revelations have rocked the Catholic Church in the last generation, leading to
lasting damage to how the Church is viewed worldwide and even shaking the faith
of some believers.
speculate that a similar scandal is brewing in Shia Islam, with abusers exposed
to be using egregious misrepresentations of religious law to facilitate their
limelight has been shone on this in a recent BBC documentary, provocatively
titled "Undercover with the Clerics." Girls as young as 13 were
essentially pimped out by Iraqi men who claimed religious legitimacy.
Specifically, the men stated they were followers of Grand Ayatollah Syed
Sistani, despite the fact that the cleric has condemned their actions as
abhorrent not only to Islam's values but to Iraqi law and human rights.
rights have come on in leaps and bounds in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam
and his dictatorship in 2003.
society has gone from being all but non-existent to becoming one of the more
vibrant examples of life in the region. Iraq's constitution guarantees that at
least a quarter of the country's members of parliament are women (a slightly
higher percentage than in the current U.S. House of Representatives.)
renaissance is most pronounced when it comes to Iraq's Shia Muslims.
being a religious majority in the country, the community's members are still
recovering from decades of repression under Saddam. But in the mere 16 years
since Saddam's removal, Iraq's Shia, including Shia clerics, have gone from
being brutally persecuted to forming the backbone of Iraq's civil society. This
makes it all the more shocking that what is an overwhelmingly progressive,
democratizing institution is now being accused of providing cover for abusers.
The man who
bears no small amount of responsibility for this progress is Ayatollah Ali
Sistani, one of the leading global authorities in Shia Islam with perhaps 200
million followers. The 89-year-old cleric is the antithesis of Islamophobic
ideas of a Muslim scholar: he has single-handedly driven the embrace by Iraq's
largest confessional community of elections and democracy, and has relentlessly
campaigned for human rights in general and women's rights in particular.
visited Iraq several times every year since 2003. On many of those visits I
have had private meetings with Ayatollah Sistani. I cannot remember ever
meeting him without him mentioning women's rights.
these issues are not an ideological luxury; they are a societal necessity.
There are over a million war widows in Iraq, many of whom have no access to
welfare or assistance. This has become exacerbated in recent years as the
international community's attention has shifted towards Syria, and policy
makers tend to view Iraq through a security, rather than a humanitarian, lens.
largest charity, the Al-Ayn foundation, was formed and is supervised by Syed
Sistani's office. It is funded directly from within the Shia community, allowing
it a continuity of service that is difficult when dependent on international
donors and NGOs.
after more than 57,000 orphans and widows in everything from healthcare to
education to psychotherapy. The potential of Iraq's Shia clerics for social
good has become clear since they were allowed to function independently in
has safeguarding procedures to internationally recognized standards, far beyond
what some Western aid volunteers adhere to. All staff undergo thorough
background checks and only contact beneficiaries through official channels.
Syed Sistani has personally insisted, for example, that only female members of
staff deal with vulnerable women beneficiaries.
it all the more infuriating to see the allegations the BBC report that
so-called Shia Clerics are using the cover of religious institutions to coax
Iraqi women and children into prostitution.
of vulnerable women and girls, anywhere, must be absolutely stamped out. When
it is done in the cloak of religion, it is even more repugnant. Syed Sistani
has issued an absolute and unequivocal disavowal of those acts, and instructed
his followers to root out these behaviours wherever they are found.
It is not
entirely clear what claim the abusers can make to being clerics themselves, or
if this religious affiliation is as deceptive as the rest of their trafficking
scam. The main abuser's most demonstrable link to religion was his title of
"Syed" which can, as the program noted, mean that he is a descendant
of the Prophet's family, but can also mean "Mister." Based on decades
of intimate knowledge of the Iraqi Shia clergy, I would like to believe that
these men are imposters. But whether they are or not doesn't substantially
change how the Shia community should respond to these revelations: if they are
imposters, they need to be exposed as such; if they are—or ever were—clerics,
they deserve condemnation all the more.
like these, where religious legal instruments such as fixed-term marriage, or
Mu’tah, are abused, disgust me and all Muslims.
abuses repeatedly victimize vulnerable women and children is bad enough. But
they also feed into Islam's worst sectarian divides. Distortions and actual
malpractices of the mut'ah concept are also seized on by fanatical anti-Shia
jihadists like Daesh. Fixed-term marriage between consenting adults exists in
Shia religious teachings as a way, for example, for an engaged couple to get to
know each other without contravening gender boundaries. It is a marriage
relationship with strict requirements, and rights, for both parties. As Syed
Sistani's office stated in their own comments to the BBC team, they are not
mean to pimp out women, least of all underage girls.
extremists, however, the notion of Mu’tah marriages is falsely used to feed
their narrative that Shia Muslims are not Muslims at all, but infidels, who do
not believe even in the sanctity of marriage.
essential that the most vulnerable in every society, whether they are Iraqi
widows seeking assistance, parishioners in the far-flung world of the Catholic
church or British children appearing on popular BBC shows, are protected. And
at the same time, we must protect important institutions from those criminals
and charlatans who abuse not only their innocent victims, but also the
organizations to which they claim to be affiliated and whose values they so
Headline: There Is No Room In Islam For Clerics Who Abuse Women—Not In Iraq,
Source: The News Week