Religious cults are not breaking news. What's new is ground initiatives, organisations, and activism on several levels that advocate against and confront Muslim spiritual leaders' misuse of their power, or their "spiritual abuse."
In cases reported or witnessed, and usually handled outside of the legal system, Sufi sheikhs would be found taking advantage of their followers, especially women, exploiting them financially and/or physically to the extent of sexual relationships. They would also gain various benefits from their service and networks through games of manipulation downplaying reality and threatening of displeasing Allah and His allies -- the sheikh being one of them --and so one's relationship with His Creator would be affected in case of disobedience. Islam has no immunity from any human.
Misguided, narcissist Sufi sheikhs would always ask to be given benefit of the doubt and tell followers not to follow the sins of others. These groups would eventually lead their followers to cut off ties with the outside world and with any voice of reason in the name of sincerity, companionship, and faith. Thus, they remain hostage to the notions their sheikhs feed them, which means these groups transform into a cult where followers would face bullying and threats if they try to break away.
Muslim community activism has been astounding in this field. For the past decade, Muslims have been raising awareness against communities of cults, engaging surviving victims, encouraging them to come forward to tell their stories anonymously and overcome feelings of fear and shame, offering support, and finally, holding those who violated the trust accountable for their wrong-doings doings. Examples of this activism are "In Sheikh's Clothing," "Hurma Project," "Face," and "Heart."
It is notable that Muslim activism against spiritual abuse originated in the West, despite the phenomenon's existence in Muslim-majority countries. Yet, no similar organised civil activism can be noticed on the ground in any Arab country, for instance. Culturally, Arab Muslims tend to deny wrong-doings related to the practice of faith. There could be some working groups or even individuals who do not wish to formally announce their activism, either because they prefer to work secretly and not state publicly that such abuse exists, out of fear that it will be used by Islamophobes, or they fear the repercussions if their names are known to be active in this sphere they will be branded as conspirators against Islam.
"In Sheikh's Clothing" emerged publicly seven years after its founder started his activism. More work is done behind closed doors than in public.
Silencing victims, protecting perpetrators, and blaming victims imply that the abuse someone suffered is their own fault, accusing women, for example, of causing fitna, or sedition. Then the victim feels betrayed by Islamic scholars and the Muslim community after they fail to provide adequate support and they could possibly renounce their faith.
"If we pretend that we have a utopia, we will only be in denial about what actually happens," Ingrid Mattson, founder of "Hurma Project" said in a conference, "The cover-up in such cases is worse than the crime itself."
Prevention is better than cure. Activists compile a list of precautions one should take in these communities to protect oneself against manipulation. They also put a code of conduct and ethical policies for Muslim leadership, train institutions on how to address spiritual abuse effectively and educate individuals on recognising spiritual abuse and coach them on cult exit and recovery. A code of conduct does not mean abuse would not occur, but that it is actionable and violators will be held accountable. It also protects religious figures from baseless allegations. Prophet Muhammad advised "Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed." His Companions told him "It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?" The prophet replied "By preventing him from oppressing others."
Red flags that ring alarm bells against a sheikh who betrays his spiritual honesty include granting favours for a follower, such as giving her extra time, special invitations and exceptions, disclosing personal issues, discouraging her from seeking help elsewhere, and sharing a secret together. In addition, a red flag is when a woman's instinct tells her something is wrong.
Some activist groups, such as "Face," would even go the extra mile and expose abusers whose patterns of behaviour suggest "criminal thinking" and not just human weakness. They would start with investigating reported cases to prove the alleged violations. "When people say Islam supports victims dropping standards of evidence, they are assuming their approach is the maslaha (interest) without accounting for the fact that they may be the ones creating a greater harm that they are not aware of," one activist said.
If no practical steps were taken to stop the abuse in the concerned organisation, uncovering the issue to alert others to be careful of certain sheikhs would be the solution to socially hold them accountable. Firing them without exposing their misconduct might lead to new circles of abuse elsewhere. Exposing the abusers would entail publishing their names, photos, and documented violations while protecting the victims' identities.
Spiritual abuse is certainly a topic that needs further attention from leaders and followers of different Islamic schools of thought, topped by scholars. These initiatives need to be replicated in other countries and connected universally.
Unfortunately, there is none in Egypt despite the fact that abuses of spiritual power exist which drove me to write my first novel about the topic, The Shepherd.
*The writer is a journalist and novelist. Her debut novel The Shepherd was published in 2021 in Arabic.