Sexual Abuse Case in Illinois – Open Letter From Ulema Regarding Rights of Media and Public Discussion

Sexual Abuse Case in Illinois – Open Letter From Ulema Regarding Rights of Media and Public Discussion March 30, 2015

Quran and heartEditor’s Note: In the nearly two months since the former president of the Institute for Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill, Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, was charged with criminal sexual abuse for an incident involving a 23-year-old woman (which occurred in April 2014). A Cook County grand jury recently handed down an eight-count indictment against Saleem on charges of sex abuse and battery of a female school employee. Saleem is also potentially facing additional charges of sexual abuse and battery as these investigations continue. The school, founded in 1989, is a full-time residential and day educational institute aiming to provide (according to its website) “an education in the sacred and intellectual foundation of Islamic heritage.” Four women and one man are part of a civil lawsuit filed against Saleem. Several other victims, both women and men, have come forth alleging sexual abuse against the 75-year-old Saleem (spanning more than three decades) and possibly other members of staff, but have not (yet) joined in the lawsuit. Please click herehere and here to read more about this developing story.

An open letter from the Ulema standing up in support for sexual abuse victims was published (on Altmuslim) in February. Since then, there have been a myriad of responses and criticisms from the Muslim community. This second open statement from the Ulema seeks to discuss these criticisms and questions more and provide answers, and is issued by members of Muslim scholarship, organizations and academia. It is not a closed document. If you wish to sign on, please send an email here.

Click here to read the press kit developed by HEART Women & Girls, a Chicago-based organization founded by Nadiah Mohajir and dedicated to promoting sexual and reproductive health in faith-based communities. HEART has worked closely with the victims in this case. 

SCHOLAR STATEMENT REGARDING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MEDIA AND PUBLIC DISCUSSION OF THE SEXUAL MOLESTATION ACCUSATIONS AGAINST ABDULLAH SALEEM

In the time since the news of the sexual molestation and sexual harassment allegations against Abdullah Saleem of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, IL have become public, there have been several lines of responses from the Muslim community to the situation. Most members of the Chicago area Muslim community, lay people and scholars have commendably focused on taking the allegations very seriously, calling for law enforcement authorities and community leaders to investigate thoroughly, denouncing the alleged acts, and supporting the victims.

In contrast, a very troubling mixed message is emerging from certain segments of the community, including its scholars, that seek to claim that “Islamic values” stand against discussing this matter publicly out of concern for the reputation of the accused, the IIE, and the community in general. Although these statements mention the rights of victims and pursuing justice in passing, the focus of the various statements in social media, Friday sermons, and elsewhere is to denounce the way the claims against Saleem have been handled and to chastise the community regarding rules of modesty and the significance of zina. These scholars have even attacked the victims for agreeing to interviews about their situation with the national media despite the magnitude of the allegations. The statements coming from these scholars, while claimed to be based on “Islamic values,” go against the very essence and purpose of Islamic law and ethics when it comes to criminal justice and protection of innocent young children from sexual abuse.

The signatories to this letter wish to affirm the following principles of Islamic justice which should be adhered to in this case:

Justice over Self-Interest and Community Image

Many traditional authorities of Islamic scholarship are of the opinion that verse 90 of Surah Al-Nahl is one of the cornerstone’s of the entire message of Islam: “Indeed, God commands justice, the doing of good to others, and the giving of charity to close relatives. He forbids all obscenity, shameful deeds, and aggression. He admonishes you with this so that you may become mindful of His commandments.” Further, such is the importance of justice that Muslims are exhorted to be witnesses to truth even against their own interests: “O you who believe! Be most upright in upholding justice, bearing true witness for the sake of God alone, even if against your own selves, your parents, or your nearest relatives, regardless of whether one party is rich and the other is poor, for God can best take care of both. So refrain from following your own desire, in order that you may act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do (Verse 135, Surah Al-Nisa).” Justice, in other words, takes precedence over concerns for protection of one’s own reputation, family, close friends, rich or poor. Finally, so great is the importance of justice that it is amongst the names of Allah: Al-‘AdlAttempts, therefore, to claim community interests such as reputation taking priority over the requirements of justice are rejected. To the extent secondary consideration is given to community reputation, it is noted that the harm to the community for being perceived as protecting and shielding a religious leader from claims of sexual molestation is far greater than any harm perceived in making such claims public.

Justice is a Public Matter in Islam

With the importance given to justice, it should not be hard to understand then that the process of criminal law in Islam has always been public in spirit. It is a fundamental right of all believers to be aware of their community affairs and participate in the exhortation of good and prevention of evil (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahyu ‘an al-munkar). This right is further established in a foundational Hadith narration, from the collection of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Fourty Hadith, in which it is reported that the Prophet (S) says: “ ‘The religion is nasihah (sincerity and good counsel)’. We said to ‘To Whom?’ He (S) said, ‘To Allah, His Book, His Messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and their common folk’ (Sahih Muslim)”.

