It was an electrifying Friday sermon that struck a chord with Muslims across North America. Its content was so explosive that its author was placed on administrative leave.
On Oct. 26, Imam Nick Pelletier of the Islamic Center of Irving in Texas shook as he addressed the congregation about allegations of youth molestation at the centre by an elderly congregant. His anger was directed not only at the alleged perpetrator, but also at his own employer – the ICI board. Without any specialized training, they investigated the allegations, determined that no crime had been committed and didn’t try to stop the individual from leaving the country. The board further justified its inaction by pointing to the refusal by parents of the affected youth to involve law enforcement. This, despite Texas law, which requires any person who becomes aware of alleged harm done to a child, to report it to the police – even if victims or families refuse to do so.
The imam reported the allegations to the police immediately after having been apprised of them. The board, however, had known of the situation for at least a week and only informed the police after the sermon. It had withheld all information from the community, having deemed that children were not in any danger. The board also removed the sermon from the centre’s website and placed the imam on administrative leave. These events occurred a few months after a woman (“Jane Doe”) filed a lawsuit against the centre’s former imam, Zia ul-Haque Sheikh, for alleged sexual exploitation.
Needless to say, there was a severe backlash against the alleged cover-up, along with support for Imam Pelletier. Community members pointed to the Catholic Church as an example, when authorities had covered up sexual abuse and shuffled perpetrators between parishes to preserve the church’s reputation.
The sermon was soon uploaded by the Muslim organization Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE) onto its Facebook page. The group was founded in 2017 to address the accountability gap of leadership in Muslim institutions. It is an ambitious project that seeks to combat sexual, physical, financial and spiritual abuse by community leaders through investigative and legal means. Until now, there has been no mechanism or framework to report or investigate alleged misconduct within an Islamic paradigm.
While abuse, unfortunately, exists in all communities, Muslims face a unique set of challenges. First is a reflexive deference to authority, such that religious leaders are often seen as beyond reproach. In addition, the concept of sitr, which encourages Muslims to conceal each other’s shortcomings, has been conflated to imply the cover-up of criminal behaviour. A third factor is a reticence to speak of matters that involve sex, with shame and blame heaped upon victims. Finally, there is a desire to protect community institutions from negative scrutiny.
Alia Salem, co-founder of FACE, unequivocally believes that the safety of the congregation supersedes the reputation of the institution. Every individual must feel safe in a sacred space; even more so when being counselled, mentored or taught by those in a position of authority. She was inspired by the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, a drama that tells the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s legacy of child abuse and cover-ups. By coincidence, Ms. Salem was contacted by a Muslim woman whose teenage daughter (Jane Doe) had been coerced into an alleged sexual relationship by Mr. Sheikh, who had been providing spiritual counselling. Ms. Salem immediately referred the family to a lawyer and a professional victim’s advocate.
Last month, FACE issued its first community misconduct report after conducting a formal investigation into Mr. Sheikh. It found that he had been dismissed by two other mosques (in Florida and Virginia) for alleged unethical conduct with female congregants. The ICI hired Mr. Sheikh in 2005 without knowledge of these ethical breaches. It fired him in 2017 and sent a letter to approximately 2,000 Muslim institutions detailing the circumstances of his dismissal – as part of a legal agreement with Jane Doe.
The FACE report is difficult to read as it provides details of repeated malfeasance by an imam who exploited his position of authority. Astonishingly, the Grand Prairie Islamic Society (in Texas) hired Mr. Sheikh in August with full knowledge of his history. It will be up to the congregation to reverse this decision since its leadership is obviously unlikely to do so.
According to Ms. Salem, “Muslims are at a crossroads now as they determine how to address sexual misconduct and abuse, especially among religious leaders and scholars who often benefit from a heightened level of devotion from their adherents”.
Imam Pelletier reflects the type of courageous leadership that is sorely needed. He knew he might be fired, telling the congregation during his sermon: “Sometimes you have to take a bullet for the team. And you’re my team.” Time for the team to rally around those who stand firmly for justice, rather than mendacity and self-preservation.