Late at night on Dec. 5, 2016, the respected imam of one of the biggest mosques in Texas allegedly invited an 18-year-old to a prepaid room at the Motel 6 in Grand Prairie.
The young woman, identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit she filed in July of this year, said she agreed to go to the motel because the man, Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh, was a trusted spiritual guide who’d counseled her since she was 13. He was privy to her biggest teenage problems — an absentee father, discord with her mother, bullies at school.
The lawsuit depicts a man who was more like a savior or a Svengali than a counselor, using his power over Doe to make her dependent on him. He helped her buy a car and loaned her cash for tuition and a laptop. He helped Doe navigate a turbulent home life and essentially stepped in as a father figure. She even began calling the imam Baba, Arabic for Dad.
In a counseling session in 2016, the lawsuit says, Sheikh introduced a sexual dimension to their closeness, floating the idea of marriage, though he was already married and in his 40s, more than 20 years her senior. Doe was shocked, she says in the suit, but felt so indebted to him that she did whatever he asked, even as the requests grew increasingly lurid: Belly dance. Send a picture of herself in lingerie. Sext every day. Touch herself as he watched on video chat.
And, finally, a text message summoning her to an unknown address that turned out to be the Motel 6.
She showed up assuming that she and the imam would talk, like they always did. But then he “emerged from the bathroom completely naked and instructed Jane to sit down on the bed,” according to the lawsuit. Doe was confused and scared, the suit says, but she complied for fear of upsetting Sheikh and losing him in her life. Sheikh had sex with Doe, then ordered her to get dressed, saying he had to get back to the mosque in time to lead prayers, the lawsuit says.
What happened in the motel room, the lawsuit argues, wasn’t a romantic tryst but the culmination of years of exploitation, an influential religious leader taking advantage of a struggling teen.
Doe’s story is coming to light after a yearlong investigation by Facing Abuse in Community Environments, or FACE, a new Texas-based nonprofit led by Muslim women pushing for transparency and victims’ rights in the handling of abuse claims in Islamic settings. The report became public on Oct. 9, a watershed moment in the fight to hold Muslim leaders accountable, but it’s still only a tiny glimpse of the obstacles Muslim women face in reporting abuse.
Sheikh’s attorney, Hershel Chapin, declined an interview but issued a statement disputing Doe’s claims. The statement says Sheikh “looks forward to responding to the allegations against him through the process of the pending litigation. He is confident that the evidence will establish that the lawsuit against him lacks merit.”
If it’s rare for Muslim women to publicly accuse their religious leaders of misconduct, it’s virtually unheard of for them to sue. Even with her identity concealed in court records and the FACE report, Doe runs the risk of her name being leaked by Sheikh’s supporters, a nightmare for young women in conservative religious circles — Muslim or otherwise — where such gossip can hurt a family’s social standing and limit marriage prospects.
For the past year, Muslim women activists and scholars have warned that their communities are being left out of the #MeToo reckoning because of traditions that enforce a culture of silence. Efforts by some Islamic scholars to overhaul the handling of misconduct claims are underway but so far haven’t yielded tangible results, leading some activists to fear a Catholic Church–style blowup if accusations aren’t addressed more urgently.
“Our client filed this suit in hopes that it will prevent future abuse of vulnerable people by the defendant or any person in power,” Doe’s attorneys, Farhana Querishi and Asiya Salejee, said in a statement. “We hope that the action of our client will motivate other victims to also come forward.”
Lawyers for Doe and the mosque brokered a letter outlining the claims and the imam’s denial of wrongdoing, according to the FACE report. The letter, which BuzzFeed News reviewed, said Sheikh could no longer serve as a religious leader in any capacity and deemed him “not eligible for rehire.” Then, in an unprecedented move among US mosques, the Irving board agreed to send the letter to 2,000 Islamic centers across the country.
But if the goal of the nationwide alert was to bar Sheikh from ever working as a religious leader again, it failed.
In August, Sheikh was hired as imam of the Grand Prairie Masjid, just 9 miles away.
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