Some unhelpful things to say to survivors of religious abuse (convert edition)

Well, nobody forced you to join that group/mosque/community (or to marry that person). You chose to join it (or, to get married).

In other words: What happened is at least partly caused by you. So, stop blaming the group/mosque/community/your abusive spouse, and focus on what you did wrong.

But the thing is, sometimes religious authority is misused. And sometimes adults do get drawn into things against their better judgment. Female converts in particular have often been pressured by people who supposedly had “Islamic knowledge” into getting involved in controlling or cultish communities—“satan attacks the one who is alone,” and all that—and even into marriage with people that they hardly knew.

Saying this sort of thing handily shifts accountability for whatever happened away from the shaykh/mosque leadership/community leaders or husband—meaning, away from those who had more knowledge and power, and who the convert was led to believe that she had to listen to “Islamically”—and onto the convert herself. And what it sounds like to the survivor is something like this:  No matter how badly you may have been treated, your life just don’t count nearly as much in the greater scheme of things as the reputation of that group/mosque/community/man does.

Sure, converts need to look before they leap. As does anyone making a life-changing or potentially costly decision. It’s only common sense. But groups/mosques/communities/husbands sometimes want to have it both ways—BOTH undermining people’s common sense by encouraging blind “trust in God” and magical thinking (while discouraging second thoughts, getting second opinions, or reading/listening to unapproved sources) AND also refusing to accept any responsibility when things go awry. This should be called what it is: wrong and abusive.

Anyone who is in a position in which they are giving religious guidance or advice needs to be prepared to be held accountable for the teachings that they provide and the results that these has on people’s lives. Period.

No group, organization, mosque or shaykh is perfect. You should have taken what was beneficial, and just left the rest.

Meaning: the problem is not with the group/org/mosque/shaykh, it’s with… you. Because you are trying to hold the group/org/mosque/shaykh up to an impossible standard.  Human beings just aren’t perfect, and expecting them to be is setting yourself up for disappointment. And who are you to pass judgment on them, anyway? You aren’t anywhere close to being perfect yourself….

Sigh. Yes, of course no human being is perfect. Far from it. Which ought to mean that groups/orgs/mosques/shaykhs should try to be extra careful to avoid falling into unhealthy or abusive patterns of behavior. Because it’s all too easy to do, especially when there’s little to no accountability.

What this sounds like to the survivor: I’m just gonna keep on covering for the group/org/mosque/shaykh. Because it’s them that matters, not you.

Everyone knows that a tariqa/a community like that one demands a lot of commitment, time and effort. People who weren’t ready to make the sacrifices necessary shouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place.

Meaning: the problem is not with the tariqa/community, it is with you. To be exact, with your lack of commitment, and also with your presumption that you even belonged in such elevated company. But you clearly didn’t belong, or you wouldn’t have left/been pushed out.

What this sounds like to the survivor: Whatever the tariqa/community did or does is right. I’ve made my mind up about that, and nothing you say will make any difference.

But that group/mosque/community/tariqa has done a lot of good.

Meaning: Most of what that group/mosque/community/tariqa does is good, or so everyone says, so your bad experience (if it even really happened) is just some kind of freakish accident that doesn’t really mean anything.

What this sounds like to the survivor: Since there are so many good things happening, whatever might or might not have happened to you doesn’t matter. And, you should feel ashamed to even suggest that there are problems with a group/mosque/community/tariqa that is doing so much good.

Those things you are talking about are all in the past now. You need to move on.

Meaning: You’re wallowing in self-pity. Cut it out.

What it sounds like to the survivor: Since it’s all in the past, there is no reason why it should be hurting or harming you any more. If you haven’t been able to get over it by now, then there’s something wrong with you. And since it’s in the past, there is no reason why we should dredge it up now by calling leaders or organizations to account for their misdeeds or anything like that.

Oh, but how can you say such things about Shaykh X? Thousands of people come to Y conference every year just to hear him speak! Or alternatively: Remember the hadith qudsi in which God says, “I am at war with the one who is at war with My friends…” 

Meaning: Shaykh X is not bound by the standards of behavior that everyone else is, because he’s a rock star.

What it sounds like to the survivor: Shaykh X puts bums in seats/brings in the $$/gives prestige to the organization, so nobody is going to listen to you or care about your story. You might as well shut up.

But we followed Shaykh X’s teachings/got involved in Masjid Z/joined Y group and we benefited so much, maa sh’Allah!

Meaning: The problem is with you. You must have been doing it wrong, because it worked out just fine for everyone else.

What it sounds like to the survivor: It worked out well for everyone else—at least, for everyone who matters.

*      *      *      *      *      *

What all these unhelpful comments have in common is that basically, they are selfish. They are all about “me,” what worked out for “me,” what mosques/orgs/tariqas/shaykhs/other leaders seem credible or trustworthy to “me.” The focus is on “me” to such a degree that the commenter can’t hear—refuses to hear—anything that could possibly call it into question. Because how could it be that you didn’t experience that leader/group/community like “me”?? The very idea is too personally threatening to be accepted.

These unhelpful comments also use the same manipulative tactics that abusive leaders/groups/mosques/communities do. They tell the survivor that they are nothing, their lives don’t matter, and that in any case, they can’t even trust their own perceptions of what happened. So, comments like this only add to the problems that the survivor is having. It is not surprising if a survivor responds to such comments by running as far away as possible from anyone giving such “advice.”

