Now and then we find ourselves reeling in shock at the news of a Sheikh or Imam who has abused their position of privilege and authority. Someone who manipulates, bullies and controls, uses religion for their personal gain, hurts vulnerable people, and doesn't seem to care. The sad thing is that these religious leaders are usually very well-liked and respected and people flock to them. People want to spend time in their company and they want to be like them. For many people, these religious leaders embody Islam and they might feel that if they get closer to them, they get closer to God. Many people might find themselves thinking that perhaps some of their faith, wisdom, and goodness will rub off on us. Instead, we feel confused and betrayed when we discover they aren't what they seem.
Let’s explore a classic example, which we hear about time and again. A woman comes to a religious leader seeking advice and guidance about some situations she's experiencing. Under the guise of helping her, this leader initiates a romantic or sexual relationship with her. He tries to convince her that what he's doing is perfectly all right and when he's tired of the game, he discards her as if she's not worth anything. I've seen a lot of commentary on this subject of spiritual abuse in Muslim communities. A common thread of argument is that power corrupts. I disagree: this way of thinking lets people off the hook.
The truth is that power heightens the ethical dispositions people already have. It allows them to give these dispositions a fuller expression. Thus, people who have a disposition towards selfishness or sexual harassment or aggression will act to that effect when they're in power because they have the opportunity.
They don't have to bow to social pressure or censure. They can be however they want to be and get away with it and oftentimes, their followers are loyal and pretend that they don't see. There are large groups of people around these leaders who often work together to cover these heinous stories up. Those who speak up are targeted and socially shamed and victims are intimidated into silence, made to feel like something is wrong with them, and that they are the ones who should ask for forgiveness.
These leaders continue to have platforms where they can preach, where they can teach, and where they come in close contact with vulnerable people. We trust our Sheikhs, our leaders, and our Imams to represent the values and principles of Islam in the way that they teach. More than that, we expect them to live and behave in alignment with those values and principles. When we give our trust to people and they violate it, we feel betrayed. When we trust people to act based on their higher discernment of God, we often can't help but associate whatever they do with Islam and with God, so we end up in a major spiritual crisis when they do wrong. It's hard to come back from that because we lose trust in religious leaders and we lose trust in the Muslim community as a whole for not acting to prevent such things from happening. So what's the community to do? There aren't easy answers. There is no central recognized authority for religious leadership, which means everyone's on their own. Some organizations are developing mechanisms to hold religious leaders accountable or investigate allegations of abuse, but they often aren't accepted as legitimate by people who are being investigated, and in the end, they have no power to censure anyone. They can't stop them from harming more people.
You may ask yourself, “can’t we go the legal route?”. Well, just because something is legal doesn't mean it’s ethical. It is perfectly legal to court women or have sexually explicit conversations with them online, but in the religious context, it's just wrong. Here are some things we can do:
We can change our relationships with our Sheikhs, our Imams, or our teachers. We can stop elevating them so that they can do no wrong or so that it seems as if the person saying things about them is the one who's wrong and offensive. We have somehow adopted the notion that the Sheikh is everything and we are nothing, but it shouldn't be that way. In the end, we are all creatures of God and we are all fallible. The people who seem most righteous and virtuous may not be perceived that way in the sight of God. We shouldn't honour the religious leader who seems most eloquent and who has the greatest following. We should honour the Sheikh who is most humble, who treats people with kindness, who walks the talk, and someone who has good character. These are the people we should gravitate towards!
Religious leaders themselves need to develop greater awareness of the power they wield. They need to see that their actions have an impact on others and they need to take measures to ensure they don't harm people. They also need to reflect deeply on their relationship with God. They are supposed to be a means by which people deepen their relationship with God. When they violate people they have been entrusted to help and guide, they're committing a crime, not just against people, but against God. Instead of helping, they're doing the opposite. They're using their power and influence to turn people away from God and causes people to associate Islam with evil.
We need to collectively foster the ability to think critically and independently. Religion shouldn't be an excuse to surrender your common sense or to give in to group thinking. A person may seem qualified and it may seem like everyone loves him. However, if your gut feeling tells you that something's off, then trust that. Don't just accept what a leader tells you to do. Think about whether it makes sense to you. Retain your right to question and challenge and know that you can always walk away. Your loyalty to them is based on your desire to draw closer to God, but it cannot be at the expense of it. Remember that without them, you can discover other paths to God, ones that bring you peace and tranquility and make you feel morally sound.
We need to do more work to support people who are affected. We need to protect the vulnerable from being taken advantage of. In part, we do that by developing more confident and informed Muslims who have a solid understanding of Islam and a clear sense of right and wrong. They should be aware that religious talk can be used to harm and that not everyone who's a religious leader is a good person. We also need to make space for people to share their experiences and not be silenced or shamed. We need to do more to help them seek justice. We need to get them the help they need to heal and move forward. If you've experienced spiritual abuse, it isn't your fault. What happened isn't your responsibility. You are a good and worthy person and God is with you. It isn't God that deceived you or let you down. God is still there wanting you to draw closer to him. Know that even if you spent years learning and being guided by an abusive leader, none of it goes to waste because your reward is with God and it's based on intention. And rest assured that even if all the world can't see the harm done to you, God sees, God knows, and God alone can grant you justice and peace.