A Texas imam was shuttled from mosque-to-mosque for years despite known sexual abuse, then exposed publicly with no consequences, and finally sued by a victim of his abuse–and just days ago, a court issued a judgement against him. Yet, except for a few corners of Muslim social media, the Muslim community has been largely silent. Why the silence?
We need to talk about what happened and what our silence means for survivors of sexual violence and especially for those who trust authority figures.
Last week, Imam Zia Sheikh of Grand Prairie Mosque (GPM) and formerly of Islamic Center of Irving (ICI) was held guilty of sexually assault. “A Locke Lord team, led by Dallas Partner Susan Adams, received a judgment of $2.5 million in damages on behalf of pro bono client Jane Doe. The case alleged that a Muslim clergy counselor, who had provided counseling to Jane Doe starting at the age of 13, had used his trusted position at one of the largest mosques in the country to sexually assault and exploit her.”
Only after the judgment came out did GPM ask Sheikh to resign. While the abuse did not take place during Sheikh’s employment with GPM, this mosque has known of his past for at least 9 months and likely much longer. In October 2018, the Muslim community organization Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE) exposed Sheikh’s history of sexual misconduct at several mosques based on extensive research including interviews with mosque officials and abuse survivors. Some key findings of the report were:
- Jane Doe 1 (the plaintiff in the lawsuit) was groomed by Sheikh since age 13 into having a sexual relationship in which “she was unable to provide meaningful consent.”
- Jane Doe 1 reported this matter to President of the ICI Board, Nouman Ali Khan, who “discouraged her from sharing what she experienced because it would harm Sheikh’s reputation.”
- The ICI board was subsequently informed of the allegations through other religious leaders and ICI forced Sheikh to resign.
- With intervention from community activists and Jane Doe 1’s attorney, an agreement was reached for ICI to notify over 2,000 mosques across the country of the “circumstances of Sheikh’s resignation.”
- Sheikh admitted to the sexual relationship “in the presence of multiple witnesses.”
- “Jane Doe 1’s sole demand was that Sheikh never hold a position as a religious leaders in any capacity ever again.” However, Sheikh did not comply with this. Subsequently, Jane Doe 1 pursued legal redress against him.
- In the course of FACE’s investigation, other instances of sexual misconduct including secret marriages came to light at mosques in Florida and Virginia, both of which removed him after the board became aware of his conduct but failed to notify the community and future employers about his offenses.
These findings lead to several questions. First, are mosque boards not doing due diligence in hiring decisions or deliberately ignoring sexual misconduct? From FACE’s report, the details are unclear, but under Texas law, they may be liable for negligent hiring. GPM addressed this issue in its press release following the judgment, stating they did an “extensive investigation and background check” and hired Sheikh in May 2018 because no lawsuits had been filed against him. When rumors started to “resurface” against Sheikh, the mosque consulted their attorney, who advised “that we hire him” since Sheikh was hired before the lawsuit was filed and the mosque was not covering his legal fees. (If this makes no sense, it’s because the press release doesn’t make sense: if they had already hired him, why was the lawyer advising them to “hire him” again? Or did they mean to say, “keep him”?) The press release concludes, “As a judgment has now come against him and we have a verdict, we owe it to the community that we should part ways with Imam Zia…. We thank you for service to the community, and we wish him well …”
Are mosque boards not doing due diligence in hiring decisions or deliberately ignoring sexual misconduct?
This press release makes several things clear. GPM was aware of the allegations against Sheikh but hired him anyway. When FACE revealed the abuse publicly last year, GPM kept Sheikh on staff despite a lawsuit being filed. They continue to wish him well despite being found guilty of sexual misconduct.
We are concerned that not only did the mosque fail to provide support to sexual abuse survivors and instead protect an abusive imam, but the larger community continued to attend his khutbas despite his misdeeds being made public.
We must ask why the Muslim community continuously fails to hold abusers and institutions accountable, especially despite a confession from the perpetrator. Do they assume Sheikh’s relationship with the woman was consensual? If so, note that under Texas law (Section 22.011), “a sexual assault under Subsection (a)(1) is without the consent of the other person if: the actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.” In other words, under the law, the relationship is de facto non-consensual.
We must ask why the Muslim community continuously fails to hold abusers and institutions accountable, especially despite a confession from the perpetrator.
Or is the community afraid that drawing attention to such topic would provide fodder for Islamophobes to attack our community? If so, Muslim activists working at the intersection between Islamophobia and gender justice have addressed this concern:
“Survivors cannot bear the burden of living through their own experiences of Islamophobia & abuse, and also be responsible for the broader structure of Islamophobia and how it impacts the Muslim community as a whole. This is unjust and allows Islamophobes and abusers to dictate how we as a community provide safety and justice internally to our communities.”
As a community, we are vicegerents of Allah and are duty-bound to hold abusers accountable for their violence against the community instead of being complicit by being silent. The Qur’an requires us to stand for justice even if it is against our own community members (4:135). Muslim organizations must therefore formulate and enforce policies that articulate zero tolerance of sexual abuse.
Dr. Shehnaz Haqqani is an Islamic scholar serving as Assistant Professor of Religion at Mercer University. Zahra Khan is an aerospace engineer working on Mars exploration. The authors are co-founders of Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America (FITNA), an organization aiming to create constructive disruption around gender issues in the Muslim community.
The authors would like to thank FACE and the all-Muslim women legal team for Jane Doe for their leadership and encourage the Muslim community to enthusiastically support their important work of rooting out oppression from our community.