Sex Abuse in Islamic Schools?
Maulana Abdullah Saleem, founder and teacher at one of Chicago’s most prominent Islamic institutes, has been entangled over the past two years in the US legal system on charges of sexual misconduct and abuse. A previous employee of his institute alleged that he sexually harassed her (touching and fondling her sexually) on several occasions. Later a few other female students claimed that he had also touched them. Maulana Saleem was arrested in 2015 and released on bail shortly thereafter.
Recently, the criminal case came to a close as Maulana Saleem accepted a plea agreement. The impact of this case has been felt in the Chicago community and the larger American Muslim community.
Unfortunately, some Muslims are reacting and have reacted to this case as if the allegations against Maulana Saleem have been proven. They have not. What is clear is that there is a lot more going on in this case than is apparent from mostly one-sided news reports and online discussion. I wanted to make a few remarks (in bullet format) that I hope will be beneficial. As a disclaimer: I am not speaking on behalf of Maulana Saleem or his institute (IIE) and am in no other way affiliated with them.
– It is completely unjust and contrary to Islamic principles to presume that Maulana Abdullah Saleem is guilty and to speak as if he is guilty. None of us have the facts or the necessary evidence to reach that conclusion, so why are so many speaking as if they do? Only Allah knows the whole truth, and Maulana Abdullah Saleem and his accusers could be in a position to know the truth of their actions and allegations. And unless there is evidence that is brought forth in a court of law, it is just the word of one side against the other. But there isn’t going to be a trial. And in the absence of that due process, no sound conclusion can be reached by the rest of us nor should be presumed. To make such presumptions is nothing other than su’ al-dhann and to speak in those terms is to partake in slander. Do not speak what you do not know.
– What of Maulana Saleem’s guilty plea? Isn’t that an admission of guilt? Absolutely not. Innocent people agree to plead guilty with great frequency in the American judicial system (about 95% of cases end in a plea agreement and never go to trial). Often prosecutors essentially threaten defendants to take the plea when they know they don’t have much of a case against the accused. So these prosecutors will aggressively seek a plea deal, in essence making defendants “an offer they can’t refuse.” This is a pernicious problem in the US justice system that human rights organizations have called “abuse” and have reported on. You can read about this here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/04/plea-bargains-unfair-difference-between-10-years-and-life
And in the context of Illinois specifically: http://www.borsberrylaw.com/Articles/Plea-Bargains-Are-they-tools-of-abuse-in-Illinois.shtml
– Given the one-sided press coverage on this case over the past two years as well as the suspicion that the average American citizen has not only for Muslims, but conservative Muslims and religious authorities in general, it would have been improbable to find an impartial jury for this case. So I imagine it was advisable for Maulana Saleem to take the plea deal regardless.
– Also, what Muslims (and all Americans) need to understand is that what the prosecution feeds to the press and what the press decides to report is very selective. Any prosecutor worth his salt will speak to the press as if the accused is the scum of the earth and they have a truckload of bullet-proof evidence, that this is an open and shut case, etc., etc. They will talk like this regardless of the evidence or lack thereof in their possession. They will do their best to present their narrative to the press. The press also tends to frame and report on these cases with a particular bent against the accused, especially if the case falls into a common or popular narrative, e.g., abusive priest preys on the innocent. You can read a thorough study on these dynamics by Duke University Law School Prof. Sara Beale: http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1103&context=wmlr
– Getting into the details now. The most widely read report on this case came out in 2014 in the NYT. There are some irregularities in what was reported in that exposé. The main piece of evidence mentioned is a mediated settlement between Maulana Saleem and his accuser. The NYT reports:
“Mr. Mozaffar [i.e., the mediator] said he had ultimately brokered a settlement in which Mr. Saleem signed a handwritten document saying he had apologized and “admitted to his actions.” But the document does not specify what actions. Mr. Saleem indicated that he was apologizing for the sin of zina, or consensual extramarital sexual contact, Mr. Mozaffar said.”
