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Muslim Communities Divided Over Abuse Allegations Against Popular Preacher


In 2017, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, a rigidly conservative celebrity American Muslim preacher was caught in a sexting scandal. Nouman Ali Khan was accused of using his position to lure and groom women into sexual relationships under the guise of secret marriages, all while he was legally married to someone else. The scandal divided Muslim communities as some came to his defense and others called for him to be held accountable. He largely disappeared from public life.

Now, like a few other men accused of being sexual predators at the height of #MeToo, he appears to be attempting a comeback. Last week, Nouman Ali Khan was invited to speak on an all male-hosted podcast called "The Mad Mamluks," and that was met with outrage from largely young Muslims questioning why anyone would give him a platform.

We called Alia Salem to hear her reaction. She's the founder of FACE, which stands for Facing Abuse in Community Environments, a Dallas-based organization that investigates spiritual, sexual and financial abuse by Muslim leaders.

ALIA SALEM: My reaction was not surprise but disappointment that these individuals have so little regard for victims and survivors that they would knowingly host somebody like this individual who is known - like, we spoke to those victims early on. We had to listen to how it made them feel, how it hurt them, et cetera. And the callousness - even if it's rooted in apathy, that's disappointing. And it's something that I don't think we should be so quick to embrace. We have to move towards centering victims and survivors and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

FADEL: And we should point out that this is a struggle that happens well - way beyond the Muslim community - centering victims...

SALEM: Oh, my God.

FADEL: ...Believing victims.

SALEM: Yeah.

FADEL: Yeah. So this was pretty divisive, him being hosted on this podcast, coming back into public life. Online, we saw some Muslims absolutely outraged, others saying he deserves a chance. What were you seeing reaction to his appearing on this podcast?

SALEM: Mostly, I was seeing people from the younger Muslim crowd expressing their disappointment. You had men as well as women who were saying, this is not OK. And I think it really speaks to a tendency for the younger crowd to really understand and empathize with survivors and expect a lot from their leadership.

FADEL: Is that unique? Is that different than, say, what you might have seen in 2017, when women first started speaking out?

SALEM: It's something where we're seeing some changes, although minuscule. You can see people getting a little bit, you know, braver in speaking out. But there's still so much trepidation, and there's still so much fear.

FADEL: Let's talk about that. What creates that situation - that trepidation, that fear, that concern about speaking openly?

SALEM: I think specific to the Muslim community, you know, in a post-Sept. 11 world, the Muslim community has had to bear the brunt of, you know, being scrutinized under the guise of national security. And the exhaustion from having to create this - you know, this defense against the negative portrayals and the inaccurate portrayals has left people fatigued.

You know, when a leader abuses their position of power, those are the people that we hold up as our shining examples. And for there to be a legitimate criticism about the people that are supposed to be the best of the best - there's this sense of, you know, let's not talk about this and give the broader world something legitimate to come after us with. You know, you can absolutely sympathize and empathize with this. We're just so tired of defending ourselves.

FADEL: Your model at FACE is to do quite the opposite of staying quiet, dealing with it internally. You investigate. You issue public reports. You issue warnings about possible predators. Why did you choose to do this really almost confrontational approach?

SALEM: So I've been working in the community for about 16 years, and I noticed no organization at that time that was doing accountability work on a national scale. There may be local congregations and things like that that try to address these issues internally, within the community.

But what was happening is you may see a congregation fire a religious leader or a nonprofit fire a leader, but those leaders will go to another community or another nonprofit, and nobody talks about it. Nobody passes on that information, and nobody is doing proper background checks.

FADEL: So basically, if one congregation might - rooted out the abuse, they didn't warn anybody else about what he might have done...

SALEM: Right.

FADEL: ...At their mosque, and so they could just hop.

SALEM: Absolutely. And that's exactly the thing. They would just hop from community to community, shrouded and protected by this culture of silence. I watched "Spotlight" - the movie "Spotlight" - and I saw, you know, The Boston Globe come in and do this amazing investigation in the Boston area about the Catholic abuse scandals with priests. So the other piece of it was, we can't wait for external media to come in and clean house for us. We have to be doing this.

FADEL: That was Alia Salem. She's the founder of FACE, or Facing Abuse in Community Environments, which is an organization that investigates spiritual, sexual and financial abuse by Muslim leaders. We've been talking with her about preacher Noumen Ali Khan.

Thank you so much.

SALEM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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