Why People Don’t Help

Why People Don’t Help

-Danish Qasim 6/19/17

Prohibiting the wrong is not required when you don’t have good reason to believe in a positive outcome

Islamically, one is only required to prohibit the wrong if change seems plausible. When change does not seem practical there is no requirement to speak up, and hating sin in the heart suffices. This is a mercy and a very practical aspect of our religion. It allows us to focus on different positive efforts and maintain a personal life even when there is much suffering around us. This is needed for a healthy life, even if it seems selfish.

I’ve had many conversations with Islamic leaders who recognize spiritual abuse and want to do something about it. They feel powerless. They do not believe that they will be heard opposing powerful people. Research is in their favor. In a 2008 survey, Dr. Ruth Namie and Dr. Gary Namie of Workplace Bullying Institute asked victims of bullying how their employers reacted after learning about the incidents. 53 percent said the employer did nothing, 40 percent said the employer conducted a biased or inadequate investigation, and only 7 percent gave employers credit for a fair investigation (Namie & Namie, 2011. p73). When there are not proper checks and balances, or punitive measures for bullies, it only encourages them to continue. Inversely, victims are discouraged to report incidents as they lose hope for recourse, and other bystanders grow in apathy since they know nothing will happen.

If a scandal becomes public they are blamed for not speaking out and called cowards. But if they speak out before the scandal is public they are maligned. It’s a lose-lose situation, and many just focus on their own goals and bringing about the good they can.

If religious leaders or bystanders have seen nothing be done, or as is often the case, reporting abuse backfire on the reporter, they have more Islamic justification to remain silent. Authors of Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare note that one reason for bystanders to not warn about or report abuse was admitting that the manipulator was “far too influential for them to cross” thus preferring to “stay out of the line of fire” (Babiak & Hare, 133).

Also, given how difficult it is to prove manipulation, especially without willing corroborators, it is easy to write off a whistle blower as overly sensitive. This is particularly true when the manipulator has climbed the ladder to a stronger position of influence and has successfully managed his image to that of a person envied by subordinates, or has strategically slandered those identified as ‘trouble-makers’ in his game. Seeing this vicious marginalization and futile effort ‘to do the right thing.’ It discourages bystanders, leading them to “conclude it’s not worth fighting the psychopath” while “others may assume that the psychopath has been selected for future leadership roles and can do no wrong, and is therefore immune to attack” (Babiak & Hare, 139). This sends the message that the manipulator is untouchable.

As much as we want our religious leaders to stand up and challenge abusive leaders, they are justified in believing there won’t be benefit in it. Wanting someone else to sacrifice their sanity and give up any semblance of a normal life by pursuing a powerful leader is not fair. It is not a blemish on their morality.

Bad previous experience

Over the summer, I was discussing spiritual abuse and the need to address it with two local imams. They explained their reluctance by telling me how about 15 years ago, they learned that a popular imam in their locale was stealing donations. They began speaking out, first addressing the imam directly and then the community at large. They were heavily slandered, accused of being jealous, and were boycotted by the community.  They lost about 40 students of their own. About 10 years later, the accusations were proven correct and the community was left in shock.

These imams have since then kept relatively silent on abuse, but were still able to work with families and help convict two other imams of child molestation. They felt more obligated to address the issue of molestation, but say now they keep quiet in cases of stealing zakat and religious manipulation.

Another religious leader I spoke with told me that he used to boycott events with teachers that he knew were manipulating students or doing secret temporary marriages.  He said it was ineffective and that he can’t do it anymore. “Either take a stance and be removed, or stay cordial and be able to do my work.” This is the dilemma he explained. He added “I wish we could just get rid of those abusing their position, but there are too many, and they are popular. I have a family to support and that’s most important to me.” In many ways he’s right. In his experience organizations did not care and would be quick to say that what our speakers do in their personal life is their own business.  It’s hard to refuse a speaker that can help generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising.

