17 August 2022

A group of concerned persons have written to the Gatesville Mosque in Cape Town urging it to cancel an invitation to Islamic scholar Nouman Ali Khan who is accused of being a sexual predator. Shabnam Palesa Mohamed tells why he should not be given a platform.

When I was in primary school, a priest, married with children, wanted to marry me. I saw him as a holy man and enjoyed his lectures. First, he made me feel important by asking me to assist in the tuck shop. Next, he sang romantic songs. Then, he introduced me to his children who called me mother. This calculated process is grooming.

 I felt helpless – he was in a position of authority. When I plucked up the courage to reject him, he cursed me, shouting I would be married at 16 for my audacity. I told my parents years later. But I wondered how many people are harassed using power and privilege?

 He is not the only person to harass me, or the billions of people over generations. Not because of religion, or twisted patriarchal distortions, but because misogynist predators thrive through abusing trust and popularity, supported by a society that prefers to blame victims, over challenging the status quo.

Nouman Ali Khan reminded me of all that. Here is a popular figure using interesting ways to explain his interpretation of the Noble Quran. So, to learn that he used his wealthy position to cruelly hoodwink women, emboldened by thirsty public support, is a painful betrayal.

Undoubtedly, religious figures are held to a higher standard of behaviour. So I keep thinking, ‘what would Prophet Muhammad PBUH do?’ After investigating the allegations, reviewing evidence, and engaging Khan, at least six Islamic clerics and academics spoke out. In a statement, they said Khan “has engaged in conduct unbecoming of any believer, much less someone who teaches about the Holy Quran. We unequivocally recognise and support survivors of abuse who are often silenced in our communities.”

 The more I researched, the more I realised there was truth amidst smoke and mirrors. Many had hoped that Khan reflected, repented, and apologised. But, based on his response to the joint statement put out this week – and flagrant violation of the mediation he was part of – he does not grasp the impact. You see, change requires self-honesty.

Islam honours justice. It is not an accident that this powerful verse is enshrined in Surah Nisah: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves, parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [testimony] or refuse [to give it], indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, acquainted.” 4:135.

Justice demands accountability. Khan has been invited to South Africa in Ramadaan – and this without genuine consultation with the broader community. It is believed the organisers consulted with leaders who gave him the benefit of the doubt. Here’s the problem. Approving Khan – despite evidence of inappropriate conversations, photographs, lies, threats and hush money – means that people who have courage to speak about any form of abuse are lying attention-seekers. And so, a respectful letter was written to the Gatesville mosque venue, but to no avail.

Some conversations on social about the emotive topic have been: “Khan is innocent, how dare you question him, are you crazy? or “Who cares if it’s worse, we need to learn Quran from him, go away!”

The problem is bigger than Khan. Elitism, patriarchy and celebrity worship threaten a healthy society. To ignore cruel conduct normalises victimising people. In Islam, men are obliged to protect women. In reality, harassment, emotional abuse, domestic violence and rape are prevalent, not in a vacuum, but when women are expected to tolerate suffering. Many join the #MeToo movement, reminding the world that Islam is strongly pro-women’s rights. The sincere campaign to cancel or boycott Khan’s trip is equally about community spaces that prefer to pretend Muslims have no issues. It is about recognising that sexism is as toxic and dangerous as racism. It is about structures that impose decisions.

Piety is not accumulating sawaab to get into heaven, Islam is not accounting.

 Being a Muslim means to stand up for the rights and dignity of the oppressed. The often male-dominated, lukewarm, occasional lecture about human rights, compassion, and complex forms of abuse, is grossly inadequate.

This Ramadaan, let us remember our role at the forefront of social justice issues, and let us take a stand together for equality, dignity, justice and consultative decision-making.

Shabnam Palesa Mohamed is an activist, talk show host, media commentator and attorney. She served on the board of the Advice Desk for the Abused.

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