Iowa Imam in Sex Assault Case Says His Religious Freedom is Being Violated

A curious case is wending its way through the Iowa court system. It involves an imam named Nermin Spahic, 40, who’s been charged with one count of third-degree sexual abuse and two counts of sexual exploitation by a counselor or therapist.

The Des Moines Register reports that Spahic

… was arrested in August after a 42-year-old woman and her 18-year-old daughter told police that Spahic sexually assaulted them during a religious ceremony. … The woman on Aug. 12 called Spahic to her house in Johnston for help with her daughter, who reportedly suffered personal issues, including depression and drug use, police and court papers said. Spahic allegedly performed an Islamic ceremony that involved “chanting and rubbing the body with oil,” court papers said.

Spahic’s lawyer has now filed a motion to drop two of the charges, arguing that the defendant performed a religious service, and didn’t engage in counseling or therapy.

In one interpretation of the motion, Spahic wants to be allowed to sexually touch patients God-believers because it’s part of the religious freedom he should enjoy in the United States. A kinder take on it is that the District Attorney has indeed charged him under a statute that, strictly speaking, isn’t applicable to the situation, and that all’s well because Spahic will still have to stand trial for third-degree sexual abuse.

The case is worth watching because most U.S. clerics do arguably see and sell themselves as counselors. Some believe that stories and lessons from their Holy Book, in which they claim to be experts, are all that’s needed to cure everything from addiction to schizophrenia; others attempt to do the same with a combination of traditional religious training and modern psychological methods.

The line between therapy and religious service has become blurred. Maybe the Iowa judges can re-establish some clarity.

In any case, applying oil and chanting to treat depression and addiction are on the kooky side of the treatment spectrum, although surely no crazier than the familial advice this depression sufferer from a Sikh background received:

[Her] grandmother took her to temples, and once invited a priest and a faith healer to her house to pray for her. Another time, she was given a coconut and told to throw it into a river.

(The coolest thing about religion is that it mocks itself.)

Spahic, who’s out on bail, will have to go to court next month. It’s unknown whether there’s currently any remaining demand for Islamic body rubs in the greater Des Moines area.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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