That last sentence, which the NYT attributes to the mediator, Mr. Mozaffar, is what is very confusing. First of all, if this was a case of *consensual* sexual contact, then it is not clear why this is a criminal matter that requires police and the court of law. Secondly, legally speaking, zina means sexual intercourse. Maulana Saleem was taken to court on accusations of unwanted fondling or sexual harassment, not zina. So how could this signed, handwritten document, which doesn’t specify any actions, constitute an apology for zina? In Islamic law, committing zina as a married man earns capital punishment, yet according to this report, Maulana Saleem admitted to committing such an action in an unofficial mediation session. Why would he apologize for zina, which is something far more serious than the sexual harassment the accuser alleged? In other words, what would compel Maulana Saleem to admit any wrongdoing to a mediator, much less zina? These and other matters don’t add up, which leads me to believe there is a lot not being reported here.
– The prosecution in this case has been shouting from the roof tops from day 1 about how there is this enormous stigma in the Muslim community about reporting sexual abuse. But if that cultural detail is relevant and can be used to understand where the accusers are coming from, we should also make note of American culture. This Islamic school is in America after all, so American culture is relevant, and in American culture, especially in recent times, there is a widespread and powerful feminist narrative that women have to fight back against patriarchy and that all men are part of this system to hold women back, especially religious men, who need to pay for their oppression of women. And furthermore, there is no stigma here for reporting abuse — in fact, any and all violations, great or small, actual or perceived, are encouraged to be aggressively pursued, etc. Aren’t these details equally relevant?
– Someone might ask, well what about the fact that there are multiple accusers? As far as criminal law is concerned, the number of accusations is not a standard for determining guilt. This is for a few good reasons. First of all, the accusations may not be independent from each other. The testimony of one accuser could influence the testimony of other accusers, whether consciously or unconsciously. Testimonies can also be coached and guided by prosecutors to fit a narrative or a pattern imputing guilt. This is not an uncommon occurrence that is frequently debated by legal practicioners. See, for example here.
– Additionally, it is highly possible for accusers to suffer from false memories. Read this eye-opening report on a “memory hacker’s” explanation of how easily false memories can be induced. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/memory-hacker-implant-false-memories-in-peoples-minds-julia-shaw-memory-illusion
– Read more from Dr. Julia Shaw on how witness testimony and victim testimony in criminal justice can be significantly influenced and memories can even be invented by police and prosecutors: http://www.drjuliashaw.com/research.html
– The several alleged victims that claimed they were abused only came forward much later, years after the alleged abuse took place. They alleged that Maulana Saleem touched them and/or brushed against them. Could these be false memories? Could it be that only after hearing that Maulana Saleem was arrested by police for sex abuse that these memories formed? Could it be that these women were approached by the various activists and “allies” and told repeatedly, “This guy is a creep; this guy molested many children; this guy abused his power,” etc., over and over and over again, that that suggestion, that image of the “predator imam” that they were bombarded with, could that picture have transformed into a reality in their minds?
– What we know is that the multiple accusers of Maulana Saleem did not independently report abuse. Their accusations came out only after they had become aware of the first accusation made by the former office manager. This doesn’t mean that they were outright lying — it just means that there is no way to know if their accusations were not unconsciously influenced by the information they received about the first accusation, e.g., that it was being investigated by police, that it was being reported in the NYT, and other contextual factors that can influence (sometimes significantly) a person’s recollection of past events and the substance of their own accusation, especially when the events in question occurred many years ago. In any case, we haven’t actually seen the testimonies of these other accusers, so it is hard to tell what the contents of those testimonies actually are and how they were obtained. To see a real example of how the testimony of multiple people can be false or misleading in a case of sexual abuse, read this example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McMartin_preschool_trial
– What about the DNA evidence? Wasn’t there a match? Actually no. Back in March 2015, this is what was reported: “Prosecutors said the clothes the woman was wearing during that encounter tested positive for semen, though tests to compare the fluid to Saleem’s DNA had not been completed for his last court hearing in February.” DNA testing is not an extensive process that takes a year to complete. The prosecution was careful to only make suggestive statements about DNA, saying it was in the “process of testing,” etc. Only after the plea bargain was accepted over a year later did prosecutors come out and say there was a DNA match. Again, this is standard prosecutorial tactics to influence public perception. Once there is no more possibility of trial and having evidence be brought into the public record, the prosecution will claim that they had the proof all along, knowing full well none of their claims can be scrutinized or cross-examined.