Not Part of  the Job Description

Narcissism expert and therapist Ronald Mah told me that most Marriage Family Therapists (MFTs) and therapists are not equipped to deal with a narcissist. Narcissists are essentially people without moral breaks, conscience and empathy. They can hurt people and not feel bad about it. Therapists are easily torn down and manipulated. These therapists approach the narcissists as equals- which the narcissist sees as weakness and is easily able to break them down. If mental health professionals struggle with narcissists, don’t be surprised that religious leaders do too. It’s not because they are stupid, it’s because they are not trained.

Many religious abusers are narcissists. Vocational training does not prepare you to deal with such charming yet manipulative people. Neither does a secular university. This is why narcissists are able to bully, manipulate, intimidate and get their way at any level in any organization. This isn’t unique to religion. 

The problem is worsened by popular notions that excuse narcissists’ behavior: that they manipulate because they are hurt, and bully because they are insecure. People respond to narcissism with exaggerated kindness, hoping for clemency, being left alone, and concession.

When a student dedicates long years to studying Islam, he/she is thinking about growing as a person. He wants to educate his community and provide services he may not have had as a young Muslim. Students dedicate themselves to the Quran, academic rigor, and spiritual refinement. They are taught to avoid conflict and focus on what is beneficial. This is seen as weakness by narcissists.

I believe it is critical for the Muslim community, and society, to understand the narcissistic personality.  Martha Stout, the author of ­The Sociopath Next Door­ estimates sociopaths make up 4% of the population. That means out of 100 people, there are 4 narcissists! Therefore, you can assume they exist in almost every Islamic organization. Just one can wreak havoc and cause trauma that will last a life time.

A narcissist can shed crocodile tears and make you believe he is sorry, but his behavior will not change. You can only judge behavior.  To learn more about how to deal with a narcissist, please see this article by Dr. George Simon https://www.drgeorgesimon.com/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist/

Not Enough Evidence

As an outsider, bullying is hard to identify. If others have not experienced the manipulation, you cannot expect them to believe you. Also, it is difficult to articulate bullying tactics if you have not studied them. Personally experiencing bullying is not enough to understand it.  Bullying typically, leaves victims frustrated and confused, and- although justified- their anger in verbalizing their story makes them look crazy and unreliable. Meanwhile, the bully appears charming and undisturbed, or sometimes victimized themselves.

It’s important to realize that being inept in handling bullying is not just an issue in the Muslim community, but a problem in the corporate world as well.

Here are some videos that explain why victims are often not believed:



To better understand manipulation tactics:



Fear of Blame

It is a common experience for the one who points out spiritual abuse and maintains a sentiment of righteous indignation to get labeled as someone who just doesn’t like people. Often times, the problems are with more than just one religious leader, and pointing out abuse perpetuated by more than one shaykh gets one the reputation as a person who just has an issue with everyone.

Others are able to rationalize not taking their stance by ‘being able to see the good in everyone, realizing no one is perfect, etc.’  Others are often aware of spiritual abuse, but once emotionally past the shock phase, they are able to carry on with their dissonance, and then blame the lone crusader for not conforming. This further marginalizes people who won’t compromise by coming back to the shaykh and paints them out to be the problem.

Whistle blowers are not protected enough, they are often seen as complainers, non-team players, and overly sensitive people who do not understand that life is not fair.

They are often ostracized by being left out of religious gatherings, being removed from email lists of friends, and finding difficulty in getting jobs in Islamic organizations. Just like in the workplace, those who shed light on religious manipulation, are easily slandered as fault finders who will sabotage team cohesion.

Bystanders also have a fear of the unknown. This shows when they show resentment towards the person who won’t go along with the status quo. As the authors of The Empathy Trap point out, “In real life watching someone raise their head above the parapet often makes the rest of us feel queasy. Most- the 60 percent plus majority- prefer the easy life and choose to maintain the status quo” (McGregor, 35). The status quo is safe and has proved to be a surviving condition. A new type of action is not as safe, therefore bystanders rationalize their fear by often blaming the challenger as being too sensitive.


Apathy also reaches the organizational level. In a 2008 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, Dr. Ruth Namie and Dr. Gary Namie asked bullying victims how the employers reacted after learning about the incidents. 53 percent said the employer did nothing, 40 percent said the employer conducted a biased or inadequate investigation, and only 7 percent gave employers credit for a fair investigation (Namie & Namie, 2011. p73).

