Just for a moment there, I thought we were making progress. Last weekend, a groups of senior Barelvi imams and scholars announced that they were suspending a popular imam for gross misconduct in relation to his interactions with female congregants and followers.
Thanks to a diary filled with public speaking engagements and an adoring following on social media, the imam in question — young and an apparently charismatic force for young men who might otherwise have been drawn into the world of gangs and drugs — has over the past decade joined the thronging ranks of celebrity preachers, so loved by masses desperate for a leader they can relate to. Like many in our time, his reputation was forged on social media, with his frequently inspiring posts regularly being shared and liked far beyond the base of his 197,000 Facebook followers.
So just for a moment there, I thought to myself: “Wow, we’re making progress!” Imagine that: people who considered themselves victims had been able to make a complaint, and they had been listened to and believed, and action had been taken against the accused, and safeguarding measures had been put in place to prevent further harm. This time the bank was not too big to fail. This time the adjudicating panel had looked at the evidence and decided that action had to be taken.
Alas, things are never that straight-forward. It turns out that the same group of scholars and imams had already convened a panel concerning a series of allegations made regarding his abuse of position, a whole two years ago. At the conclusion of that meeting, the imam had agreed to refrain from all forms of social media activity, concentrate on his prayers, look for a spouse, cease contact with all non-mahram women, and repent for his wrong-doing. Over the intervening years since, the imam has reportedly been warned about his behaviour and for breaching his agreed conditions repeatedly.
It was a safeguarding process of sorts. Only, one that did little to protect anyone from apparently serious offences that have no name, as evidenced by the clearly unsatisfactory statement of the panel:
We must be clear that the severity of the offences admitted and alleged are so abhorrent, had they been committed by a professional they would be instantly struck off and potentially treated criminally. However, to conceal his sins we have abstained from disclosing them as this would not be expected from a commoner let alone an Imam.
In short, the imam has admitted to extremely serious offences, but the panel believes that the Muslim community is exempt from the ordinary mores of accountability governing all other civic institutions. Even to Muslims, it appears that the role of imam or sheikh is part of a fairytale unreality, held to a different standards than others. On the one hand they admit that had the imam been a professional such as a doctor or teacher, his actions could have been treated as criminal behaviour; on the other, they tell us that Islamic etiquettes instruct us not to disclose the nature of the offences.
The latter, of course, may be commendable from the perspective of protecting an individual and a community, but it contributes little to a safeguarding culture, which aims to protect people from harm. In this, the panel of scholars attempt to straddle a fine balancing line, rather optimistically believing that they have notional authority in the Muslim community:
Moreover, the recent matters… amount to gross misconduct, gross mistrust and a violation of humanity. The extent of his detestable actions makes it imperative to bring this in the public domain in order that people are made aware that the individual concerned is no longer considered fit to lead the Muslim community from a religious standpoint.
In conclusion, they state:
This has been dealt with by scholars as per the Islamic requirement and is not a matter for common members of the public to discuss.
Unfortunately, as has been seen repeatedly in cases such as these, the awed followers of celebrity preachers have little truck with the pronouncements of the scholarly class. Common members of the public have pinned their hopes on this relatable generation of speakers for precisely this reason: because they have come down to their level, to speak to them on their terms and appeal to shared concerns. As a result, this conclusion means nothing to them: if it really was that serious, they believe, the offences would be detailed; as they are not, they are just presumed to be of no great significance, and potentially perfectly acceptable either from an Islamic or Western perspective.
Enter the petition. There is always a petition. Shortly after the imam’s employers relieved him of all of his religious duties, a petition was started online, demanding that he be reinstated with immediate effect. The imam, claims the anonymous author, is the victim of a campaign to tarnish his reputation, based on past private and personal matters for which he had already made repentance. “We hate the sin and not the sinner,” says the author, castigating those who claim they have authority to remove his Imamat. Many of the imam’s supporters agreed.
By the end of the week, the petition had attracted over six thousand signatures and the comments were brimming with a common theme: we all sin and make mistakes, but the imam has sincerely repented, so he should be forgiven and given another chance. Some went further: the actions against the imam were based on the jealousies of the scholars involved, threatened by the young imam’s huge popularity. For a generation of young people touched by his work and inspired to return to their religion, his removal from his religious duties has clearly been taken as a personal sleight.
Let Allah be his judge. We all sin. He is ashamed of his actions. He has repented. This sin should not make all his life’s work go down the drain.
Just as in other similar cases, it is immediately evident that the Muslim community at large understands nothing about safeguarding. As in other recent cases concerning claims of impropriety, allegations of serious wrongdoing metamorphose from matters of justice and prevention into issues surrounding the honour of the accused. The ills of our respected individuals are deflected onto the alleged victims, who become far more worthy of scorn for speaking out about a wrong, than the perpetrator of the wrong itself.
Redress for past victims of violence, sexual assault and intimidation is one aspect of safeguarding, but preventing potential future harm to others is equally important. Should an imam accused of serious misconduct, who has access to vulnerable people and children through the mosque’s educational institute, seriously be allowed to continue to operate, unchecked, merely because he claims to have sincerely repented for past mistakes?
What of the alleged victims themselves, emotionally scarred, and genuinely scared and concerned about their safety? What message does it send to them or others that find themselves in such a position in the future? That they will be listened to and taken seriously? On the contrary: it shows them that if they come forward, they will effectively be silenced. Instead of supporting victims, our communities send the message that their concerns are meaningless.
In this case, as the imam’s petition makes clear, his supporters believe that he is brave for publicly apologising for his actions. The bravery of his alleged victims, however, who came forward despite the fears of what people would say, all the weight of izzat on their shoulders alone, are viewed as troublemakers thinking only of themselves, their concerns swept aside. This is safeguarding as understood by the supporters of celebrity preachers: to acknowledge that we all sin, that nobody is perfect, and that a mere apology rectifies all concerns. We have no notion that we should remove people from potential harm.
So yes, for a moment there, I thought we were making progress towards building an environment in which safeguarding concerns are taken seriously. But I was quickly relieved of that notion, not by the learned possibly taking steps in the right direction, but by the teeming devotees for today’s generation of celebrity preachers, who speak to the masses at their level, and relate to them common experiences, and regurgitate back to them whatever they want to hear. The biggest obstacle to effective safeguarding these days, it seems, are the zealous groupies who will fervently defend their paladin heroes to the end.