Hate imams are well-documented in the United States, but they often skirt away from responsibility because of their status as clergymen — at least, that was the case until FACE (Facing Abuse in Community Environments) charged in as the Muslim cavalry for victims of abuse.
Over the last year, American Muslims dealt with hateful imams preaching apocalyptic genocide against the Jews, but they haven’t dealt openly with direct attacks against their own.
Holding a woman hostage against her will was a problem people assumed that Third World women dealt with. Fears of sex grooming vulnerable young girls were also a world away, nested in part within some of Britain’s Pakistani community. These were “over there” stories — until a story came out about a Texas imam grooming a young woman through gradual and escalating degrees of sexual violence.
On October 18th, 2018, BuzzFeed’s Hannah Allam reported a case about a young Muslim woman who filed a lawsuit and police report alleging sexual misconduct against Texas imam Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh. For privacy reasons, the 18-year-old woman is referred to as Jane Doe.
Here’s what we know so far:
- At the time of events, Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh was the imam of the Islamic Center of Irving, one of the biggest mosques in the United States.
- Sheikh had been Doe’s trusted spiritual adviser since she was 13.
- Over the years, while listening to her woes of an absentee father, conflict with her bother, and bullies at school, Sheikh began helping Doe financially. He helped Doe buy a car and loaned her money for tuition and a laptop.
- Doe began substituting Sheikh as a father figure, including calling him “baba,” which is Arabic for father.
- In a 2016 counseling session, Sheikh introduced the idea of marriage between himself and Doe. Sheikh was already married and more than 20 years her senior.
- Doe felt indebted and reportedly conceded to a request for a belly dance, pictures of herself in lingerie, daily texts of a sexual nature and allowed Sheikh to watch on video chat as Doe touched herself.
- On December 5, 2016, Sheikh is said to have invited Doe to a room at a Motel 6, where Sheikh was already disrobed when Doe arrived.
- Confused, scared and feeling under duress, Doe allowed Sheikh to have sex with her. Immediately afterwards, he ordered her to get dressed so he could be back at the mosque in time to lead prayers.
- Sheikh has since been employed as an imam at the Grand Prairie Masjid, just nine miles away from the Irving Masjid, where he continues to serve as an imam.
As Allam points out, according to the lawsuit, “What happened in the motel room … wasn’t a romantic tryst but the culmination of years of exploitation, an influential religious leader taking advantage of a struggling teen.”
Doe’s story was facilitated by a yearlong investigation by FACE, a Texas-based non-profit organization spearheaded by Muslim women. It focuses on transparency and victims’ rights in handling abuse claims against religious and community leaders, as well as the institutions protecting them. FACE covers sexual, physical, financial and spiritual abuses. The organization also empowers the community through free research and educational materials.
For Muslim women, who suffer deeply from honor and shame dynamics, the presence of a Muslim-led organization that champions their dignity is instrumental. Leadership among Muslims, especially when it is led by women, is critical when it comes to holding corrupt religious leaders accountable and restoring balance within a community that has thus far failed to hold itself accountable.
As the #MeToo movement grew, documenting an avalanche of testimony of sexual abuse, some of those stories began coming from the Muslim community. Muslim women, as many others, were encouraged by the sense of sisterhood and support among women (and many men). The taboo of shame felt by many victims of sexual abuse was finally at bay, as was the fear that women wouldn’t be believed — or that coming forward would risk a woman’s reputation and standing in society, including her chances for marriage.
This was a safe space, one that included Muslim women.
The groundbreaking narratives of Muslim women boldly coming forward reached all the way to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holy pilgrimage, with shocking stories of sexual misconduct in what would be presumed as the safest place for Muslim women. (It wasn’t.)
Instead, what we are seeing is that the safest place for Muslim women in this context are organizations like FACE and the authorities and law enforcement personnel that aide them.
As shocking stories of sexual violence surface across both Christian and Catholic churches in the United States, Muslims can continue with courage in doing one of the hardest jobs there is for a believer: challenging the authority of clergy.