When there are not proper checks and balances, or punitive measures for bullies, it only encourages them to continue. Inversely, victims are discouraged to report incidents as they lose hope for recourse, and other bystanders grow in apathy since they know nothing will happen.

When there is a culture of not taking bullies to task, it instills despair and a learned helplessness in both victims and bystanders. As Keegan mentions, “While individual bullying and humiliation can occur in any workplace, they are much more likely to be prevalent in organizations in which generalized fear is rife and employees are afraid to rock the boat, where they fear that complaining could lose them their job. By contrast, in organizations that are more open, where people feel supported and more confident in general, bullying tends to be less tolerated. Employees feel better able to stand up to bullies because they know that this sort of behavior is not accepted within the organization. In this way, the power of the work group and protect the individual” (Keegan, 73).


The role of pure apathy- not due to fear- just not caring cannot be left out. It seems cynical to point out many people just do not care about the plight of others, because it is the plight of others, but this is a reality. As technology allows people to live in their own world, pure indifference will grow. There are sometimes more understandable reasons for apathy, such as not having the mental energy or wherewithal to aid, but unfortunately, simply being numb to the plight of others is a reality.


Minding my own business

We are taught from the time we are young to mind our own business. This sensible counsel saves one the embarrassment of getting involved without knowing the backstory of a situation, such as a parent yelling at her child, but it also enables a lot of bullying. Living too stringently by this principle leaves witnesses ill-equipped to get involved when needed.

In Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare found in their research that among those who witnessed manipulation and deceit “few brought their concerns to the ‘victims’ or to management. Reasons for this silence most often included ‘I’m minding my own business’; ‘No one would listen to me’; and ‘It’s not my place to intervene’” (Babiak & Hare, 133).

This does not make them bad people or active aids to abuse. It’s a matter of not having the proper training on how to intervene and the need to do so.

 Bystander effect

Another reason bystanders do nothing is that they expect someone else will. This was discovered by Bibb Latane and John Darley when researching Kitty Genovese’s murder in New York. She was stabbed, and out of 38 witnesses who heard her screams, none called the police. Latane and Darley concluded “that the people were not bad. Rather, each person was aware that there were other witnesses, and each thought someone else would call the police” (Namie & Namie, 2011, p64). This passing of responsibility was termed the bystander effect.

 Bystander types

The Trivializer

The Trivializer spins instances of bullying as harmless. This invalidates the victim’s experience and isolates her even further when she realizes her reports are falling on deaf ears. The story of Gwen and her boss guessing about her sexual behavior from Brutal Bosses illustrates the trivializer well; “He would say, ‘looking good! I bet it was okay last night,’ or ‘what’s the matter? A little down today- not enough action?’ Then he’d laugh and wink… no one said anything… and neither did I… Finally, I spoke to a woman, another supervisor in our division at his level. She said, ‘He does it all the time. Forget it. He likes you. You’re lucky he isn’t trying to get you to spend the night with him’ “(Hornsteain, 9).

This is a common experience of spiritual abuse as well. When they appeal to others for help, they are just told to accept the teacher’s behavior, to focus on the good , or to just learn to ignore it. The victims are encouraged to adjust their level of comfort, to accept the unacceptable and to become comfortable with inappropriate interaction. The bystanders want to remain uninvolved, and the easiest solution for them is to encourage the victim to accept abuse.

Comments such as “he’s just joking” minimize bullying. Allowing unacceptable comments to pass as jokes sets the stage for marginalizing victims. Trivializing bullying is common. We see hazing reframed as ‘boys being boys,’ which allows for victims of these transgressions to be labeled as having thin skin. When we embrace dignity as non-expendable, we can stop justifying attacks on dignity.

 Feeling indebted

Many bystanders have had great experiences with abusive shaykhs. Perhaps the shaykh got one of them hired, or gave gifts. In the case of a Muslim leader who is known to be very abusive, one victim told me that he puts up with the abuse because his bully also converted him to Islam. “He gave me shahada, and I owe him a lot for that.” he expressed. His feeling indebted, causes him to put up with the abuse and to not warn others who are facing similar problems.

