Late at night on Dec. 5, 2016, the respected imam of one of the biggest mosques in Texas allegedly invited an 18-year-old to a prepaid room at the Motel 6 in Grand Prairie.
The young woman, identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit she filed in July of this year, said she agreed to go to the motel because the man, Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh, was a trusted spiritual guide who’d counseled her since she was 13. He was privy to her biggest teenage problems — an absentee father, discord with her mother, bullies at school.
The lawsuit depicts a man who was more like a savior or a Svengali than a counselor, using his power over Doe to make her dependent on him. He helped her buy a car and loaned her cash for tuition and a laptop. He helped Doe navigate a turbulent home life and essentially stepped in as a father figure. She even began calling the imam Baba, Arabic for Dad.
In a counseling session in 2016, the lawsuit says, Sheikh introduced a sexual dimension to their closeness, floating the idea of marriage, though he was already married and in his 40s, more than 20 years her senior. Doe was shocked, she says in the suit, but felt so indebted to him that she did whatever he asked, even as the requests grew increasingly lurid: Belly dance. Send a picture of herself in lingerie. Sext every day. Touch herself as he watched on video chat.
And, finally, a text message summoning her to an unknown address that turned out to be the Motel 6.
She showed up assuming that she and the imam would talk, like they always did. But then he “emerged from the bathroom completely naked and instructed Jane to sit down on the bed,” according to the lawsuit. Doe was confused and scared, the suit says, but she complied for fear of upsetting Sheikh and losing him in her life. Sheikh had sex with Doe, then ordered her to get dressed, saying he had to get back to the mosque in time to lead prayers, the lawsuit says.
What happened in the motel room, the lawsuit argues, wasn’t a romantic tryst but the culmination of years of exploitation, an influential religious leader taking advantage of a struggling teen.
Doe’s story is coming to light after a yearlong investigation by Facing Abuse in Community Environments, or FACE, a new Texas-based nonprofit led by Muslim women pushing for transparency and victims’ rights in the handling of abuse claims in Islamic settings. The report became public on Oct. 9, a watershed moment in the fight to hold Muslim leaders accountable, but it’s still only a tiny glimpse of the obstacles Muslim women face in reporting abuse.
Sheikh’s attorney, Hershel Chapin, declined an interview but issued a statement disputing Doe’s claims. The statement says Sheikh “looks forward to responding to the allegations against him through the process of the pending litigation. He is confident that the evidence will establish that the lawsuit against him lacks merit.”
If it’s rare for Muslim women to publicly accuse their religious leaders of misconduct, it’s virtually unheard of for them to sue. Even with her identity concealed in court records and the FACE report, Doe runs the risk of her name being leaked by Sheikh’s supporters, a nightmare for young women in conservative religious circles — Muslim or otherwise — where such gossip can hurt a family’s social standing and limit marriage prospects.
For the past year, Muslim women activists and scholars have warned that their communities are being left out of the #MeToo reckoning because of traditions that enforce a culture of silence. Efforts by some Islamic scholars to overhaul the handling of misconduct claims are underway but so far haven’t yielded tangible results, leading some activists to fear a Catholic Church–style blowup if accusations aren’t addressed more urgently.
“Our client filed this suit in hopes that it will prevent future abuse of vulnerable people by the defendant or any person in power,” Doe’s attorneys, Farhana Querishi and Asiya Salejee, said in a statement. “We hope that the action of our client will motivate other victims to also come forward.”
Groups like FACE are springing up to fill the gap, forcing a conversation even if they’re not fully welcomed by the overwhelmingly male leadership of US Islamic institutions. Though many Muslims support activism to prevent abuse in religious settings, some detractors dismiss the efforts as part of an anti-Muslim “feminist agenda,” or say the public airing violates Islamic traditions of handling problems without creating a spectacle. Alia Salem, founder and president of FACE, said it stung when she saw a commenter in a Muslim forum call her “the imam hunter.”