Despite these clear principles, some defenders of the IIE and Abdullah Saleem have claimed that the community should refrain from discussing this situation publicly because sins are to be “covered” or that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” Neither of these statements, while true in and of themselves, have any application to the matter at hand. First, the difference between a “sin” and a “crime” has always been clear in Islamic teachings, whereby a personal failing of a fellow believer which causes no harm or breach of public trust should be covered out of mercy and forgiveness, but crimes involving harm to others are required to be pursued vigorously in public in order to punish wrongdoers and compensate victims. Second, when a person is accused of a crime under a criminal proceeding, the accusation itself (as distinct from any final judgment of guilt or innocence) is a matter of great interest to the legal authorities and the general public under Islamic legal principles. The public has a responsibility to the legal authorities and claimants to provide witness, assess credibility of claims, and provide notice to others who may have been harmed, amongst many other roles. No legal system, whether based on Islamic principles or otherwise, can function properly if accusations and cases are tried in private. Other than exceptional circumstances which may call for privacy, public participation ensures that all relevant details of any particular case are brought forward to the investigators and judges and that the legal system with its criminal procedural law is held accountable to the general public for adhering to its principles which provide rights for the victims and accused.

Further, in the case of sexual crimes in particular, victims have a right for the community to know of their accusations (through the media and any other public institution) so they may receive the emotional, spiritual, and financial support required to pursue justice and compensate them for their injuries. We also note that the alleged abuses at the IIE took place at a boarding school for children and, therefore, all parents and society at large have a right to know of credible accusations regarding possible crimes against children so that further harm may be prevented. Calls from scholars, therefore, to tell the community to refrain from public and vigorous discussion of important affairs affecting the community at large, such as the IIE scandal, are rejected.

Role of the Media

With a basic understanding of the importance of justice and the rights of the public in Islam, the role of the media then needs to be understood properly as a critical institution for the fulfillment of the community’s obligations towards exhorting good and forbidding the wrong. Without a vibrant and free media, information and facts about important matters of justice can be withheld from the public and are much more easily manipulated for private interests through rumor and unexamined claims. On the other hand, media institutions, just like any other entities or persons in society, need to operate within a just and equitable framework which protects the rights of victims and accused in order to achieve the noble purposes of reporting important and true information to the public. It should be noted that for any media outlet to report slanderous and baseless claims is, in and of itself, illegal. Government prosecutors and media institutions face grave legal penalties if they act on or report clearly false information. This means that when an arrest is made or when a reputable paper such as the New York Times publishes sexual abuse claims, it is quite reasonable to assume that corroborating evidence exists to support that arrest and that various editorial and legal reviews have been undertaken before releasing such information.

Credible Allegations Against Religious Leaders Require Heightened Attention and Public Involvement

When accusations are made against religious authorities in particular, this category of claims is given much greater attention and public prominence under principles of Islamic law. The entire foundation of Islamic knowledge is the transmission of sound knowledge from morally upright scholars. Islamic scholars of all disciplines (fiqh, tafsir, hadith, aqeedah, etc.) and all schools of thought have always been meticulous in assessing the character of their teachers and students and protecting the transmission of sacred knowledge. The books of Hadith, as an example, are filled with public accusations of bad character recorded for people in all times and places to read. This should come as no surprise since unlike private persons, when a person in authority, especially religious authority, is committing crimes (or even has participated in a doubtful situation less than a crime), the entire moral integrity of society and religion is at stake if the claims are not aggressively pursued. Such is the importance of protecting the moral order, that the mere appearance of impropriety, as opposed to an actual finding of guilt, is sufficient cause of action for the Muslim leadership and community to take appropriate action and make credible accusations public.  It is important to note here that the heightened concern Islam has for protecting the good name of religious leadership is evidenced by the famous statement of the Prophet (S), recorded in Sahih Muslim and also reported by Imam Al-Nawawi in his Fourty Hadith, that the first three people to be sent to the Hell Fire are hypocritical Muslims (the insincere martyr, the insincere Quran reciter, and the insincere financial patron). The Prophet (S) teaches that these people were punished, before even avowed enemies of Islam, for insincere states in their hearts, what then can we imagine is the gravity of the matter when a religious leader has potentially acted in abusive and criminal ways under the cover of teaching the Quran?

