Sex abuse scandal involving local Imam shakes Chicago Muslims | WBEZ
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Sex abuse scandal involving a local Imam shakes Chicago's Muslims

For Jill, any discussion about sex was off limits while growing up in her strict Muslim home.

“I was never able to take health education classes," Jill said. "We never discussed this with my friends or anything. I’ve never seen my parents kiss or anything. I never saw my parents hold hands.”

Jill, who wears a black hijab, agreed to be interviewed only under a pseudonym. She lives in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs with her family. Jill said she was 11 when she started taking lessons in the Quran from Imam Mohammed Abdullah Saleem, a prominent and revered leader in the community. In 1989, Saleem founded the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin.

Jill says Saleem sexually abused her while she was his student. She can’t file criminal charges because of the statute of limitations. But Jill is one of five anonymous plaintiffs in a civil suit against Saleem and his school. A male plaintiff in the suit says another employee at the Institute abused him.

Saleem was also charged with one count of criminal sexual abuse earlier this week.

What started out as innocent praise and slight touches on her arm from Saleem during class, Jill said, turned into something else.

“(He started) moving my scarf away from my head, started kissing my cheek,” Jill said. “A month or two later, he started to touch my private parts. And this happened for like a couple of months.”

People familiar with Saleem say he’s well-liked. One person even likened him to Bill Cosby, someone who was beloved only to find their reputation shattered by allegations of sexual abuse. That’s why Jill was afraid to tell her parents, why she wanted to stay home from classes. She was terrified to tell them what she says she had gone through. The constraints of her faith did not help.

“They probably would’ve said ‘you’re probably imagining things. It’s probably nothing.’ Because they had such reverence for people of such stature,” Jill said.

Jill said she spent years in therapy before she could tell her parents about the alleged abuse. And for a time, she left Islam.

“I was just so disgusted," Jill said. "Like how could Allah let this happen to me? It was a real long time before I understood and accepted and went back to my religion which I love.”

Nadiah Mohajir is with HEART Women & Girls, a group addressing issues of sexual health among Muslim women. She said they've fielded many calls since December, when a former secretary of Saleem's told police he had assaulted her.  

“Our faith does put a lot of value on modesty and privacy and purity,” Mohajir said. “I think that that is often conflated with these feelings of shame, which encourages silence around these issues.”

Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin heads the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. He said it's taking actions to prevent future abuse. One step is to openly support survivors of abuse. Another is to support a community already under intense scrutiny because of terrorist attacks, and, he says, that community includes those still working and running Saleem's institute.

“To the extent that they can come clean and become transparent because after all the community invested millions of dollars in building that institution,” Kaiseruddin said. “And for other Islamic schools, who may also face this kind of a problem if proper precautions are not taken.”

But decades after the abuse, after going to therapy and telling her family what had happened, Jill says she can’t talk about the alleged abuse openly. She said the Muslim community may not be ready to hear about these things.

“I still have to marry my kids off," Jill said. "And I don’t want that reputation to be there. And my parents to face ‘Oh my God, that girl or that boy (is) rejected because of what you had been through.’ Because that’s just the mind of the community.”

Saleem’s attorney did not respond to calls for comment.

If Saleem is convicted on the criminal charge, Jill said she’ll feel vindicated and leave the rest to Allah.

Yolanda Perdomo is a WBEZ reporter.

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