What approaches might be helpful?

Listening, without judging the survivor.

One way that people “move on” from past experiences is to talk about them. One way to help someone move on can be to listen to them, instead of shutting them down and telling them what they “should” be thinking or doing. And also, encouraging them to seek professional help if they are having trouble getting past the fall-out from their negative experiences.

Being supportive and accepting.

Understanding that sometimes, people need a break from the things that are associated with abuse that they went through, or that were used to hurt or control them. So, giving them space and letting them decide what religious choices they want to make (if any) without preaching to them or trying to pressure them to attend community events or listen to such-and-such an inspirational whatever-it-is is best. It takes time to recover from abuse.
And depending on what has taken place, the survivor may never completely recover—whether physically, psychologically, socially or financially.

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  1. #1 by Mary Rogers on March 26, 2013 - 4:35 am

    Unfortunately this often happens in Christian churches as well. Blame the abused for their abuse. It doesn’t make much sense does it? Sometimes people just get caught up in something bad and it may not seem bad at first. Abuse can be very subtle because everyone tries to tell you to get with the program. My sister belongs to a very controlling and abusive church and although I can see clearly what is going on, she unfortunately can’t. I may not understand all the reasons she stays, but I know that they have brainwashed her into thinking that this kind of environment is normal.

    I know this blog has to do with the Muslim faith, but it speaks to me as well, so I hope you don’t mind my commenting here.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 29, 2013 - 4:03 pm

      Mary—Blaming the abused instead of the abuser gives abusers (and their enablers) an easy out.

      You are welcome to comment here.

  2. #3 by shepardmary57 on March 26, 2013 - 10:27 am

    What I have heard again and again from Muslims is that my withdrawal from Islam is because I wasn’t taught right. If I had been taught correctly I wouldn’t question or doubt. I am thankful that my Islamic training was sporadic enough to allow me space in which I could maintain my own identity to some extent, because this is what kept me from taking that step into fundamentalism which is becoming more and more common here where I live. In fact, I saw all religious training as indoctrination, and I still do. It shocks me to see so many Muslims who parrot canned, mindless responses to simple questions. One I hear all the time is, “whatever benefits my deen.” What about making a real choice in our life based on knowledge and reason? Apparently, thinking is not allowed unless it’s Islamic thinking. The continuous display of “how good a Muslim I am” behavior also works as a way to compel everyone around you to follow suit. Thus, independent, secular thinking and reasoning is rejected in favor of Islamic, “correct” thinking.

    In reading about the Jonestown mass suicide in 1979, I was shocked to learn that all human minds are programmable. Knowing this, I don’t understand why the victims of cults are blamed for joining them except that there is a lot of subconscious fear on the part of critics who wish to blame cult members for what happened to them. Islam is a perfect example of a cult, actually. It demands that you surrender your identity, your individuality and your independence to its teachings. From the moment you wake up in the morning, you live this identity. Islam makes your decisions for you, everything from what you wear to whom you marry (and why). If this isn’t a cult, I don’t know what it is.

    • #4 by xcwn on March 29, 2013 - 4:23 pm

      shepardmary—That’s a really chilling idea—that someone who was “taught right” won’t doubt. At least, it seems chilling to me now. It didn’t back when I was the The Cult, however. That was how we tried to raise our children: we tried to teach them “right” so that they would never doubt.

      I agree that a lot of the Muslim discourses on Islam that we as female converts have the easiest access to (especially in North America, but not only here) are unfortunately cult-like in many ways, and that this fosters an environment where some people do get sucked into actual cults. But I wouldn’t agree that Islam itself (intrinsically, throughout history, each and everywhere today) is a cult. Meaning, I don’t think that Islam necessarily has to be about minutely regulating every move that the individual makes and guilting or frightening people into refusing to think critically. But that sure is what a lot of people seem to think that it is about.

  3. #5 by nmr on March 26, 2013 - 12:07 pm

    Please correct me here if I am wrong, and knowing you as I do I expect you to, but is recovery from religious abuse similar to recovery from substance abuse? Instead of being addicted to a drug, in this case you were addicted to being a member of the in-group, or the ‘saved from damnation’ in-group.

    Human brains are wired to seek out human companionship, and we know from a lot of post-WW2 social psychology experiments the power of group cohesiveness, obedience to authority, and designated role play.

    In substance abuse the best path to recovery is by treating the underlying emotional symptoms that caused one to seek out the addictive behavior. Could the same be said for religious abuse?

    So saying to a person recovering from cult membership “But the cult does a lot of good work” is the same as saying to a recovering addict, “But opium has many medicinal uses.”

    Your turn now, fire away.

    • #6 by xcwn on March 29, 2013 - 4:32 pm

      nmr–I’m not sure. I suspect recovering from religious abuse is more complicated. As far as I can see, substance abuse usually starts with someone choosing to ingest alcohol or drugs in order to relax, feel pleasure, negotiate social situations, forget about life’s troubles for a bit, dull the pain, etc. And, they become chemically dependent on it. But the substance they are ingesting doesn’t chase after them, try to guilt them into staying when they are thinking about leaving, or tell them that they are going to hell if they dare question. Ultimately, the substance is inert. Abusive religious leaders and groups aren’t.

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