The Muslim online activism world has once again been hit with a scandal, but not by an Islamophobe. It was one of our own.
Describing itself as “a platform designed to give a voice to Muslims around the world,” according to the account’s Facebook page, the giveaway was meant to celebrate the Instagram account reaching 300,000 followers. As part of the giveaway, the account asked followers to tag three people in the comments and follow the account’s founder, Sajjad Shah, author Khaled Beydoun, and scholar and Imam Suhaib Webb, who would all accompany the winner on the trip.
First off, unless you’re a mental health professional who is offering your services to grieving families, this makes no sense whatsoever. Families in grief are not a tourist attraction even if they share the same religion. Furthermore, if this grief tourism is the beginning of a thing, there are many other places across the world in which Muslim communities are hurting from tragedy. Aren’t they deserving of a spot too?
In a subsequent post, Muslims Of The World (MOTW) issued an apology, and the giveaway trip was axed.
This incident may have been bandaged with a cancellation and apology, but it does point out a wider issue. MOTW prides itself as being a platform for Muslim voices worldwide. Looking through the feed, it’s a compilation of posts from everyday interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims, incidents of Islamophobia, media bias and fundraisers. Individually and collectively, these are essential topics to cover, but the issue lies behind the scenes in that such a heinous giveaway idea was even allowed to move forward.
MOTW has other issues as well. Though their image purports charitable work and positive vibes, Instagrammers have reported that their interactions with MOTW were uncouth and not reflective of the portrayal of Muslims that MOTW claims to aim for.
These allegations come from Muslim women who are well-known on Instagram and other platforms. They say MOTW insulted them.
In recent years, the online Muslim community has experienced reports of misconduct like that of MOTW. More and more stories of men who occupy positions of authority and power and misuse it for personal gain. As long as they’re publicly active, whether in their local communities or online and have gained a following of some kind, they then become immune to any criticism. It’s happened already.
Even when there are known reports against these well-known activists, their followers still support them and choose to side with abusers. The complete lack of acknowledgment of these incidents as even a possibility creates a cult-like atmosphere whereby these men are somehow made out to be saints and untouchable.
They are treated like celebrities and put on such a high pedestal that anyone who speaks out about negative interactions with them is quickly hushed, ignored and become targeted by their loyal followers. This culture is growing so virulently that it seems as though the people behind these accounts can do no wrong because of the size of their following or the blue check next to their name.
Putting blinders on and focusing on the good things these men do is hugely problematic. It enables abusers and sets a dangerous precedent as there is no recourse for their actions.
They can continue what they’re doing or do worse things.
With the community not shunning them, they’re given leeway and license to continue.
This is a real danger. As Muslim celebrity account grow, more people hold onto every word they say and take it as gospel and the more the community is willing to protect them, at the expense of women. When women speak about what has been done to them, they’re either liars or exaggerating; they are always the ones at fault.
#MosqueMeToo, started by Mona Eltahawy, stemmed from her experience of sexual harassment when she went on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage. With #metoo opening up a safe space for women to speak of their experiences of harassment/assault, there needed to be a space within that spectrum for not just Muslim women but all women of faith as well.
This religious abuse is not uncommon.
The common denominator? These men are very well-guarded and protected by their communities. #MosqueMeToo gave women the confidence to speak of things they hadn’t ever been allowed to before, and that opened up an avenue for acknowledgment, acceptance, community, and healing. Pulling back the veil on harassment, it felt like the community finally recognized that burying one’s neck in the sand doesn’t make the problem go away.
Given the constant influx of Islamophobic incidents today, the community’s reluctance around bringing issues to light – and bringing unfavorable publicity to our mosques – is understandable. Sure, it’s one thing to expose the Islamophobia happening outside of the community, but inside? So much worse.
Perhaps that is one reason so many refuse to acknowledge spiritual abuse and abuse of power.
The truth, though, is pretty straightforward. Today’s tradition of ignoring any abuse of power is a far cry from our own faith’s history, during which cultural reform was a known occurrence. Archaic oppressive traditions that abused women were stopped in their tracks.
It’s time to make that change for our community today.
For too many generations, women have been told to bear the abuse because, “that’s just how he is, so try to not anger him.” But we’re finally seeing significant shifts in perspectives where women are quickly standing up for one another, asking what she needs and not blaming her for what happened to her. It’s high time that women have access to safe religious spaces.
Opening up these spaces of communication, both online and in communities needs to happen. Not enough is being done to heal all the hurt that Muslim women have experienced. HEART Women & Girls and MuslimARC are two organizations that work on the ground to provide that much-needed support to women and communities. Not only do they work to heal the trauma, but they are also proactive so that individuals recognize the signs of abuse and prejudice, and equip them with the knowledge to navigate that, helping themselves and others.
Accountability, however, is not that easy to come across when discreditable behavior like the giveaway occurs.
For how much longer are we, as a community, willing to accept transgressions such as these?
This is not a criticism of the giveaway – that’s just the tip of the iceberg; it’s symptomatic of manipulative behavior to maintain, reinforce and increase power roles. It’s the rose-colored glasses so many choose to wear- those who are higher-ups in the community, and their following; the celebrity shayks and influencers who, when stories like these come to the surface, ripple through communities, shaking the belief people who look to them for sources of religious guidance and inspiration.
These leaders are not infallible, they are not saints, they’re just like any other man out there, and that’s something people forget. Incidents like these serve as reminders of their humanness.
I, for one, am no longer willing or comfortable to continue apologizing for the actions of men in Muslim communities, especially as a woman who wears a hijab. After years of being told that hijab-wearing women are our religion’s flag-bearers, I’m tired of swallowing my words when our community decides to ignore our requests during the worst moments of our lives.
It’s past time to change that.