Said Laila Alawa, one of Khan’s accusers: “The reality is, speaking out as a woman can cost you your reputation, your job opportunities. It’s an insanely deep fear that we’ve taught our young women time and again with all the rhetoric around modesty and hijab. If you’re being told over and over that it’s the woman’s responsibility to be chaste, women are going to internalize it as their fault if they get harassed.”
Once you get past the shirtless selfies and the “sugar daddy” boast, the scandal surrounding Muslim preacher Nouman Ali Khan is a rare window into how difficult it can be for Muslim communities to deal with claims of misconduct by leaders, especially when women are involved.
Khan is a conservative, Texas-based teacher whose lively Qur’an lectures draw hundreds of thousands of fans to his stories blending modern-day scenarios with strict interpretations of scripture. He disapproves of men and women shaking hands, promotes marrying young, and chides Muslims who wear “skintight” clothes. Shocking claims that he abused his power to pursue relationships with women set off a nasty battle over how to handle allegations of religious leaders behaving badly.
Last week, the accusations — along with screenshots of text messages and photos allegedly sent to women by Khan — portrayed him as an undercover ladies’ man who violated the rigid moral code he advocates. The claims also raise serious questions about whether he might’ve abused his authority in order to approach young women who attended his lectures or studied at Bayyinah, his religious center near Dallas. Khan, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, said in a Facebook post that the claims are a mix of lies and distortions about “communications” between consenting adults after he divorced his wife. Neither Khan nor Bayyinah could be reached for comment.
The scandal is so polarizing it’s almost impossible to discuss any aspect of it without the conversation ending in name-calling. Muslim women who’ve criticized Khan received such vicious and personal retaliations from his supporters that in some cases they’ve deleted posts and gone silent. Their comments on Khan’s official pages are scrubbed by his protectors, and critics who tag Khan on Twitter are immediately blocked.
The backlash, several women said, has drowned out voices calling on Muslims to be more up front about how leadership misconduct is a problem in Islam just as it is in other faiths, a discussion they say is long overdue. Incidents like this are usually handled quietly, through mediation, out of respect for the families involved and Islam’s tradition against public shaming. But that opaque process has failed in Khan’s situation, and the online scramble has led to vicious attacks on those who amplify the allegations.
“This is how you silence victims. This is why they won’t come forward,” Rabia Chaudry, a Muslim attorney and activist who’s faced a barrage of attacks for addressing the scandal, lamented in a Facebook post. Citing “the vitriol,” she declined a BuzzFeed News interview request.
For months, rumors of Khan’s alleged indiscretions had circulated among Muslims in Dallas, with some clerics even making thinly veiled references to the claims in public. But the allegations went viral Sept. 22 with a bombshell Facebook post by Omer Mozaffar, a Chicago-based Muslim chaplain who said he was brought in to mediate between Khan and concerned scholars, a role he’s played before in similar cases.
By Mozaffar’s account, Khan “confessed inappropriate interactions with various women,” lied about them, and threatened lawsuits to stop people from exposing him. Mozaffar wrote that he was publicizing the accusations now because Khan had violated a negotiated agreement that called for him to cease contact with the women, get counseling, and stop giving his signature lectures about how to live by the Qur’an in everyday life. He was permitted to circulate previously recorded talks, except for those on “marriage or gender matters.”…
“The reality is, speaking out as a woman can cost you your reputation, your job opportunities,” she said. “It’s an insanely deep fear that we’ve taught our young women time and again with all the rhetoric around modesty and hijab. If you’re being told over and over that it’s the woman’s responsibility to be chaste, women are going to internalize it as their fault if they get harassed.”