x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

Muslim western communities must work harder to protect the vulnerable

No one loses any legitimate right in the presence of  leadership, but everyone loses when such leadership is absent, writes HA Hellyer

Nouman Ali Khan during a conference in New York, January 2015. Courtesy Rossi101 via Wikimedia
Nouman Ali Khan during a conference in New York, January 2015. Courtesy Rossi101 via Wikimedia

Over the past few weeks, the English-speaking Muslim internet sphere has virtually exploded over allegations that a prominent American preacher, Nouman Ali Khan, has acted inappropriately with women. There was no suggestion of legal improprieties that would have indicated a crime had been committed. But the episode raises serious questions for the Muslim community of the United States in particular, but much wider issues around accountability, ethics, and community leadership. With the controversy continuing to raise conversations not simply among Muslim western communities, but also spreading far beyond into the mainstream press, the questions aren’t going to be disappearing anytime soon. And the jury is still out on whether or not Muslim western communities will be able to effectively address them.

The controversy isn’t simply about Khan, however. To reduce this episode to simply one religious figure would be to miss the point entirely. There is a much larger issue, one that transcends the accusations against Khan. There are a number of other preachers who have already been accused of improprieties, from different followings within the Muslim community. Moreover, most importantly of all, the issue of redressing abuses against victims will remain, irrespective of whether Khan has engaged in any indiscretions.

The nature of such indiscretions, however, is that they are usually not illegal and do not break fundamental human rights – if they did, then such individuals would simply be taken to court. But abuse still takes place – and abuse can be immoral, unethical and harmful, without necessarily being illegal. Victims of any ill-treatment have to be able to find recourse and hitherto, the ways in which this can happen are far and few in between.

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If a preacher happens to be a chaplain, for example, there are codes of conduct he or she is obliged to adhere to at the university, hospital or prison they serve at. But what happens when the preacher or religious figure in question is not actually employed by an institution that imposes certain ethical rules – and when the law of the state is actually silent on the abuses that is the subject of the accusation?

Herein lies a critical issue. There is a rush to turn this episode into a media-driven affair, where there is trial and investigation – and sentence – by the jury of the (mostly internet) public. Or to put it as a friend did, “the Muslim community wants an OJ Simpson trial – and they don’t need one.” He was right – they need a set of tools to ensure accountability for this episode, and to ensure that it never happens again.

There may be some that argue that no recourse need exist in the first place – that if no law has been broken, then it suffices. It’s a terribly reductionist argument which is in itself abusive. It’s the argument of the powerful, which then implicitly silences those who have been abused. It’s neither an ethical nor a moral argument and alas, much of the comments that have been bandied around in this case seem to fall into that utter obtuse attitude with regards to more vulnerable sections of the community.

There will be those who will demand a public spectacle, where those who have been abused are obliged to come out with details in the "court" of public opinion. Any counsellor knows that this is in itself an abuse. Indeed, even in criminal cases, partial anonymity is often provided to those who have been abused and that is in criminal cases, let alone non-criminal incidents of abuse.

In the Khan case, a group came together to fulfil that communal obligation, which was to act as mediator, when it seemed at least accusations of impropriety were made public. But that process broke down, which led to the public accusations and counter-statements being made. What happens, then, when the local community has been unable to find a way forward? Typically, one would assume, that a wider, regional body would step in – and if that broke down, then a national community leadership intervention is warranted.

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And there, perhaps, is a root challenge for the Muslim western community. It has been weeks now since this episode broke. And while there are many figures of pre-eminent stature in the Muslim American community, including in the wider geographical area where this episode emerged, it is difficult to speak of a community wide leadership that took responsibility for addressing the issue. Instead of seeing a victim-centric community, where protecting the vulnerable are viewed as paramount, we do not even see the capacity for protecting them, except through the law.

The absence of a permanent, institutionalised body that can lay down an ethical code of conduct, that the community buys into and accepts for any religious figure, and which can adjudicate when such a code is broken or ignored, can have grave consequences. There are frameworks for these kinds of bodies – they already exist. Forming one specifically for Muslim western figures of religion is easy. The question is who would sign up, and what internal community penalties would exist for those who didn’t.

Herein lies the crucial issue: that absence of such a leadership that ensures accountability only does one thing. It emboldens the abuse of power while failing the vulnerable. No one loses any legitimate right in the presence of such leadership, but everyone loses when such leadership is absent.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London