Once you get past the shirtless selfies and the “sugar daddy” boast, the scandal surrounding Muslim preacher Nouman Ali Khan is a rare window into how difficult it can be for Muslim communities to deal with claims of misconduct by leaders, especially when women are involved.
Khan is a conservative, Texas-based teacher whose lively Qur'an lectures draw hundreds of thousands of fans to his stories blending modern-day scenarios with strict interpretations of scripture. He disapproves of men and women shaking hands, promotes marrying young, and chides Muslims who wear “skintight” clothes. Shocking claims that he abused his power to pursue relationships with women set off a nasty battle over how to handle allegations of religious leaders behaving badly.
Last week, the accusations — along with screenshots of text messages and photos allegedly sent to women by Khan — portrayed him as an undercover ladies’ man who violated the rigid moral code he advocates. The claims also raise serious questions about whether he might’ve abused his authority in order to approach young women who attended his lectures or studied at Bayyinah, his religious center near Dallas. Khan, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, said in a Facebook post that the claims are a mix of lies and distortions about “communications” between consenting adults after he divorced his wife. Neither Khan nor Bayyinah could be reached for comment.
The scandal is so polarizing it’s almost impossible to discuss any aspect of it without the conversation ending in name-calling. Muslim women who’ve criticized Khan received such vicious and personal retaliations from his supporters that in some cases they’ve deleted posts and gone silent. Their comments on Khan’s official pages are scrubbed by his protectors, and critics who tag Khan on Twitter are immediately blocked.
The backlash, several women said, has drowned out voices calling on Muslims to be more up front about how leadership misconduct is a problem in Islam just as it is in other faiths, a discussion they say is long overdue. Incidents like this are usually handled quietly, through mediation, out of respect for the families involved and Islam’s tradition against public shaming. But that opaque process has failed in Khan’s situation, and the online scramble has led to vicious attacks on those who amplify the allegations.
“This is how you silence victims. This is why they won’t come forward,” Rabia Chaudry, a Muslim attorney and activist who’s faced a barrage of attacks for addressing the scandal, lamented in a Facebook post. Citing “the vitriol,” she declined a BuzzFeed News interview request.
For months, rumors of Khan’s alleged indiscretions had circulated among Muslims in Dallas, with some clerics even making thinly veiled references to the claims in public. But the allegations went viral Sept. 22 with a bombshell Facebook post by Omer Mozaffar, a Chicago-based Muslim chaplain who said he was brought in to mediate between Khan and concerned scholars, a role he’s played before in similar cases.
By Mozaffar’s account, Khan “confessed inappropriate interactions with various women,” lied about them, and threatened lawsuits to stop people from exposing him. Mozaffar wrote that he was publicizing the accusations now because Khan had violated a negotiated agreement that called for him to cease contact with the women, get counseling, and stop giving his signature lectures about how to live by the Qur'an in everyday life. He was permitted to circulate previously recorded talks, except for those on “marriage or gender matters.”
“The failures of one preacher does not mean that the entire Tradition is suspect,” Mozaffar wrote. “But every preacher, scholar, and activist should know that if there is evidence that your behavior is illegal or detrimental to the community or society, you will be outed.”
Mozaffar’s post has attracted thousands of comments. Many, if not most, are attacks by Khan’s supporters. They picked apart Mozaffar’s credentials, told him it was sinful to air gossip, called him “filth” and “an open enemy of Islam.” Mozaffar did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Islamic scholar with knowledge of the situation, Navaid Aziz, vouched for the authenticity of the accusations. After thousands of comments and his own public thrashing from the pro-Khan camp, Aziz posted a follow-up to address the “social media circus,” in which he stressed that the allegations had nothing to do with rape or sexual abuse and instead were “related to an abuse of power and authority, religious and worldly, at multiple levels.”
“I abide by what I stated, and I know people will need an outlet to lash out, share their shock, defend someone they learned from,” Aziz wrote.
The scandal only deepened with the release of text messages purported to be exchanges between Khan and different women. He hasn’t challenged the authenticity of the text messages in any of his public statements on the scandal, but BuzzFeed News couldn’t independently verify their origins or authenticity. Some of Khan’s more colorful alleged pickup lines — “I’m not vanilla” — instantly became punchlines among bemused observers.
For many other Muslims, however, there was nothing funny about the tarnishing of a beloved teacher. Blindsided, Khan loyalists went on the defensive. On Reddit, some skeptics crowdsourced their own investigations. Even if they concluded the texts likely were legit, they dismissed the behavior as flirtation that’s unbecoming a Qur'an teacher, but not grounds to make him a pariah or to negate his two decades of service to Islam.