The Grave Sin of Zina and Rules of Modesty Have Nothing To Do With Sexual Abuse

Finally, amongst the most surprising and disturbing views being promoted by some scholars in reaction to the IIE news is to lecture the community about zina and the rules of modesty in Islam. It is a grave intellectual and moral error to conflate the topic of zina and modesty with the current IIE situation. This is for two reasons: first, a major sin such as zina which involves two consenting adults has no relevance for a sexual crime committed by force or against minors (who don’t have legal capacity for free will); and, second, as the allegations in the IIE case make clear, the rules of Islamic modesty themselves were used as shield and means for the perpetrator to allegedly commit his acts in this situation.   Accordingly, it is very unfortunate that scholars choose to lecture the community about rules regarding sexual propriety and modesty in dress instead of focusing on the horrific possibility that of one of their own has used the face veil and Quran as covers for his crimes. Discussing the irrelevant topic of modesty or zina in this situation only brings confusion to the hearts and minds of the believers and questions the intentions and integrity of those that seek to criticize victims and parents of children at IIE who have decided to come forward with very serious allegations to the public.

TRADITIONAL SCHOLARSHIP
Abdul Malik Mujahid, President, Sound Vision
Imam Sulaimaan Hamed, Resident Imam of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam
Mohamed-Umer Esmail, Imam & Resident Scholar, Nueces Mosque
Muhammad Sattaur, Executive Director, Imam Ghazali Institute
Omar Suleiman, Bayyinah Institute/Valley Ranch Islamic Center
Suhaib Webb
Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

ACADEMIC SCHOLARSHIP
Hatem Bazian, Co-Founder, Zaytuna College, Chairman, American Muslims for Palestine, Director, Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project
Hussein Rashid, Hofstra University, Dept. of Religion
Ingrid Mattson, London and Windsor Community Chair in Islamic Studies, Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario
Jihad Turk, President, Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School
Juliane Hammer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Marcia Hermansen, Loyola University Chicago
Maheen Zaman, Assistant Professor, History Department, Augsburg College
Mahdi Tourage, Associate Professor, Dept. of Religion and Philosophy, King’s University College,
Melissa Finn, Lecturer, Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University
Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toronto Faculty of Law
Omid Safi, Director, Duke Islamic Studies Center, Duke University
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, Independent Scholar
Shabana Mir, Visiting Researcher, Center for South Asian, Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Shehnaz Haqqani, University of Texas at Austin
Syed Irtiza Hasan, AlMaghrib Institute, Board Member
Zareena Grewal, Yale University

MUSLIM CHAPLAINCY
Abdullah Antepli, Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs, Duke University/Adjunct Faculty of Islamic Studies
Kamal Abu-Shamsieh
Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, Muslim Chaplain, University of Pennsylvania, and Founder, Muslim Wellness Foundation
Mustafa Boz, VP for Corrections Chaplains, Association of Muslim Chaplains
Omer M. Mozaffar

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP
Adam Sbita, Imam Ghazali Institute, Washington D.C.
Anisha Patel, Founding Member & Former Executive Director: Muslim Women’s Alliance, Community Educator
Arshia Wajid, Founder, President, American Muslim Health Professionals (AMHP)
Atiya Aftab, Co-Founder, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom
Dr. Baher S. Foad, Chair of Religious Education and Founding Board Member, Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati
Edina Lekovic, MPAC
Eman Hassaballa Aly, Social Worker and Co-founder of Collaboryst
Fatemeh Fakhraie, Founder of Muslimah Media Watch
Henna Khawja, Social Worker, B.S.W., M.S.W., R.S.W.​
Hesham A. Hassaballa, www.godfaith.pen
Idrisa Pandit, Founding Director, Muslim Social Services KW

Itedal Shalabi, Co-Founder/Executive Director, Arab American Family Services
Itrath Syed, PhD Candidate, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University
Jawad Shah, President, MSA National
Jawairriya Abdallah-Shahid
Jenan Mohajir, Founding Board Member, Heart Women and Girls
Kamran S. Bajwa, Partner, Kirkland & Ellis
Kashif Shaikh
Uzair Siddiqui, MSA National
Mazen Asbahi, Esq., Principal, Asbahi Law Group, Ltd.
Mohammed Kaiseruddin, Chairman, Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC)
Mona Malik, Peaceful Families Project
Nadiah Mohajir, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Heart Women and Girls
Nareman Taha, Co-Founder/Executive Director, Arab American Family Services
Noor Raheemullah Hasan, Executive Director, Muslim Women’s Alliance
Rabia Chaudry, Fellow, New America Foundation; President, Safe Nation Collaborative
Rami Nashashibi, Inner-City Muslim Action Network
Sahira Sadiq, Executive Board Member, Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC)
Salma Elkadi Abugideiri, Founding Board Member, Peaceful Families Project
Salmaan Toor, Clinical Psychologist at The Family Center of Knoxville
Samar Kaukab, Board Member, Heart Women and Girls
Sarah Jawaid, Community Organizer
Sarah Kureshi, MD MPH, Georgetown University School of Medicine
Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D.
Shakila T Ahmad, President and Board Chair, Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati
Syed Mohiuddin, Michigan Muslim Community Council
Talal Eid, Islamic Institute of Boston
Tannaz Haddadi
Tasneem Osmani, Board Member, Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC)
Umbreen S. Bhatti
Zerqa Abid, Muslim Youth Project USA & Muslims for Ohio PAC

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