Activism As a Cover For Abuse

Activism As a Cover For Abuse

بِسمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحمٰنِ الرَّحيمِ

 وَإِذا قيلَ لَهُم لا تُفسِدوا فِي الأَرضِ قالوا إِنَّما نَحنُ مُصلِحونَ
أَلا إِنَّهُم هُمُ المُفسِدونَ وَلٰكِن لا يَشعُرونَ

        When it is said to them: “Make not mischief on the earth,” they say: “Why, we only want to make peace!”
Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realise (it) not.
-Quran 2:11-12    (Yusuf Ali translation)


People use good causes for personal agendas.  The most sinister form of this is the use of religion for personal benefit. In Shaykh’s Clothing was founded to create awareness of this age-old problem, and how it is something we all need to be aware of.

There is however another type of charlatan that Muslims need to recognize: the opportunist activist. Some of these activists are also teachers and religious leaders in our community.

We are in a moment where ‘social justice’ activism is a measure of religious devotion. The rewards for speaking activist language and associating with the disenfranchised are high, so you’ll have opportunists marketing their sacrifices, taking pictures with expressions of indignation, and typing online statuses of rage.  Capturing the popular sentiments of the moment and scoring points by regurgitating popular discourse – regardless how unislamic it is- is one of the fastest ways to gain a following.

These actors are capturing the emotions you want to see and often recalling images from the 60’s to embody a spirit of struggle. This does not suggest their work isn’t beneficial- it may very well be, just as an insincere teacher can guide others to good deeds while being deprived of its reward due to ostentation. Nor am I suggesting that every person who engages in social justice activism is doing it for personal gain.

You will see opportunists publicly posturing rage and indignation regarding social justice issues. Many will make the social justice cause about their personal experience rather than the issue.  They are selective about the causes they publicly support so they may boost and not hurt their brand. Others will do a lot of good work as well- they will start non-profits, be very engaged in charities, and advocate for great causes. Unfortunately in many cases, this will be just for building their own personal brand, or to create a cover for their own abuse. It’s very difficult for people to understand that the same person fighting so passionately against a social ill is a purveyor of that very illness.

This should not be shocking. Jerry Sandusky was a hero in Pennsylvania for his great work with the youth. He used his non-profit which helped the youth as a way of meeting the 45 young boys he was convicted of sexually abusing. He hid behind his philanthropy and when this news broke his community was in shock that someone who helped kids so passionately was also sexually abusing them.

In 2015 Joel Davis was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work to stop sexual abuse.  In 2018, Davis was charged with sexual crimes against children, including child pornography and attempting a sexual encounter with a 2 year old child. Like Sandusky, Davis’ work gave him access to children and the trust of parents. This was a way of grooming the larger community for trust and access.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was a vocal proponent of the #metoo movement but was later accused by several women of sexual harassment himself ultimately resulting in his resignation. Schneiderman’s championing of women’s rights appeared only to be a cover for his own alleged misconduct.

Similarly, there are religious activists (including scholars) exclaiming we have our own Harvey Weinsteins who need to be exposed. However they are similar to Eric Schneiderman in that they are quick to condemn some teachers while engaging in the same behavior.  They may condemn the scandals of some teachers, but continue to host and praise teachers who they know are a lot more abusive than the ones they call out. Reasons for this may vary, but one common reason is that the teacher they cover up for supports the causes those activists care about and they don’t want to lose a powerful voice.

There are teachers who have built their brand off speaking for women’s rights and yet are themselves groping women they are not married too, or engaging in secret marriages and then divorcing these women without giving them basic rights such as the agreed upon mahr, and then marginalizing these women by slandering them as being ‘crazy.’  Being outspoken against secret second marriages or manipulation is a great way to make it harder to be detected. This is not to cast doubt on those who are, but such vocalization cannot be used as a litmus test for one’s character.

Some of these teachers are using the right language of ‘triggers’ and ‘trauma,’ as well as supporting and becoming involved in the growing field of Muslim mental health.  This only strengthens their credibility and makes it harder for people to believe that they are traumatizing other Muslims.

We need to realize that anyone can be abusive. This shouldn’t lead to paranoia, or a negative default assumption. Rather it should mean that we allow trust to be earned rather than assumed. Be careful of giving ‘passes’ and making exceptions for those you otherwise respect or have a personal affinity towards. If a person’s behavior is exploitative don’t allow that to be offset by an overabundance of indignant imagery whether through long statuses or visual images. Merit must be earned through proven character- and even then always realize everyone is fallible. Public praise, the causes with which one aligns, and doing good work does not mean this person is not abusing his position. Even then, we must observe and maintain boundaries as in any other relationship.

The importance of trust varies in accordance with the different levels one engages these figures, for example attending a jummah khutba (Friday sermon) would not require much trust opposed to approaching for advice and sharing personal information- especially when there is no explicit agreement of confidentiality (as in the case with therapy).

There are a variety of ways an opportunist or abuser can manipulate people and obtain power. Religion is one way, activism is another, and joining between religion and activism is yet another way. We need to be cognizant of the ways in which abuse manifests and always leave room for the possibility that even the most apparently ‘just’ people may be corrupt.

To learn more: Dr. Ronald Mah on Narcissism 


To contact Danish Qasim directly, email him at

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2 Replies to “Activism As a Cover For Abuse”

  1. A very important topic — but I fear that as a community we are far from being able to take these issues seriously. As a communal body, we have been programmed to close ranks and behave like a protection racket whenever our esteemed activists / leaders / teachers stand accused of abuses.

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