For years we’ve made fun of the Catholic priests fondling with young ones. Their ghastly and heinous acts of insensitivity disgust our spirits and we all abhor such practices. I once stopped by and spoke to John Wojnowski, himself a victim, on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, who has been protesting for years, trying to bring the world’s attention to the abusive ways of the clergy.
He told me his appalling story of how a priest abused him during his childhood and how difficult it was for him to get over the traumatic event, something that scarred him psychologically for his entire life.
Fast forward to now, the year 2015, we have a 75-year-old Muslim cleric, Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, running the Institute of Islamic Education (IIE) in the small mid-Western town of Elgin, just outside of Chicago. He was arrested on February 17 on charges of felony and criminal sexual abuse but was let go on a $250,000 bail. Saleem obviously denies the charges.
Saleem, Indian by origin, belongs to a generation of immigrants who came to the US back in the 70s and 80s and settled here based on their religious skills. He established the IIE in 1989 and that was actually the time he started to hobnob with young females at the institute, students as well as employees. What one learns from those who are aware of such incidents is that the cleric got away scot-free because the community came to his rescue and mediated a settlement whenever he behaved erratically.
Saleem is a habitual offender. So far, along with the 23-year-old girl who came out of the shadows and reported her abuse by the mullah, there are at least three more women who claim to have been sexually molested by him. It is expected that more people will come forward.
I’ve been trying to reach out to the Muslims of Elgin, those who knew Saleem, to get a comment. However, it appears that the community has decided to stay tight-lipped about the issue. I did, however, get one individual to talk about the nefarious activities of the mullah. I was informed that Saleem believed in the concept of concubines and would often ‘light up’ at the sight of young women. It seemed that he had a monstrous, never-ending appetite, ready to pounce on the prey, at a moment’s notice. His body language said it all. My informant attended a few of the mullah’s sermons and often found him acting ‘awkwardly’.
Saleem, because of his repeated wrongdoing, has found it rather difficult to maintain a dignified stature within the community. Yet, until the night he was arrested, he continued to remain not only the head of IIE but also a revered personality enjoying the trust of tons of followers. According to some, Saleem is like the “Billy Graham of the South Asian community”.
At a time when Islam and Muslims stand in a dire need of some good news and pleasantness, the Mullah Saleem episode has not only come as a shock to the believers of the faith but also as an embarrassing PR exercise, a total image disaster that potentially pales the recently reported raunchy exploits of Bill Cosby with all the beautiful women in the world.
The advances in medical science have enabled folks to express their inner desires and self in a more effective manner and ‘sex up’ their lives even in their twilight years. Saleem, it seems, is no exception to the rule. Maybe he should have moved to a culture that allows polygamy? But then, given his lust for checking out different women, would multiple wives have satisfied his thirst for carnal needs or would he still be loafing around in pursuit of other women?
Granted we all have feelings and emotions and at times find it hard to control our expression of self. Yet, one must never let go of that unique ‘microchip’ that God Almighty has blessed us with and that distinguishes us humans from animals. That distinctive personality trait is called self-control that the mullah in question, being a religious luminary, should have exercised whenever he found himself giving in to the devilish desires. I guess those who propagate, sermonise and take upon themselves the task of reforming and refining humanity are more prone to trip into the ditch of immorality and corrupt ways. In Saleem’s case, it turned out to be fiddling and fondling with young women. Undoubtedly, his institute, his office and his constituents, the community that trusted him, deserved better.
I’m not sure about other parts of the world, but a good number of Muslim parents in North America send their kids on Sundays to Islamic schools like the IIE. This helps them become and stay aware of their religious value and realities. After Saleem’s arrest, one is sure that parents everywhere, if not withdraw their kids, will keep a critical eye and scrutinise the school environment before venturing to start an academic relationship.
There have been many times that I have extended offered to shake hands with South Asian women only to find myself feeling embarrassed a second later that they’ve been instructed by their religious leaders – the mullahs – that shaking hands with a man is against the precepts of religion. The mullahs, in many parts of the world, force woman to don hijabs. In the meantime, this cleric, Saleem, in our backyard, is forcing young women to undress and sit on his lap. What kind of example is he setting for future faithfuls? What type of signal is he sending out to those who are already sceptical about Islam?
Muslims should wake up and smell the coffee. Very often I feel that they give way too much respect to mosque imams or the heads of madrassahs or, to use a dandy term, the ‘rectors’ of Islamic institutes. They tend to turn Islam into a cult and hence these mullahs become the cult leaders. Whatever the ‘maulvi sahib’ teaches the kids or the women of the household is the word of law. No one questions the rationale of the logic presented and no one ever dares question the integrity of the instruction process followed in the religious schools.
While the mullahs mess around with young women, accept donations, live in palatial dwellings, they contaminate the minds of the youth who end up in the darks confines of the ISISs and al Qaedas of the world. The Islamic world needs to revisit the goal behind the role of the mullahs in their spiritual lives.
Perhaps don’t use these guys as a medium to reach God?
Perhaps just try to connect to the Supreme Being without the crutches of the maulvi sahib?
How about getting rid of the Skype mullah?
Let’s try to swim out of the shallowness and question what one is told instead of trusting blindly. It’s just like breaking the code and giving ourselves a chance to survive the dreadful onslaught.
After his arrest and subsequent bail, Saleem has been asked to stay away from anyone under the age of 18. I suggest he should stay away from humanity entirely. It is highly shameful that even at the ripe old age of 75, this cleric couldn’t exercise control over his mind and body. But he is not the first Muslim cleric to fool around or behave abruptly and would certainly not be the last one to do so.
In my years as an active journalist in Asia, I got to know an incredible number of religious clerics maintaining extramarital links and ties and yet preaching piety and spirituality to their followers. Naturally one’s initial reaction is that of shock and awe but then it should never be forgotten – such people are master manipulators who play with the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of their followers without ever revealing, reflecting on or being critical of their own vices.
We are all God’s creation. We are ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat’ (The best of creations). Why not cut the mullahs out of our mainstream lives? Why not think with our hearts and souls and not depend on people like Mohammad Saleem for our spiritual needs? Be the masters of our own destinies and reach out to God and indulge in a conversion with the Higher Power on our own without anyone’s help. Trust me, it is all very doable.
In the meantime, while the Pope keeps seeking forgiveness for the acts of these imbeciles in a Church, I don’t expect anyone will apologise on behalf of Saleem. He would, however, do a huge favour to humanity if he lets his head control the matters of his heart, and not the other way around.
Whether it is a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue or a religious school, people view these places as sacred. To take advantage of their trust in this abhorrent manner is disgusting. There was a time when these religious institutions were sanctuaries for the faithful and the faithless – a place for prayer, safety and self-reflection. It would be very sad to see them reduced to another dark alley in which people would have to exercise utmost vigilance.
The writer is a Washington DC based journalist who has written extensively on US foreign policy and South Asian affairs. He tweets @tweetingacho (twitter.com/tweetingacho)
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.
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