U.S. Muslims Debate How To Hold Abusive Faith Leaders Accountable
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
American Muslims are questioning how to hold their faith leaders to account after a well-known Muslim preacher was accused of abuse. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports, the group he founded severed ties with him last month, saying he betrayed his position as a spiritual leader.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It was almost two years ago we profiled Usama Canon, the charismatic founder of the nonprofit Ta'leef. The married preacher was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. The response - an outpouring of grief from thousands of mostly young or new American Muslims. Many say they found in Ta'leef a spiritual space that welcomed them without judgment. At that time, he spoke about his legacy.
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USAMA CANON: It's only as lasting as the women and men that have hopefully benefited and learned.
FADEL: Today, that legacy is in jeopardy. Ta'leef leave severed ties with Canon, issued a statement saying allegations against him include verbal abuse, abuse of authority and what it described as, quote, "allegations of a more serious nature." People both inside and outside the organization say that's a reference to him allegedly using his position to engage in secret and pleasure marriages. Pleasure marriages are a controversial practice among some Muslims of marrying temporarily. The unions have no legal U.S. status. The religious justification is fiercely debated.
While Muslim victim advocates commended Ta'leef for the rare public stance it took, they also worried the statement was vague.
ALIA SALEM: You have this lack of clarity that doesn't do justice to what these victims experienced. But you also have a really difficult position that the administration found themself in because of his health condition.
FADEL: That's Alia Salem, founder and executive director of a Muslim nonprofit that provides resources to victims and investigates abuse allegations against spiritual and community leaders. The reaction to the scandal offers a glimpse into the way they roil communities, as supporters and alleged victims figure out how to navigate abuse and betrayal in a sacred space.
Meanwhile, the man in question is in the late stages of ALS. His wife answered a message requesting comments on his behalf, but no comment was actually given. People close to him say Canon can't speak or text but is using a computer that reads eye movements to communicate. In the wake of the accusations, at least three people have gone to Salem's organization, Facing Abuse in Community Environments, or FACE, for help. Salem also observed a healing circle at Ta'leef's Northern California campus.
SALEM: They went to extreme lengths to talk about how much they loved this person, even though he was a violator.
FADEL: That focus, Salem says, is how abusers get away with financial, sexual, physical or spiritual abuse, or people conflate the Islamic practice of not gossiping about people's sins with the real need to root out and warn of abuse. This manifests itself almost identically in other religious groups, she says, but minorities like American Muslims have the added burden of being marginalized. So people will think...
SALEM: We don't want to air our dirty laundry in the public sector because we don't want to bring more negative attention. We're already so inundated; we're already so targeted. Why are we going to make our lives harder?
FADEL: In order to create a cultural shift, Salem says, Muslim organizations need to focus on victims rather than accused leaders like Canon and other popular figures. And in the era of Time's Up up and #MeToo, there are some breaking the silence. More Muslims, specifically women, are speaking up. An American Muslim rapper, Mona Haydar, released a song a couple of years ago about lascivious religious leaders.
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MONA HAYDAR: (Singing) Sheikhs on the DL, sheikhs in the DM, begging me to shake it on the cam in the PM.
FADEL: Muslim groups like Salem's, aimed at preventing abuse by powerful leaders, are popping up across the United States. She started the Dallas-based organization FACE because she didn't know where to turn when a mother came to her for help. The woman's daughter was allegedly manipulated into sex with a married Texas-based cleric three times her age. She says the cleric met the accuser at just 13 and groomed her for years before having sex with her at 18.
SALEM: I was trying to figure out how to help and realized we had no mechanism in the community to authoritatively deal with this.
FADEL: In some cases, her organization releases public misconduct reports to warn Muslim communities, like in the Texas case - the victim sued the accused cleric, Zia ul-Haq, and won. The judge ordered him to pay his accuser more than $2.5 million for mental anguish and other damages. Haq denies any wrongdoing and has begun the appeals process. FACE recently released its second report, this time documenting the alleged abuse of a Phoenix-based imam. Salem's work, she says, is driven by her Muslim faith.
SALEM: I take the work that I do as a commandment, when we talk about leadership and accountability and trying to purify our communities from abuse and corruption.
FADEL: She quotes a passage from the Quran.
SALEM: Oh, you who believe, speak out firmly for justice, even if it's against yourself and your kin.
FADEL: Protecting the vulnerable, she says, is an Islamic prescription.
Leila Fadel, NPR News.
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