– Even when the prosecution insists that there was a DNA match, this means absolutely nothing. First of all, there is no way to know where the pants came from. Again, it’s just the accusers claim how the pants were stained. The accuser’s account of how the pants were stained itself raises many question marks. For example, why were the pants with the stain kept unwashed for a whole year as if she had been saving it for trial? According to some reports, she initially had not wanted to go to police and was encouraged to do so after the fact. Was she anticipating going to police from day 1 and kept the pants knowing that she could use it as DNA evidence? There’s also the obvious question of how does anyone know where the pants actually came from. A lot of question marks there and the accuser would have to testify in court and be cross-examined. For example, I would want to know if as an employee working at a boarding school she had access to laundry for example. Things like that would be significant for obvious reasons. Even if the DNA did match, and it was her pants, and all the other forensic facts are agreed upon, there are so many other plausible scenarios that can result in those forensics that don’t involve sexual harassment and the substance of the allegations.
– As for actual DNA test results turning up “positive,” as we would expect the prosecution to claim, consider these recent cases of state labs tampering with results for the benefit of the prosecution: here and here. These aren’t isolated incidents. These involved thousands of cases, putting countless innocent men behind bars. Who benefits from this kind of abuse? You think these government employees just tamper with cases for kicks? Who stood to gain from the positive results? Obviously, the prosecution is the one that benefits from these evidence tampering. Bottom line, when the prosecution wants positive results, it gets positive results. This is just the way the criminal justice system works in the US. “Positive” results claimed by the prosecution don’t mean anything without independent testing.
– There are also some self-selected people who have taken it upon themselves to announce on social media and elsewhere that they have “certain knowledge” that Maulana Saleem “did this” and they have “talked to people involved” and know “for sure.” We have a term for these kinds of people that Allah mentions in the Quran. If you have evidence, take it to the proper authorities. Don’t make suggestive comments and personal assurances implicating others of serious crimes on the basis of your hearsay. This is vile and ugly.
– Both Islamic and US law maintain the dictum, “Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” To presume that someone is guilty of a crime and treat him (let alone his family, friends, associates, etc.) as guilty is itself unjust and unconscionable in the absence of proof evaluated in the course of due process.
– Due process is not just a technicality. To jump to conclusions before going through a thorough process of verification and establishment is a major sin in Islam, as Allah describes in Surat al-Nur and elsewhere. And the need for due process is not lessened or discarded in cases of sexual misconduct. In fact, those are the cases where due process is all the more important because there is so much at stake, not only for the accuser but the accused as well. The same is true according to US law.
– Ultimately, there has been no due process in this case because there was no trial. All that we have are accusations and that is not enough to deem a person guilty of committing crimes, whether in the eyes of Islamic ethics or even secular ethics.
– Also, defending Maulana Saleem is not the same as “victim-blaming.” Whoever says this is frankly an imbecile. If someone were to falsely accuse you of sexual harassment, would you be “victim-blaming” by trying to defend yourself and prove your innocence? Are all accusations of sexual misconduct supposed to be accepted as true, without question, by default? Or only when the accusers are women and the accused are elderly men or religious authorities? Yes, it may be that Maulana Saleem committed the acts he is accused of. But it is also possible that his accusers are lying. Or exaggerating. Or suffering from false memories. Or some combination thereof. There is no way to get answers without independent investigation and a fair trial.
– Also notable is the fact that apparently the alleged victims pleaded with the prosecution to offer the plea deal so that Maulana Saleem could avoid possible prison time because they were concerned for Maulana Saleem’s health given that he had recently suffered from a heart attack and would not have fared well in prison. And apparently the prosecution accepted that. These are the people who claim that Maulana Saleem is a dangerous sex offender who has been abusing innocent, defenseless girls and women for decades, yet they are fine with him not spending a day in prison because of the affect that might have on his health. Strange, to say the least.
– Overall, Muslims need to have a better understanding of how to handle issues surrounding sexual misconduct and accusations of sexual misconduct. For example, when can we take an accusation as indeed true? What should we do if someone discloses to us that a wrong happened to him or her? What should we do when someone reports to us that a wrong happened to someone else? What should we do if we ourselves feel convinced that a person has indeed committed a wrong against himself? Against others? This is where our scholars, muftis, fuqaha need to set explicit guidelines. If they don’t set guidelines, outside forces will set those guidelines for us and those forces do not care about Islamic law and ethics. Furthermore, the average Muslim will think that Islamic law doesn’t protect victims of sexual abuse or doesn’t protect them as well as secular law does. This is the lie that the enemies of Islam want to propagate, and they are frankly doing a great job. I will write more on this in the near future inshaAllah.
wa Allahu `alam.