We Need to Address Spiritual Abuse

We Need to Address Spiritual Abuse

Before they are countered, abusive practices are often established and justified. Most of this is just due to them being normalized. For example, there was a time when sexual harassment was not seen as harassment, but passed off as joking or ‘boys being boys.’ Similarly, we now understand the harms of hazing and bullying in sports, while before it was just considered a rite of passage and a test of character.

Likewise, we need to reevaluate how we recognize and address spiritual abuse. Recently, it has come to light that some Muslim leaders are taking advantage of community members, through secret marriages and bullying. This is causing widespread trauma: some have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), people are leaving Islam, and still others are avoiding the masjid and Islamic events.

Some Muslim speakers are using their platform to take secret second wives for temporary marriages. In these marriages, the wife has no legal recourse because she is only married through an Islamic nikkah, not through the state. Their husbands quickly divorce them and carry on as if nothing happened. The women are left alone and lost, but the community turns a blind eye.

Further, spiritual abuse includes bullying by religious leaders. I am not talking about occasional snubs or rude interactions. I’m talking about con-artistry, where well-intentioned volunteers hasten to complete excessive and haphazard assignments, only to be publicly humiliated and scolded for ‘insincerity’ and incompleteness. When volunteers speak out, they are told they are disrespecting their teachers, and ostracized.  Instead of helping, community leaders tell them to have a good opinion of their teachers, ‘focus on the positive, and keep serving the deen.’

The teachers’ outbursts are not methodical displays of anger latent with wisdom to break one’s nafs. These are fits of rage, control methods, malicious harassing meant to break spirits. Just like with other forms of bullying, victims suffer PTSD that can last a life time.

I personally know both men and women who have panic attacks in the presence of their former verbally abusive teachers. Even worse, I have two friends that have left Islam, and many more who are struggling with their faith. The anti-religion arguments they would previously ignore, of prophets just being smart men who figured out how to control people, suddenly resonate with them. I’ve been asked the question, “If prophetic inheritors can use religion for power and control, why not the prophets?”

We can debate who the real scholars are, the difference between scholars and daais (preachers), and the rightly guided scholars versus the evil scholars, but these are devastating emotional experiences that logic can’t always counter.

I cannot emphasize enough the need for us to understand and address religious bullying and manipulation. We need to protect the most vulnerable in our community. There are more and more Muslims who are distancing themselves from Islamic programming because of their negative experiences. Many Muslims convert to Islam because of the brotherhood and sisterhood, and good character of Muslims, not long study of religion. In other words, they see Muslims as representatives of Islam. When we praise our teachers as scholars who are inheritors of the Prophet (peace be upon him), we can also expect Muslims to think of them as his representative. So when they realize the manipulation of these scholars, they begin to wonder about the character of the Prophet (peace be upon him). While much of this is the problem with personality based religion, we also need to address the problems of religious personalities. We are losing talented students of knowledge, dedicated volunteers and sincere Muslims.

When we let down our own people, we can’t be surprised when they begin to identify more with other groups. Many of the victims that I have worked with have told me that Muslim leaders ignored their complaints, but non-Muslim progressives embraced them, provided support and helped them heal.

If we only respond to a crisis or wait until all Muslim leaders look bad, we won’t have much moral integrity. It will convey that we are working for crisis management, rather than being morally motivated to stop abuse. It will convey that we didn’t care until it affected us. It’s important that we be proactive in protecting one another, maintain checks and balances to preserve the trust of Muslims, and not let cynicism take over.