Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Recently, more than 95,000 claims of sexual assault were filed against the Boy Scouts of America, while a Vatican report found that Pope John Paul II facilitated the ascent of now-disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick by rejecting explicit warnings of widespread sexual abuse. Tragically, the scourge of sexual abuse cuts across many communities.
Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE) was formed in 2017 to address abuse by religious leadership within North American Muslim institutions. It has created a rigorous framework to investigate allegations against Muslim religious leaders and hold them to account.
The organization broke new ground by publishing a series of in-depth investigations into allegations of misconduct by imams. In one case, the plaintiff (“Jane Doe”) was awarded a US$2.5-million judgment against Imam Zia ul-Haq Sheikh for sexual exploitation.
These investigations serve to notify the public about individuals with problematic records of behaviour before hiring them. In the past, an offending individual would be terminated quietly by his Muslim employer, only to reoffend again within a new, unsuspecting community. Mosque boards looking for an imam or parents seeking a private religious studies teacher would conduct minimal due diligence – if any at all.
The work of FACE has added teeth to the accountability process for religious leaders. It has also enabled the discussion of taboo topics, such as sexual abuse. This is revolutionary, for predators take full advantage of the culture of silence, knowing that many of their victims feel like they have nowhere to turn to. Most importantly, FACE has empowered victims to speak up and seek justice.
Muslims have a deferential and respectful attitude toward their religious leaders. Not surprisingly, accusations of impropriety are often disbelieved. Accusers become the object of shame, blame and ostracization. Protection of the vulnerable from harm is sacrificed for the protection of the institution. It takes tremendous courage for a victim to come forth.
Until recently, there had been few avenues to seek redress or accountability, since victims feared they would not be believed.
FACE recently announced the publication of a centralized “Historic Transgression List” of North American community leaders charged with abusive behaviour, based on court documents and media coverage of legal proceedings. These men may be living in a community, awaiting trial, incarcerated or have fled. The public can help FACE update this list by submitting documented proof, which is vetted by the organization’s lawyers before being published.
Six of the 16 men listed have ties to Canada. All six have been charged with sexual assault, including three charged with sexual offences against a minor. Two are in prison, one is awaiting trial, one is working as an imam, while the whereabouts of two are unknown.
There is the egregious case of Saadeldin Bahr, charged with sexual assault while counselling a woman at a mosque in Port Coquitlam, B.C. He was sentenced for 3<AF>1/2 years, forbidden from owning a firearm for 10 years and is on the National Sex Offender Registry for 20 years. Financial audits also show he misappropriated $127,000 in donations. He is scheduled for release by 2021.
There is also the troubling case of Abdi Hersy, who was charged with sexual assault involving two female patients in Minnesota in 2006 while working as a respiratory therapist, leading to the revocation of his licence by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. Mr. Hersy fled to Canada before a U.S. warrant for his arrest was issued, obtaining refugee status in 2008, which was reversed after discovery of the warrant. The reversal was successfully challenged in Federal Court. Upon learning of the warrant, the Muslim Council of Calgary fired Mr. Hersy. However, Calgary’s Abu Bakr Musallah hired him in a position of trust and authority as its imam. Congregants should be demanding his dismissal.
The award-winning film Spotlight illustrated how the culture of secrecy and lack of accountability led to the destruction of so many lives by abusive clergy. As the Muslim community begins to confront this problem within its own institutions, it must remember its duty to protect the well-being of its most vulnerable members, while holding offenders to account. The spotlight of shame belongs on offenders and their enablers, not the victims.
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