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The Muslim Community’s Hidden Shame

The Muslim Community’s Hidden Shame

Muhammad Abdullah Saleem. Age 75. Founder of the Institution for Islamic Education and prominent religious leader in Illinois. Accused of sexual abuse. Shock waves duly reverberated throughout the local Muslim community, who have revered and trusted Saleem for a little over three decades now. There is much to learn from this unfortunate situation, aside from the fact that no religion is immune to scandal.

A 23-year-old woman who worked as a secretary at the Institution for Islamic Education came forth alleging that Saleem pulled her onto his lap and groped her as he was lifting her dress, leaving a sticky stain on the black pants she was wearing underneath. This was not the first inappropriate advance Saleem made on her, but it was her personal turning point. It pushed her to do the unthinkable: she spoke up.

It is an act that is unthinkable within this community, like in so many other tight-knit Muslim communities, because a woman speaking up against her abuser does not come without consequences. A woman in this position essentially puts her reputation on the line. Even though she is a victim, the woman will often be judged and suffer from community gossip and slander. It is the woman who, paradoxically, deals with feelings of guilt and shame. It is the woman who will have trouble getting married. It is your typical Eve-takes-the-blame-for-Adam scenario. Patriarchy at its finest.

After word got around about the “unbelievable” accusations against the imam, three other women came forth with their own traumatic experiences of being molested by Saleem when they were young girls. These women kept his secret for years and most probably would have remained silent if the 23-year-old woman did not speak up. One woman’s courage to speak empowered other women to do the same, gradually chipping at the culture of silence that surrounds issues of sexual abuse in conservative Muslim communities.

Before the Islamic school was built, Saleem held Quran classes in his room in a shared apartment. This room served to be prime space for abusing his power as a religious authority, which, as we know, is not all uncommon among religious patriarchs (cue pedophilic priests and rabbis.) One woman said Saleem began touching her when she was 12. An incident worth noting, as recounted to the New York Times, puts on clear display the perversity of this kind of abuse, subhanallah:

Once, she said, he sat on a bed, covered in a brown blanket, and put her hand on his genitals while he taught her a chapter of the Quran called al-Qari’a, about the Day of Judgment when people will be held to account for their good and evil deeds.

The little girl forced to hold her imam’s genitals as he taught her Quran is the embodiment of patriarchy within religious institutions. We, as Muslim women, are warned at a perversely young age about the evils of our bodies and sexualities. We are scrutinized and judged from the moment we reach puberty for any implication of immodesty. Our worth is measured in direct relation to men; our greatest achievement is to be a good wife. Our eligibility for that “success” relies on our reputations that are borne from guilt and shame, confusion and fear, obedience and silence. Ultimately, our value is placed on our virginity. This implies that our worth is determined by what is in between our legs — no more, no less. Our sheikhs tell us to cover ourselves, to stay in the house, to obey, to remain silent in the presence of men, to preserve our chastity. This one-sided obsession with female “chastity” has resulted, ironically, in the ultimate objectification of women — degraded to nothing but a dangerous sexual temptation.

In this case of Saleem — whom his Deoband Institute of Islamic Thought biography describes as a “well-known Islamic scholar in the United States of America … serving the Muslim community as a religious leader for the past thirty years” — the problem of female abuse within religious communities is exhumed. Yes, Saleem’s reputation is tarnished. Yes, he is under legal investigation. This finally takes place after thirty years of his getting away with sexual abuse while maintaining mawla status. Mashallah. And the community still wants to keep it hush-hush. And the women who spoke out did not go without a little blame and defame. According to the New York Times:

In a statement posted on its website, the Institute of Islamic Education attributed the accusations to “individuals outside our community” seeking to discredit the school’s beliefs. “The individuals involved do not wish to seek privacy and resolution, but are actively seeking publicity for their claims…”

Surprising? Not in the least. Nadiah Mohajir, executive director of a sexual health advocacy group for Muslim women called HEART Women & Girls, understands just how difficult it is for women in general to speak about abuse, especially “in a community that values virginity so highly.” She spoke to NYT out of experience, saying that educating Muslim women on sexual health makes people so uncomfortable that she does not even discuss her job with her family. With its roots in the fundamentalist Deobandi school, originating in India where Saleem is from, this Muslim community is so deeply entrenched in sexual taboo that the girls do not attend health class in school when puberty or reproduction are being discussed. Yet, they are being sexually harassed and molested in their own classrooms instead.

The 23-year-old woman who suffered from Saleem’s abuse within the walls of his own Islamic school requested Omer Mozaffar, Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, to mediate an apology from Saleem. In his NYT interview, Mozaffar said that when he confronted Saleem about his actions, Saleem sounded like he “was already used to getting away with it.” Mozaffar concludes, “I left the meeting very disturbed because that’s when I realized that she was not the only victim.”

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Mozaffar was right, as we now know. Saleem has been using his esteemed status of piety to exploit his female students and employee(s) for decades. Who knows how many Muslim women have suffered silently under the threat of a blemished reputation? The taboo that revolves around a simultaneous obsession with female virginity and phobia of all things sexual is very efficient at keeping Muslim women silent and relieving Muslim men of accountability.

Mozaffar wrote a blog post in which he affirmed the allegations against Saleem. Angry comments ensued, such as, “Dear brothers and sisters this matter does not concern you (sic).” Another comment stated:

“Regardless if the allegations are true or false he is a much better Muslim than all of us. Please stop spreading information regarding him. He has reached a very old age. You should be instead focusing on how you can spend more time in his presence.”

