Author: Danya Shakfeh

Setting the Record Straight on Handling Allegations of Sexual Misconduct And Spiritual Abuse

Setting the Record Straight on Handling Allegations of Sexual Misconduct And Spiritual Abuse

Over the past few months, women have been more open about sexual advances and aggressions against them by men. Speaking more openly was (arguably) popularized with the #MeToo social media campaign initially started by activist Tarana Burke then popularized by actress Alyssa Milano in October 2017. The Muslim community certainly is not immune to these phenomena. It is important to bring attention to this and do our best to prevent harassment as much as possible, including with Muslims who have been dealing with allegations against religious figures.

With that said, when we are dealing with allegations of sexual violations and spiritual abuse, we need to be nuanced and accurate about the language and process we use. As a legal practitioner, one problem I see consistently, even from other attorneys, is the misuse and confusion of legal language and standards. Many commentators, for example, fail to differentiate between legal procedures and what constitutes, for example, allegations, indictments, [criminal] charges, civil suits, and verdicts. Some people speak of allegations or investigations as if they are indictments or verdicts. Not only does such framing set future claims up for failure, but if an accused is found to be innocent, our community will also be sent into a spiral of fear, hysteria, and cynicism. For example, in regards to Tariq Ramadan many have expressed that, during an accused’s investigation, Muslim organizations should wait until the “charges are dropped” before associating with the speaker again. However, no charges have been filed for that case. Yet the language surrounding the “investigation” by said commentators treated a preliminary investigation as though actual charges were filed and that the allegations were more than what have been presented. The end result is that accusations will be played up to be more than what they are and false information will be spread, such as that Tariq Ramadan was charged with crimes. This also effectively sets the standard once there is an allegation, we treat the accused as guilty through legal language (and misuse of it) and action.

The difference between an investigation and charges is important to understand. An investigation is merely research. The filing of criminal charges implies that there is at least enough evidence to proceed with prosecution. If the government is merely researching claims, then it has not conducted any official actions, particularly filing charges, that indicate there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a claim in connection with the allegations.

By way of example, we can walk through the criminal procedure. Bob accuses John of stealing. This is an allegation and can take place simply with words. Bob does not need to provide evidence for an allegation and allegations alone are not legally actionable in the criminal realm. Bob can formally accuse John by filing a police report, but Bob’s claims are still only allegations. The State will usually then conduct an “investigation” by talking to witnesses and collecting evidence. Again, at this phase there is not necessarily evidence to support Bob’s claim. Once an investigation takes place, the State may determine there is insufficient evidence and choose not to pursue the claim further. If there is sufficient evidence, formal charges by a district attorney may be filed and, depending on the nature of the claim and jurisdiction, John may be arrested and a grand jury may indict Bob. Indictment is the process by which a body of people, known as a grand jury, will determine there is sufficient evidence (“probable cause”) that John stole from Bob. John does not present a defense at this stage so an indictment does not take into account John’s side of the story. After this stage, the parties will enter into negotiations and potential plea deals. If the case goes to trial, the State will present its case and John will present his defense and a judge or jury will ultimately decide whether John is guilty or innocent.

In a civil context, Bob can simply sue John directly without much evidence (or, frankly any) and try to recover his damages. Civil suits require less evidence and has a lower standard of proof and it is very easy to file a lawsuit (the formal allegations) in a civil context.

The above certainly does not mean that everyone needs to be an expert in the legal process. Nor does it mean that the legal process is fool-proof and that we are bound in our decision-making based on a case’s legal status. The real takeaway is understanding the general concepts of what constitutes claims, the variety of ways claims look, and how we should treat accused parties based on what has come to light so far. For example, is it fair to treat an accused party, against whom no evidence has hitherto been presented, the same way as someone who has been indicted or otherwise formally charged? What about the same way as someone who has a verdict of guilty against him?

When people use language that treat investigations, charges, and verdicts as synonymous, we can no longer be clear as to the validity or strength of a claim. For example, if only allegations have been claimed, onlookers need to understand that this is not anything close to a verdict. Accordingly, we need to treat the situation based on how much evidence and the strength of evidence that has been presented thus far (whether we are in a formal legal context or not). As a standard, there is little ground to impose upon all institutions to boycott an accused religious figure simply based on allegations, even if one wants to hold that standard for oneself.

As a community, we understandably are seeking bright lines as to when and how abusers should be held accountable. After all, we just want to protect ourselves and our children from the dangers of this world. Unfortunately, in this matter bright lines do not further the cause and lead to hysteria and confusion. We would be better served by a balancing test. Contrast two cases where an accused has nothing but allegations leveled against him versus and accused whose allegations are accompanied by video evidence of the act in question. While both of the accused parties have a right to due process (again, whether through the legal system or communal mechanisms) and having their defenses presented, it is unjust to treat them equally in front of the community. However, in order to protect our community, we would be more justified in calling upon organizations for ceasing to hosting the latter accused individual because a balancing test would call for weighing the evidence already available with the harm that could result from waiting for presentment of his defense.

Because human behavior is complicated, balancing the interests of victims, accused parties, and our general community is challenging, specifically when dealing with allegations surrounding spiritual abuse and sexual violations. Every case is unique and while there are still pending investigations and processes, the way in which we approach each case will vary in order to balance the above-mentioned interests. We can only successfully maintain this balance by being accurate and consistent in our procedures and terminology.

 

To contact Danya Shakfeh, you can email her at danya@inshaykhsclothing.com.