Chicago imam charged with raping children

"The community couldn't fathom such hypocrisy." That's the sentiment from the Muslim community in Chicago where a revered imam has been sexually abusing children and women for years. What we can't fathom is how they could not realize that this type of predatory behavior by imams is in the news a lot. Just google this phenomenon and you'll be shocked. When we googled "Muslim leaders sexually abuse children" we get more than 64 million hits.

From the Chicago Tribune

By Manya Brachear Pashman and Robert McCoppin

When Mohammed Abdullah Saleem speaks, many observant Muslims in Chicago's South Asian community listen and obey.

One of Mohammed Abdullah Saleem's accusers, a 45-year-old mother of two, claims he abused her as a minor in 1982. She covers her face to protect her identity. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

One of Mohammed Abdullah Saleem's accusers, a 45-year-old mother of two, claims he abused her as a minor in 1982. She covers her face to protect her identity. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

The conservative Muslim scholar opposes men and women shaking hands. He maintains strict gender separation during prayers at the mosque. He also upholds khulwa, the Islamic teaching that men and women cannot be alone together in a secluded space.

When allegations surfaced last fall that he assaulted a now 23-year-old former employee of the Institute of Islamic Education, a boarding school he founded in Elgin, the community couldn't fathom such hypocrisy.

“This person has been a religious leader and scholar and adviser to many people,” said Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. “For a person like that to be alleged to have done things like that, it was a big shock for everybody.”

On Tuesday, two days after turning himself into Elgin police, Saleem was charged with one count of criminal sexual abuse of a woman. She and three other women also filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual assault and battery. The other women say they were minors when the abuse took place. Saleem was also charged with aggravated battery.

Flanked by supporters Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, the founder of the Islamic Institute of Education boarding school, leaves the Circuit Court of Cook County on Feb. 17. (Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune)

Flanked by supporters Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, the founder of the Islamic Institute of Education boarding school, leaves the Circuit Court of Cook County on Feb. 17. (Anthony Souffle / Chicago Tribune)

Saleem's attorney Thomas Glasgow said his client, a U.S. citizen, returned from India to cooperate with law enforcement. “He denies the allegations and continues to be in good spirits,” Glasgow said. “He's very confident in the fact that he's done nothing wrong.”

Despite traditional public silence on such issues, a new generation of Chicago's South Asian Muslims willing to tackle taboo topics, challenge religious authority and seek the truth in a court of law — even if it means airing the community's dirty laundry — has brought the allegations into the public square. In recent months, lawyers, therapists and scholars encouraged alleged victims to share their stories. Muslim leaders also have led an effort for about a dozen schools in the Chicago area, including the Institute of Islamic Education, to craft policies that protect children.

“The community has spent millions of dollars to build up the institution,” said Kaiseruddin, who said a delegation met with the institute's administrators after the allegations surfaced. “The community has a right to protect the institution. We strongly emphasized that they should conduct an independent investigation and find out what went wrong and ... establish good policies against abuse. Come clean was what our message to them was.”

According to the lawsuit filed Tuesday and Cook County prosecutors, Saleem's 23-year-old accuser began working as an office manager at the conservative Islamic boarding school in September 2013. Later that fall, Saleem began to drop by her office, locking the door behind him and asking her to remove the veil over her nose and mouth in his presence, the suit said.

During those visits, the suit said, he caressed her cheek and gave unsolicited hugs, massages and kisses. In April 2014, the woman said she tried to resist Saleem's advances, but he forced her to sit on his lap and fondled her, the suit said. She said she quit her job two days later. The clothes she wore during that encounter, prosecutors said, later tested positive for semen. Police took a swab from Saleem's mouth but had yet to test its DNA.

“Me and my family were going to keep quiet about it. We just thought it happened to us,” she said in an interview with the Tribune. “In my culture, if anything happens to an unmarried girl, whether it's her fault or not, there's a big scarlet letter on her. We were going to keep it to ourselves.”

But as time went by, she still wanted an apology. A social worker referred her to Imam Omer Mozaffar, a Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago, who reportedly agreed to mediate a conversation between Saleem and her family. The woman said Saleem signed a handwritten apology, but the note, which is included in the suit, lacks any specifics. Mozaffar declined to be interviewed.

Despite the private mediation, word began to spread and more women came forward with allegations of abuse. Nadiah Mohajir, executive director of Heart Women and Girls, a sexual health advocacy organization for Muslim women, said a Facebook and blog post by Mozaffar reaching out to potential victims triggered a coordinated effort to galvanize those victims and bring the allegations to light.

“We did think the situation was bigger than the initial victim and that was quickly confirmed within 48 hours,” Mohajir said.

“There's a lot of silence around these taboo topics,” she added. “ Nobody wants to expose it. This is such a revered person.”

That taboo treatment of sexuality is especially true in the more orthodox circles of the South Asian community that looked to Saleem for guidance. Saleem was part of an initial wave of Muslim immigrants from India and Pakistan who settled in the Chicago area in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike many other Chicago imams in the Sunni tradition, he had formal training and hailed from the Deobandi school of thought, a fundamentalist movement based in India. While the boarding school he founded for students in fifth through 12th grades offers secular courses for children whose families want a more sheltered environment, it primarily trains students to memorize the Quran.

As a resident scholar at the Muslim Community Center on Chicago's Northwest Side in the 1980s, he tutored boys and girls simply learning to read the holy book. According to the lawsuit, that's when his pattern of abuse began.

A 45-year-old mother of two said in a Tribune interview that she was molested by Saleem in 1982 when he taught her to read the Quran. She said she convinced her mother to tutor her instead but didn't tell her why until she reached her mid-30s.

“I thought Allah would take care of it when it happened,” she said. “Allah wanted it to come up in this life. He wanted me to have some type of resolution where I could find some peace and put this to end and help other people.”

The Institute of Islamic Education also has been named in the lawsuit. Plaintiff's lawyer Steven Denny said its faculty and administrators should be held accountable for failing to protect employees and students from abuse. Another woman in her 20s, who alleged abuse in the past 15 years, said when she told a female teacher at the school that Saleem had abused her, the complaint was brushed off as being simply the behavior of an “old man and old people do things like that, so just forget it,” the suit said.

The lawsuit also includes a male plaintiff who said he was 11 when a male staff member, not Saleem, abused him late at night at the boarding school. In the complaint, he describes climbing through the ceiling tiles of a locked office to use the only available phone to call his parents. His mother removed him from the school the next day and told school administrators why, the suit said, but nothing was done.

PDF: Lawsuit vs. leader of Islamic school

As a condition of Saleem's release on $250,000 bond, the judge ordered him to have no contact with the victim or anyone under 18. He surrendered his passport, and his next court date is March 10.

Activists understand that Islamic extremists have already placed Muslims under intense scrutiny. Negative publicity, they know, only angers those who want to burnish Islam's reputation. But they say it was a verse in the Quran that inspired them to seek accountability for everyone involved.

“It's a verse that calls upon everyone to stand up for justice, even if it's against oneself,” Mohajir said. “It's a very American thing to stand up for justice. It's our American obligation. It's our Islamic obligation. These problems are not specific to one community. Sexual violence is cross-cultural, as is terrorism. It doesn't discriminate.”

“No community is perfect,” she added. “We shouldn't let that fear paralyze us.”


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