carried more authority in this space," the attendee, who asked not to be named, said.
Attendees also expressed concerns that both the conference and the movement's efforts are focused narrowly on protecting a so-called "ideal victim." A woman who is attacked by her boyfriend, for instance, may not be received warmly by a Muslim shelter, said Hammer. A victim who drinks, uses drugs, does not wear hijab or is LGBTQ may be dismissed when reporting abuse by Muslim leaders, advocates worried.
"Yes, we may be at a watershed moment," the attendee said. "But it also seems like the only kind of violence that the community is dedicated to stopping is if you're abused when you're sitting in a Quran class and following all the quote-unquote Islamic rules."
Still, all the advocates RNS spoke to emphasized, anything is better than nothing.
"Right now there cannot be too many cooks in the kitchen," Salem said. "We need cooks, period. If we can all take on different pieces of it, then maybe we can finally deal with it."