Khan’s supporters quickly spread the statement he released on Facebook after the scandal broke. In a long post, Khan said he’s been divorced for two years and that the claims stem from his interactions with women he considered for marriage. He described a witch hunt involving blackmail and secret meetings. Mozaffar’s public airing of the matter, Khan wrote, derailed “sincere efforts by elders in the community and neutral parties to resolve these claims in a dignified fashion.”
“I am a public figure and I have a personal life. I am imperfect,” Khan wrote in a section addressed to his followers. “Like anyone, my personal life and its struggles are mine to bear.”
This zealousness of Khan’s defenders, hundreds of women among them, infuriated other Muslim women who say a female scholar never would’ve been granted such benefit of the doubt with the same claims. Rather than rallying around the women who dared to stand up to such an influential figure, critics say, Khan’s supporters have gone all out to smear them.
“He’s part of the ‘Good Muslim Boy Club,’” said Shiyam Galyon, an activist in New York who’s publicly criticized the handling of the accusations. “And we will go to great lengths to defend the good Muslim boy.”
A Muslim satirist skewered the reaction to the Khan mess in a piece titled “Muslim Community In Disbelief Over Completely Believable Scandal.” No amount of revelations seemed enough to sway Khan’s supporters. The chaplains’ statements? Jealous rivals. The accusations? Fueled by a bitter ex-wife. The text messages? Faked on a smartphone app. OK, but the shirtless selfie? Photoshop, obviously.
“People would rather believe this is just a large conspiracy against him and his business ... I’m glad these women haven’t come out and shown their faces, because their lives would be hell,” said Abrue Hussain, a consultant in New York who tweeted about the scandal and became a target. One commenter told Hussain to get “your feminist ass off Twitter"; another told her, “Go wear a hijab first and then come open your mouth.”
“I’m actually dumbfounded by some of the responses I’ve received, saying that harassment is all made up in a woman’s head,” she said. “The way we’ve been belittled in this whole situation. Belittled.”
Zareena Grewal, a Yale University professor who’s written extensively about US Islamic authority, said that scandals like Khan’s can be particularly difficult for Muslims, because they know they are used to disparage Islam as a whole.
“You think of OJ Simpson or Bill Cosby — people jumped to their defense because they loved them,” Grewal said. “When that hero also happens to be a religious authority, it’s exaggerated all the more.”
The women say it doesn’t help that many of the nation’s loudest Muslim voices have fallen mute when it comes to Khan, with clerics and activists saying privately that they’re in shock and working behind the scenes on a coordinated response. That leaves the accusers, whose names aren’t public, and a handful of their thick-skinned defenders alone in facing Khan’s defenders across the globe.
Perhaps the most battle-hardened of Khan’s critics is Laila Alawa, a Muslim media and tech entrepreneur who last year was besieged by anti-Muslim trolls after a right-wing website noted her involvement with a Department of Homeland Security effort to counter violent extremism. In that episode, the comments included one wishing she’d “die slowly in a pool of pig’s blood.”
This round of attacks is even more upsetting, Alawa said, because they come from her own community. In response to her criticism of Khan, Alawa has been called a fake Muslim, a paid Muslim, a hoe, a bitch, and “a self-righteous old hag.” (She’s 26.) The messages got so bad Alawa’s sister stepped in and began deleting the worst.
“It sucked,” Alawa said. “But it also made me think, OK, process it and move on. Now what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to another woman?”
Alawa said the issue is personal. In college, she said, she became enthralled by a charismatic student leader who tried to seduce her. When she quietly warned other Muslim women about him, she said, she was labeled a whore. She ran into harassment again as a professional in Washington, she said, when a high-profile Muslim man hit on her in the middle of a job interview.
Both examples, Alawa said, show the lack of resources for Muslim women in such situations, an issue activists are beginning to address through groups such as FACE, which stands for Facing Abuse In Community Environments. FACE’s mission is “to hold accountable imams, scholars and Muslim community leaders for unethical and/or criminal behavior.” It’s still so new Alawa hadn’t heard of it until it was mentioned in the Khan scandal.
The reason she won’t back down is the stream of letters she’s received. She said more than two dozen Muslim women have described their own encounters with community figures, ranging from inappropriate comments to groping or worse. Muslim-interest publications typically wouldn’t touch the claims, which are mostly anonymous, but Alawa’s news and opinion site for millennial women, The Tempest, is running them.
“The reality is, speaking out as a woman can cost you your reputation, your job opportunities,” she said. “It’s an insanely deep fear that we’ve taught our young women time and again with all the rhetoric around modesty and hijab. If you’re being told over and over that it’s the woman’s responsibility to be chaste, women are going to internalize it as their fault if they get harassed.”