Another lady I interviewed admits she was heavily manipulated and used. She could not believe how heartless her community leader could be. She became more alert to the bullying and use of volunteers for personal service, including having young women do his laundry and running errands at 3 am. She challenged the leader on that issue, he became angry and began ostracizing her and would regularly humiliate her in front of other volunteers. She was a dedicated volunteer and was discarded after 6 years of service.   A few months after telling me this, she had a relationship crisis. This leader helped her and gave her advice. She came back telling me ‘he’s a good guy. He has personal issues, but he’s helpful.’ He found a moment where she was vulnerable and was able to emotionally win her favor.

Feeling indebted complicates the bystander’s position because there are memories of good and bad times, and a mix of emotions. This is why taking a stance should not be rooted in thinking someone is horrible or even hating a person, rather it should be seen as a moral stance against abuse of position.

Cover-up and Collusion

We have to understand the reality of religious corruption. Many imams benefit by not exposing others, by keeping popular imams in powerful places and by associating with their brand.  There is a culture of mutual protection, much like the blue wall of silence amongst police officers.  Among some, there is a private culture of religious leaders-a boy’s club where secret polygamous marriages are rampant, often with vulnerable women. If one religious leader is exposed, the wall is weakened.  They need to protect their brand and lifestyle.

Earlier I mentioned the case of teachers who don’t believe warning people will make a difference.  I asked one teacher why he praises the character of a teacher that he knows to be corrupt and that he privately speaks ill of.  He told me that he praises the teacher just so that he will praise him back and increase his followers on social media. This is inexcusable as it is actively promoting someone they are certain of to be corrupt, it is not the same as just being silent or distancing oneself.

In these type of cases, the one promoting is not doing the same actions as the abuser, but it is in his or her best interest to not challenge the abuser- even if able. Unfortunately this mutual flattery in religion (mudaahana) is popular.

There are also cases where a teacher is in a position where he or she will be believed.  Although that is a good reason to speak out, it can get tricky.  With a lack of strong evidence and witness or victim corroboration it is difficult to establish a case, especially if the one accused is a respected figure. It also expects that other people will care enough to forego inviting the respected figure on moral grounds.  When organizations have to weigh how successful their event will be with or without the famous speaker, it is very easy to justify inviting by saying there isn’t enough evidence, and that can backfire on the one who originally spoke out. 

 In other cases, organizations are certain of previous abuse but will invite big names to teach in their community or relocate just for the draw.

 Lastly, there are masjid and institute boards that have invested years, sometimes decades in a person.  It is very difficult for them to go against someone who has treated them well, even if they have mistreated others. It is also difficult for people to come forth with a scandal when there is other good work being done.

Focusing on the good is also a deflection tactic that runs rampant in charities and nonprofits. Jerry Sandusky was a well respected football coach at Pennsylvania State University.  He also founded his nonprofit, The Second Mile, which helped at-risk-youth in Pennsylvania.  In 2011, Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys, all of whom he met through the nonprofit. The infamous case of Jerry Sandusky showed not only the cognitive dissonance many had when Sandusky was found guilty of molesting 45 children while helping countless other foster children, but also a large cover up.  The board of Sandusky’s nonprofit Second Mile as well as Pennsylvania State University ignored what they knew about Sandusky’s molestation to protect their brand.

 In the work place, abusive bosses or employees are not disciplined for their action due to the financial benefit they bring to the company.  Profit is put above principle and complaints of victims go ignored. Lack of morality is quickly exposed in religious institutions when successful proselytizers are given free passes for misconduct because they attract converts.  The message sent is clear: If you are good enough for the organization, the rules won’t apply to you.

Self-interest can also be due to poor development in adults.  Psychologist and narcissism expert Ronald Mah told me that many mothers won’t protect their own daughters from husbands or boyfriends that molest if they are desperate enough for the relationship.  These women who are supposed to protect their children can be so in love with, or at least feel that they need emotional or material support from, these men, that they ignore their own children’s’ molestation.


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