(RNS) — A Texas judge has ordered a Muslim cleric to pay $2.55 million to a Muslim woman who says he groomed her for sex after counseling her for years when she was in her teens.
The woman, identified only as Jane Doe, filed a lawsuit in July 2018 against Imam Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh, claiming he had coerced her into sex with him at a local motel after years of exploitation, including sexting and lurid video chat requests.
“We are thrilled at this outcome for Jane Doe,” said Amy Jones, head of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, who served as an expert witness for the plaintiff. “I hope that survivors everywhere will take this as confirmation that times are changing. This is a new world in which survivors have the hope of being believed and perpetrators will be held accountable.”
The judgment, a victory for advocates in the emerging Muslim #MeToo movement, covers mental anguish, punitive damages and the accuser’s legal fees.
Sheikh was hired in 2005 as head imam of the Islamic Center of Irving, one of the region’s biggest mosques, where he remained until his forced resignation in 2017. It was there that he met Jane Doe and began counseling sessions with the then-13-year-old at her family’s request in 2010, the lawsuit states. Sheikh quickly became a confidant and father figure, even offering to co-sign a loan for her car.
When the woman was 18, Sheikh offered himself as a potential spouse even though he already had two wives at the time, according to the lawsuit. The complaint alleges that Sheikh had no intention of marrying her and instead began a yearlong process of “grooming Jane to become more sexualized and to ultimately engage in illicit sexual acts with him.”
Soon after engaging in sexual intercourse in a motel in 2016, Sheikh allegedly cut off contact with Doe.
Sheikh told The Dallas Morning News that he was considering appealing the ruling, saying the judgment was “in error.”
"Unfortunately, litigation in this country does not always favor the truth," he said. "In most cases, it boils down to how much financial stamina one has, and whether one has good legal representation."
The lawsuit followed a yearlong investigation by Facing Abuse in Community Environments, an Irving nonprofit created by Muslim women activists and lawyers to ensure that victims’ rights are respected and Muslim institutions face accountability.
“We are overwhelmed with gratitude for this outcome,” said Alia Salem, executive director of FACE and a trial witness for the plaintiff, in a statement. “We are here because Jane had the faith and courage, despite the risks to herself and her family, to persevere and see this trial through. I pray that this victory sends a message to victims and survivors that they are not alone, but also lets abusers everywhere know that we will not be quiet any longer.”
An extensive report by FACE, published last year, outlined Sheikh’s history of polygamous relationships and alleged spiritual abuse of female congregants at several mosques across the country, from Texas to Tampa, Fla. Investigations by both FACE and BuzzFeed News confirmed that he had been forced to resign from a Richmond, Va., mosque more than 20 years ago after he had secretly married a second wife, a young woman convert he had been teaching.
After Sheikh left the Islamic Center of Irving, the mosque sent a letter to 2,000 institutions informing them of Sheikh’s alleged misconduct. Still, Sheikh was hired on at the Grand Prairie Islamic Society, just 9 miles from his previous place of employment.
Sheikh has since left the Grand Prairie mosque, too, according to media reports.
A prominent imam that local media once referred to as “a hero to the Muslim community,” Sheikh has led mosques in the U.S. since 1996 and was a founding board member of the North Texas Islamic Council, a coalition of Muslim organizations in the area.
He has authored several books, including one called “Addressing the Taboos: Love, Marriage and Sex in Islam.” He was also an instructor of Arabic morphology at Irving’s Bayyinah Academy, a well-respected institute of Quranic studies led by preacher Nouman Ali Khan.
According to FACE’s investigation, it was Khan, then president of the Islamic Society of Irving's board, who first heard Jane Doe's allegations of abuse against Sheikh.
Khan advised the woman "to seek mental health services and also discouraged her from sharing what she experienced because it would harm Sheikh’s reputation as a respected religious leader and family man,” FACE’s investigation alleges.
Since other members of the board ousted Sheikh, the Islamic Society of Irving has also faced other sexual abuse scandals.
In May, a security guard at the mosque was arrested after being accused of molesting a third-grader in an empty classroom at the mosque’s Islamic school.
Last year, days after the lawsuit against Sheikh drew national attention, the mosque filed a police report asking for “guidance from law enforcement” in incidents involving a man kissing two minors at the mosque. In a public statement, mosque leadership identified the man as an elderly relative of a mosque member who was briefly visiting from overseas who left the U.S. shortly after being identified to mosque leaders.
The same day that the mosque’s board filed the report, the mosque’s Imam Nick Pelletier delivered an impassioned Friday sermon that has since gone viral, titled “Speaking Against Evil,” slamming the mosque's board for attempting to investigate the allegations themselves and failing to report the accusations to police earlier.
“You want to go down the route of the Catholic Church?” Pelletier asked listeners. “Turn a blind eye, ‘Oh, we didn’t hear about it,’ even though it’s been reported more than once? ... Somebody’s inappropriately touching people in the masjid (mosque) – true or not true, somebody’s got to report it. End of conversation.”