Mozaffar promptly deleted his post — another voice shamed for committing the crime of telling the truth.

This event demands rethinking on the part of all Muslims. Muslim women should consider the implications of allowing men to interpret female modesty from a male perspective, dictating what women should do while claiming their rulings to be orders from God. Muslim men should reconsider the morality of maintaining strict domination over the sexuality of Muslim women for the sake of piety, honor, and chastity. Until then, we will remain stuck in a society where “religious” men feel entitled to exploiting young women, knowing that these women have been conditioned to obey without question and that the odds are stacked against them if they tell.

View Comments (27)
  • Female modesty should, in Islam, never be defined by either men or women. It is already defined by Allah and His messenger. As Muslims that should be our sole source.

    That is why it is so important we all learn exactly what that is.

    • The problem is that there are hu”man” beings standing between the Words of Allah swt and Muslims. As a lay Muslim, I am discouraged to understand the word of Allah swt untainted. I have to follow a “man” interpretation of the actual words of Qur’an to understand what the words of Qur’an actually mean.
      For a starter, would you (or anyone else who think they know) like to let us know how exactly Allah swt and His Messenger have defined female modesty?

      • The most thorough explanation of hijab verses in the Quraan I know, hands down, is a series by Nouman Ali Khan called “What is Hijab?”

        It is however part of Bayyinah.Tv which needs a subscription ($11/mo) and is absolutely worth it. Reply if the fee will keep u from watching the vids and I’ll get u in.

        Yes, it is still being explained by a man but again, he is the most thorough I’ve heard so far.

        • My point is a general one, not about hijab or anything in particular. In general, what we are fed as “divine” and “sacred” (aka “this is real Islam”) is nothing but interpretations of divine words by human (almost 100% men). Not only that, they actually discourage any efforts to understand the divine word outside of their interpretation (actually they don’t even shy away from declaring people “kafir” or “murtid” if they happen to disagree with their interpretation).

  • You have such a pathetic and ugly way of making even the most sobering and needed stories turned afoul by using the word patriarchy wherever you like. This story is a wake up call…(made a joke by your pathetic stain of having feminism be the solution. So if it was a women teacher molesting boys or girls, would patriarchy still be at fault ?)

    • That’s a very big if. The point is that men do it much more often, and GET AWAY WITH IT much more often because of patriarchal systems & attitudes that pervade everything from religion to government to entertainment.

      Think about the life you have now and what your life would be like if you were a woman. Reflect.

      • *slow clap* Thank you for missing the point…let’s sit around the fire and blame patriarchy for everything bad that ever happened and will happen.

        You reflect as how life would be better if it was not for blaming everything on patriarchy.

        • Yes, how life of men would be much better if women and minorities didn’t speak up against patriarchy and social stigma.

          What if roles were reversed. Men are valued for their virginity and silence and women could get away with harassment for 30 years. Threatening to you? That’s what these women have to deal with.

          Don’t judge what you don’t understand and something you have never been through. Women are always blamed for rape and men who are also victims are shunned due to being “degraded” into a woman and is really “some sissy” or “cant enjoy action with girls enough”.

          Fuck you and your propagated thoughts. If your country still uses founding fathers to cover genocide, congratulations, you’re in a patriarchal country.

          • *a even slower clap* No not “fuck me”…but educate yourself via common sense and seeing the real issues that come with gender equality and decorum

          • So you ran out of arguments now the only word you can use is “common sense” and “educate yourself”.
            Have you even read the Quran? Men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah, although not made identical.
            Are you just intimidated that women are finally getting the equality they should receive? Intimidated women are becoming like the women 1400 years ago?

            Idiots learn from experience alone. Wiser people learn from history and accounts.

          • You using that term just shows you don’t care about the reverse analogy you used regarding raped boys and only use it for keeping your agenda. Plus you ran out of arguments and don’t realise how vaginas work.

          • probably has never seen a vagina before and doesnt know how it works. oh right i bet you are not allowed to learn what sex is, lolz

          • and also you arent bothered giving proper replies and only call names and the idiotic “smh” used only by swagfags and redditors. you lost mate, deal with it.

          • LOL. that actually made me laugh. yes, i’m so homophobic I am in a homosexual relationship for er… “spying purposes”

    • You are right. Somehow these women have negotiated to get internet and computer in those cages. Can you please be real a little bit?

  • So much for “the right not to be judged” and “my version of Islam is what I want it to be.” Put the shoe on the other foot, and suddenly the sin is so awful and we have to judge it and come down hard, because, gasp, there are indeed victims of sinning and not punishing it has a negative outcome.

    This site is pure hypocrisy and stupidity.

    • Do you understand that the talk about not his sin (or how good or bad he is as a Muslim). It is about the actual crimes he committed and the protection and the power he exercised both to exploit victims and then to enjoy the protection he was afforded to, again because of his esteemed status as a scholar and imam. It is not about “judging a sin”, it is about making sure that another imam or religious scholar is not given the power to use his status sexually assault young girls and boys with impunity.

  • Truth be told if being muslims had corrupted your minds to such a low standard I feel its enough being good human beings than being muslims. The confusion and rot in the community is amazing and mind boggling. Long story short if there is a bone stuck get it out. It does not matter how it got there first . First get it out.

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