The Harvey Weinstein scandal has astoundingly exposed the extent of abuse of powerful positions within Hollywood. Weinstein, one of the most successful producers in the movie business, allegedly used his huge power and influence to force female staff, interns, and actresses to succumb to his sexual will.
As the adage goes: “Ultimate power corrupts the processor.” Far from being limited to the glamourous world of Hollywood, sexual exploitation can rear its ugly head even in the most unexpected of environments, as long as disproportionate power dynamics exist.
While Weinstein held financial, economic, and societal power over his victims, recent accusations have seen two well-known Muslim public figures accused of using their moral authority to perpetrate sexual abuse and harassment. Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss academic, philosopher, and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford, has been accused of rape. While Pakistani-American preacher Nouman Ali Khan has been allegedly outed as secretly manipulating a number of his female followers, sending them lewd messages and promising marriage in return for engaging in a relationship with him.
Both of these cases came as a major shock to many who were familiar with the work of these men and the position they held within the Islamic scholarly sphere, bringing the prevalent sexual and moral corruption within the hyper-religious Islamic domain in sharp focus. While outwardly advocating for stringent rules on interaction between men and women, secretly it is alleged these scholars were seemingly breaking their own rules on sexual conduct according to their conservative readings of Islam.
Yet stories like these are more common than we are led to believe. Before working in the counter-extremism field, I worked in the ‘dawah’ (proselytising) scene for many years and witnessed some peculiar practices by those who were ‘da’ees’ (proselytisers), the very people you would think would have an aversion to such behaviour.
While I did not personally witness any cases of sexual harassment, I was exposed to a trend amongst prominent members of the dawah scene of using their popularity and position within their circles to groom women into being co-wives. Being involved in dawah brings with it somewhat of a celebrity status; the individual is perceived as a true believer, and is elevated to a piety pedestal, a determination that is simply not a true reflection of reality.
During my time in the dawah scene, I saw a number of cases where prominent members would use their status as a vehicle to acquire co-wives without the knowledge of their first wife. Muslim women would reach out to these preachers in support of their work, out of devotion, or to ask for religious advice.
In one particular case, a Islamic preacher unbeknownst to his heavily pregnant wife, took a second wife because he wasn’t getting “fulfilled at home.” The unexpected victim, a Muslim woman who was someone who had been in contact with the preacher for advice on Islam, was groomed with twisted Islamic justifications for co-wives, on how it was a virtuous and rewardable act. Eventually, the Islamic preacher proposed to her, and they became married shortly afterwards. Two months later, he gave her a talaq (Islamic method of divorce) and she was expected to simply move on. For the woman and her religiously conservative family, this was a devastating blow that would likely have major ramifications for the rest of her life. Shortly afterwards, I heard the preacher was on the lookout for another wife. His insidious behaviour continued long after I had disassociated with the dawah circle.
Yet such events hardly tarnish the appeal and popularity of these preachers. In fact, this type of behaviour was completely tolerated and deemed acceptable by Muslim men within these circles, even to the extent that it was trivialised. In the particular case mentioned earlier, the preacher was nicknamed “The Divorcer.”
How is such evidently sexually manipulative behaviour accepted within such a socially conservative environment? Thinly veiled by an air of religiosity and pseudo piety, these men get away with it because they hold an outward appearance of moral authority and power.
Even within their religious discourse, there seems to be a disproportionate focus on providing Islamic legitimacy for these practices while maintaining a hyper-religious façade. The entire premise of co-wives in the Quran is within the context of helping the disadvantaged, mainly widows and orphans, by providing them with a home and a new life. Without caring for all the other practices of the Prophet, such as charity, feeding the poor, helping out in the home, these preachers choose to focus on justifying obtaining co-wives for their own selfish benefit.
What makes the sheer hypocrisy worse is that the very same preachers often condemn ‘The West’ for its objectification and abuse of women. “Islam came to protect women and honour them,” they often call from the pulpit, while they secretly indulge in manipulative grooming tactics to use their victims for religiously-endorsed flings.
The Weinstein scandal has triggered a revolution for victims of sexual abuse to speak out and name and shame their abusers. While Tariq Ramadan and Nouman Ali Khan are the first major names to emerge from Islamic conservative circles, we can only hope that this is the start of many more women who have been systematically religiously and morally shamed into silence to come out and speak of their abuse and expose these wolves in sheep’s clothing.