“Someone you would least expect” are so often the words that accompany the tale of a heinous crime. In wake of the tragic Chapel Hill Shootings, the Muslim community is in the public lens again under far different circumstances here on our home turf. Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, the Imam and founder of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Illinois was charged with sexual assault yesterday.
This is a story I initially came across some months ago. It was on the blog of Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University. Having served as the mediator between a victim and Saleem, he revealed brief details of the non-consensual sexual encounters. Mozaffar received a tremendous amount of backlash for “undermining” Saleem, and creating another blemish on Islam during a time our faith is already under scrutiny in the media. Since then, the posts were deleted and the blog was restricted to the public at Mozaffar’s discretion. However, the story resurfaced and gained momentum this past weekend in an article published for The New York Times.
My close friend who happens to be of Greek Orthodox faith was the one to bring the piece to my attention. Her first words to me in the spirit of comfort were, “the same thing happened with our archbishop.”
I want to focus on the concept of “othering,” creating dichotomies of us and them, the superior and inferior, the pious and the non-pious. There’s a great irony here. In light of the Chapel Hill Shootings there’s been a discourse of “othering” Muslims in the West. How we are forced to police ourselves and hide behind words like “moderate.” We are expected to prove our humanity and patriotism because of our faith. The media suggested the murders in Chapel Hill were committed over a parking dispute. It isn’t unfair to assume that had the shooter been a Muslim of Arab/South Asian descent, the language used to cover this story would be much different. It would be dubbed an act of terror.
This story of sexual harassment led me to consider a new perspective on the nuanced idea of “othering.” I realized it exists within the confines of homogenous communities as well. In this case the “othering” is the fallacy of victim-shaming.
It is difficult to handle a conflict that entails a cultural taboo. There’s a denial that comes paired with it that prompts a notion of hiding, remaining silent, being impartial. Among Muslims, cases of sexual abuse and harassment are treated as isolated incidents. And that’s what makes the rhetoric surrounding them so shallow. Whether it’s homosexuality, premarital sexual relationships, domestic abuse, or even substance abuse, these matters are not unique to a geography, a culture, or even a religion. They are embedded in the fabric of human beings.
In a condemnation by Shaykh Omar Suleiman on Facebook he writes, “Sexual predators should not be sheltered in our communities for the sake of avoiding public scandals.” He goes on to say, “As a religious leadership, we need to do a better job.”
To portray the perpetrator’s actions under a veil of mental illness, old age, or great honor is insulting to victims and to those who really are these things. We cannot privilege anybody’s honor because of rank or stature, nor can they exempt themselves from accountability. We so easily shift focus from the perpetrator’s actions to the victim’s character. Assuming a cause and effect relationship, where the victim must have provoked chaos. This is gauged by a set of arbitrary factors. Sexual harassment goes far beyond this.
Precautionary tales of dressing modestly, not meeting the gaze of another, and keeping a low profile so women do not tempt are cultural dead weight when such things happen. What precautions should males take who experience abuse at the hands of other males?
Hushing matters into silence rails against the purpose of community. In Islam we are taught to shelter people’s shortcomings and sins. But in context, that doesn’t mean we subscribe to the façade (and hypocrisy) of perpetrators. That doesn’t mean we make the victims invisible.
Profound tragedies allow opportunities to restart dialogue. Instances like this debunk a notion we are raised to believe: we are safest in our assimilated, religious and cultural communities. It’s absolutely necessary to have spaces where conversations surrounding cultural taboos can be discussed in comfort and safety. One such organization dedicated to promoting female reproductive health and mental well-being in faith-based communities is HEART.
Whether it is a youth director, social worker, a chaplain, or a hotline, these resources need to be vocalized and encouraged. And the discussion needs to take place, it needs to be addressed. The responsibility falls on the administrations of religious institutions. Silence enables.