Doe’s claims are sure to reverberate beyond Dallas. Sheikh’s stature extends to national Muslim circles; he’s frequently quoted defending Islam in news reports, and his online lectures draw hundreds, sometimes thousands, of viewers. In 2014, Sheikh published his second book, Addressing the Taboos: Love, Marriage and Sex in Islam.
With the release of its debut report, FACE presents national Muslim leaders a choice: Will they defend the old ad hoc responses that protect influential men by silencing women? Or will they embrace groups like FACE as partners in creating new national standards that support accusers within an Islamic framework?
Salem said national Muslim leaders recognize that misconduct by religious figures is a problem but are generally averse to FACE’s tactic of exposure, which “challenges a whole system and way of being.” Salem, a longtime community activist and former Dallas chapter director for a national Muslim advocacy group, said accusers shouldn’t have to wait any longer for religious leaders to make good on talk of creating their own accountability mechanisms.
“We want to be the kickoff that says, ‘No more. This is over,’” Salem said. “No more safe spaces for perpetrators and violators. It’s time we took a stand and had this reckoning.”
According to the lawsuit, Doe eventually found a spiritual leader to confide in about Sheikh. That cleric informed Sheikh’s parents and the leadership of the Islamic Center of Irving, which decided Sheikh had to go. The board disclosed the circumstances of his forced resignation in December 2017, only after FACE and attorneys got involved. Irving mosque officials did not respond to several requests for comment.
Lawyers for Doe and the mosque brokered a letter outlining the claims and the imam’s denial of wrongdoing, according to the FACE report. The letter, which BuzzFeed News reviewed, said Sheikh could no longer serve as a religious leader in any capacity and deemed him “not eligible for rehire.” Then, in an unprecedented move among US mosques, the Irving board agreed to send the letter to 2,000 Islamic centers across the country.
But if the goal of the nationwide alert was to bar Sheikh from ever working as a religious leader again, it failed.
In August, Sheikh was hired as imam of the Grand Prairie Masjid, just 9 miles away.
The Grand Prairie mosque announced Sheikh’s arrival in a Facebook post last month. The new resident imam, the post said, was born in the “beautiful mountainous region between India and Pakistan,” and immigrated to England at age 4. The post touted Sheikh’s Islamic credentials and said he was available to help with “Qur’an learning for adults and children.”
What the post left out was that Sheikh was asked to resign from his previous position after Doe “reported that the imam had engaged in sexual misconduct with her,” according to the letter from the Irving mosque warning other communities against hiring him.
In Texas, a rarely invoked law makes it a felony for spiritual leaders to have sex with those in their care, even if the relationship is consensual, because of the lopsided power dynamics. In December 2017, a year after the alleged motel encounter, Doe filed a sexual assault report with the Grand Prairie Police Department. The city attorney’s office confirmed receiving a police report accusing Sheikh of sexual assault; it’s unclear whether city officials ever followed up with an investigation.
Sheikh became the imam in Irving following two previous and high-profile positions, at mosques in Florida and Virginia. Officials at those mosques confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he had worked there, but neither would discuss details of his employment or his departure. Chapin, his attorney, also would not talk about Sheikh’s employment history. When asked why, he replied, “We’re just not going to be responding.”
As of today, Sheikh faces no criminal charges and apparently still holds his position as imam at the Grand Prairie mosque. The welcoming post for Sheikh disappeared from the mosque’s Facebook page in recent days, and several Muslim women have posted angry comments, demanding to know why Sheikh was hired despite the allegations listed in the FACE report and in the letter from the Irving mosque.
A mosque representative responded to a BuzzFeed News query with a statement declining to comment on an open lawsuit and adding that Sheikh has hired an attorney to defend him “against the baseless allegations.” The statement said evidence such as phone and text message records would be provided to put the lawsuit to rest “in favor of the imam.”
“We would urge everyone to hold judgment until the case has gone through the legal process,” the statement said.
