Last month, the NAK scandal rocked the Muslim community, splitting us into camps of believers, non-believers, and confused third-partiers who had never heard of the celebrity sheikh before. I held my tongue, not because I didn’t believe the accusations, but because I wasn’t sure where my place was in this conversation. I spend a lot of time thinking about the space I occupy and take up, how necessary my voice is in certain situations, if what I have to say hasn’t already been said or if I’m the one who needs to say it.
If you don’t know what the NAK scandal is, this article does a pretty good job of outlining it, though I do not agree with the conclusion of it. This blog takes the position that you should name abusers, and also discourage people from working with, or consuming work of, abusers.
I will admit though, even after working extensively during my undergrad in the Women and Gender Resource Centre and now fully entrenched in the always-believe-the-survivor mentality, I took some time to privately grieve. Not because Khan was, in any way, a role model I didn’t want to believe had harmed the long list of women stepping forward, or even someone I was tangentially invested in. Sure, I knew of him, had attended many of his lectures, my father had a few on audio cassette (remember those?); it was hard to live in Texas and not be aware of his presence, thanks to things like the Texas Dawah Convention. No, it was more a moment of reflection of what Khan represented. The sheikhs we were supposed to look up to and admire and strive to emulate – our own modern-day tabi3een. And it was also a reflection of another man entirely.
As this scandal unfolded, and more and more women stepped forward, even more women stepped forward to name other celebrity sheikhs. A man who was like a father to me, one of my father’s close friends, a man who instilled in me a love of religion and recitation of Qur’an, was named. And, in a second, reading his name on the list of those who utilised their position as a holy man in the community to get close to women and use them, the way this man left my childhood made a whole lot of sense. The hushed whispers when he divorced his first wife, and got a younger wife. I was young, I barely remember his first wife, but the second one I knew. So when he divorced her and got his third wife, it was a little strange, but still being a child, my mother explained sometimes people aren’t right for each other and that’s okay. I still remember the Sufi music that played at his wedding, but I can’t remember if it was the wedding to the third wife or the second. Later, he left our small New York ummah to be an imam elsewhere, and I remember crying as if a family member was leaving, and my mother telling me that he had to leave because people in the community were lying about him. Being only six or seven at the time, I believed her.
My quiet grief was over my mother lying to me. The realisation that she probably knew, that my father probably knew, what he did and either didn’t believe whoever had been brave enough at the time to step forward and name him, or didn’t care. It was a stumbling, humbling epiphany. It was so obvious once I replayed it back in my mind, and I couldn’t believe that religion somehow was (pardon the obvious metaphor) a veil for the fuckyboy syndrome. Had I not come to understand that men would do anything to get into a woman’s pants, #YesAllMen, and that trusting men was like believing in Santa Claus – a disappointing lie that people of other religions told their children. Why had I thought that #YesAllMen didn’t apply to Muslim men? Had I thought that Muslim men were incapable of leading women on, of toying with their emotions, of using their status in the community to use, abuse, and ostracise their targets?
I kept my distance from Muslim communities since moving out of Texas because of the queer, sex educator thing, so it was weird that this was a revelation to me. I realised, that while I knew all men were capital-A Awful, I assumed that the elder men in our community – those who came to America to give their children a better life only to worry those children were becoming too “Americanised” – were above that norm. I assumed that it was the West that corrupted the youth and that our boys were learning to be shitty from their environment, from TV, from easily-accessible American porn, from their white friends who told them blow jobs weren’t the same thing as sex, so it was okay if you convinced a girl to give you one. I assumed that the elders in our community had such a strong foundation of faith that they could never do something as wild and as “American” as having affairs – I couldn’t imagine them sexting their own wives let alone a woman they weren’t married to. I had never witnessed my own father kiss my mother in front of me growing up. And yet, this revelation made me realise our community’s youth were not learning to be shitty from the outside environment, but from their own parents. After all, porn exists overseas.
This realisation caused me not to speak to my parents for about two weeks solid. I stewed in quiet anger that they knew and were complacent, that they didn’t believe the women, and without talking to them about Khan, I assumed that they also didn’t believe the women who named Khan. After my cold shoulder treatment went unnoticed, I decided I was done with silence. I realised that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. Silence around abuse, silence around sex and consent. Placing our holy men onto pedestals and being surprised when they fall.
That’s when the idea for this very long, personal ramble started. Thinking about how we continuously fail our youth when it comes to sex education, and how this played a role in the Khan scandal. Before I had a chance to write it out, last week another scandal surfaced. Not in the Muslim community, but in Hollywood.
Weinstein wasn’t anything special at first. Just another dick in the sea of unsolicited dicks. However, an article cropped up and the tagline made me think immediately of the Khan scandal.
It made me think of how men use religion to warn against rumours and backbiting to protect themselves, and how women protect themselves with those “whisper networks.” It made me think of how angry I was with my mother – I felt she had violated the unspoken rule of when women warn other women and femme aligned folks about men you should be wary around. And after realising the source of the anger, the “Me Too” campaign helped me to find it to be grossly misdirected. Here we were, again putting the onus on femme folks to do the work. To do the hazardous job of outing ourselves as survivors, as victims, as whatever the word of the day is that is both empowering and degrading. To do the emotional labour of putting our pain on display to teach them a lesson about life. Like we are reopening wounds that have been trying to heal, and writing our stories in our own blood. Like we are holding our abusers’ hands and leading them to the bloody novel and reading it to them.
I didn’t want to be angry at my mother for not utilising the “whisper networks.” I wanted to be angry at the people who made those networks necessary.
I can’t even begin to describe the solution to this problem. It feels overwhelmingly extensive, though it sounds simple. It’s not a quick fix, done overnight. It’s not something that could be smoothed over by one sheikh admitting fault to one scandal. Plain and simple, it’s less silence, more talking. More talking about things that matter. More talking with our youth, our children, more talking about consent-based sex education. It’s also less talking, and more listening. Listening to those who name abusers, listening to the youth when they want to talk about issues that make you uncomfortable. It’s also less talking, and more action. More showing our sons how to treat women instead of just having them sit in lectures about how the prophet treated his wife. More showing our daughters that we respect their right to assert themselves instead of telling them to be more like Khadija (R) and Aisha (R). More showing our children what relationships look like – they don’t have to be perfect, porcelain, crack-free representations of a relationship that existed 1400 years ago in Medina. They just have to show your children how to work through the cracks, the disagreements, the setbacks. They need to see you kiss your spouse, they need to see affection that is not hidden and secret, they need to see relationships that showcase love and care, and commitment to working through whatever life throws at them.
All of this is to say that this blog stands with those who continue to call out oppression and abusers in our communities – even when it’s difficult – and that the road to a solution, a society where there is less silence and more openness, is just beginning, and it will take quite a bit of hard work. It is catching ourselves on the daily in conversations with friends, family, peers. It is creating spaces for survivors to access resources and to copower and uplift their voices instead of shaming them into silence with hadiths telling women they should “make 70 excuses for their brother,” or “Allah tells you to cover each other’s sins.” If the community is to grow and become better, we need to be open to discussing these taboo topics, addressing the problems instead of just shrugging and “leaving it up to Allah and the Day of Judgement.” It is constant work, and tireless. Which is why the work HEART Women and Girls does is so important, and the work I’m trying to do is so very important for the Muslim community.
Keep an eye out for the upcoming post which will be a call for submissions for a zine surrounding the topic of harassment, celebrity sheikhs, Muslim fuckboys, and Muslim callout culture.