FACE members are fiercely protective of Jane Doe’s identity, including her current whereabouts. All they’ll say is that she’s safe and receiving counseling.
Salem said Doe never wanted money or an apology from Sheikh; she only sought a guarantee that he’d never again hold a position of religious leadership. When it became clear that Sheikh could find work even after the warning letter, Salem said, Doe took her fight public by filing a lawsuit and cooperating with the FACE investigation.
The Doe family’s account, as recorded by FACE investigators and the lawsuit, says that Sheikh grew intimate with Doe over the five years he counseled her. The imam, it says, “so completely embedded himself into Jane’s life that her emotional dependence on him, as well as her trust and confidence in him, was apparent to everyone in their community.” The FACE report notes that when Sheikh’s wife heard that Doe called her husband “Baba,” she “found this familiarity between the two alarming” and put a stop to it.
At one counseling session in 2016, after she turned 18, Doe asked the imam for help finding a husband and described the qualities she was looking for, according to the lawsuit. Sheikh replied that he had “some spots available,” referring to Islam’s permission of up to four wives under certain conditions. He already had two at the time, according to the lawsuit.
The suit says Doe was shocked but agreed to consider the idea because she “had complete trust in” Sheikh and was emotionally dependent on him. He called the same evening to discuss marriage, the beginning of what the lawsuit describes as “a yearlong process of grooming Jane to become more sexualized and to ultimately engage in illicit sexual acts with him.”
That process, the lawsuit claims, culminated with his request for Doe to meet him at the motel.
When Doe asked when she would see him again after the Motel 6 encounter, Sheikh told her it was “a one-time thing,” according to the lawsuit.
Sheikh essentially ghosted Doe, cutting off all contact and ending their five years of counseling. The loss of a central figure in her life plunged Doe into despair, with weight loss, depression, and suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit says. When her mother and stepfather found out the reasons for the sudden changes in Doe, the whole family endured “great pain, suffering, and shame.” Her mother was so devastated by Sheikh’s betrayal that she quit her job to devote herself to helping her daughter recover, the lawsuit says.
It was around this time that Doe’s mom got in touch with Salem, who helped the family get professional therapy and find an attorney, the report says. Doe’s relatives confronted Sheikh about the relationship on two occasions — once with an attorney present — and he admitted to having sex with her, according to the lawsuit. At times he was tearful, at times he was defiant, the suit says, with Sheikh promising to stop counseling women but insisting that he continue his work as an imam.
The statement that Sheikh’s attorney issued generally disputes Doe’s account but doesn’t address specific claims. Most of the focus is on Sheikh’s longtime work in the Dallas area.
“Imam Zia is and has been a prominent Muslim leader who devotes his life in service of the Almighty, his faith community, his fellow human beings globally, and to the Dallas-Fort Worth Community,” the statement says. In the imam’s 13 years of service, it goes on, “he has used his position as a respected leader to advocate for a tolerant, peaceful, harmonious, and law-abiding vision for humanity.”
On his Facebook page, Sheikh has made only oblique references to the claims since the FACE report was released. In one post, Sheikh wrote that he hadn’t issued a statement because his attorney advised against it, but he reassured followers that, “Everything will be clear soon, insha’Allah,” or God willing.
Dozens commented on the post, mostly in support of Sheikh and scornful of FACE, which one man described as “these left wing Muslim hating so called Muslim Femi-Nazis.” A couple of commenters warned against knee-jerk defenses of religious figures; imams “are not angels,” one wrote.
For the most part, however, Sheikh appears to be going about his life as usual. He wrote about Muslim MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov’s victory over Colin McGregor. Sheikh shared a link to that Banksy stunt at an art auction. And he posted video of a sermon he delivered to his congregation this month about the importance of Muslims striving for justice.
“If there’s any wrong going on, if there’s any evil going on, injustices going on,” Sheikh said, “be the one that stands up against that injustice.” ●