Muslim community jolted by Elgin Islamic school leader sex charges

  • Supporters and friends escort Mohammad Abdullah Saleem from the Rolling Meadows courthouse after he posted bail. He was charged with criminal sexual abuse of a secretary who worked for him at the Islamic school he founded.

      Supporters and friends escort Mohammad Abdullah Saleem from the Rolling Meadows courthouse after he posted bail. He was charged with criminal sexual abuse of a secretary who worked for him at the Islamic school he founded. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Mohammad Abdullah Saleem

    Mohammad Abdullah Saleem

  • The Islamic Institute of Education school in Elgin is where Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, is charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old worker.

      The Islamic Institute of Education school in Elgin is where Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, is charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old worker. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Steven Denny, the attorney for four women and a man suing an Elgin Islamic school and its founder, speaks to reporters Tuesday.

      Steven Denny, the attorney for four women and a man suing an Elgin Islamic school and its founder, speaks to reporters Tuesday. MADHU KRISHNAMURTHY | Staff Photographer

  • Nadiah Mohajir, co-founder and executive director of HEART Women & Girls, has been working with women who claim they were sexually abused for decades by a former imam and head of the Islamic Institute of Education in Elgin.

      Nadiah Mohajir, co-founder and executive director of HEART Women & Girls, has been working with women who claim they were sexually abused for decades by a former imam and head of the Islamic Institute of Education in Elgin. MADHU KRISHNAMURTHY | Staff Photographer

  • Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, speaks during a news conference announcing a lawsuit filed by five people against a renowned Islamic scholar and head of an Elgin Islamic school for decades of sexual abuse.

      Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, speaks during a news conference announcing a lawsuit filed by five people against a renowned Islamic scholar and head of an Elgin Islamic school for decades of sexual abuse. MADHU KRISHNAMURTHY | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/18/2015 5:00 AM

Four women have accused a prominent former imam and head of an Islamic school in Elgin of sexual abuse over four decades -- three of them saying it happened when they were barely teenagers.

For now, Mohammad Abdullah Saleem is accused criminally of sexually assaulting one of them, a 23-year-old former secretary at the Institute of Islamic Education school. Charges that other sexual abuse occurred for decades, mostly by Saleem, were leveled in a lawsuit filed Tuesday against him and the school.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The scandal has devastated the Chicago and suburban Muslim communities, where the accusations have been widely known since December.

"It is a big blow," said Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. "If he committed these crimes, then he has got to be held accountable for it."

Saleem, of the 400 block of Jean Street in Gilberts, has been charged with aggravated battery and criminal sexual abuse. The 75-year-old cleric posted 10 percent of the $250,000 bail set by a judge.

If convicted, he faces a penalty ranging from probation to five years in prison. He has no criminal background, prosecutors said.

More than 30 people, mostly male supporters of Saleem, attended his hearing Tuesday at a Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows. Judge Joseph Cataldo ordered Saleem, a native of India and a naturalized U.S. citizen, to surrender his passport. Cataldo also ordered Saleem to have no contact with his accuser, her family or anyone younger than 18.

Supporters expressed disbelief at the charges.

"I couldn't sleep the whole night," said Ameer Gaffoor of Hoffman Estates. "To accuse him is a shock to us."

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The charges stem from a more than two-month investigation by Elgin police of Saleem, who founded the Institute of Islamic Education school, 1280 Bluff City Blvd., established in 1989.

Prosecutors detailed numerous instances of sexual abuse beginning in October 2013, a month after the woman started working at the school. They gradually escalated from a kiss on the cheek to touching, hugs and forcible contact, they said.

On April 14, 2014, Saleem forced the secretary onto his lap, touched her and restrained her when she tried to get away, assistant state's attorney Maria McCarthy said. The woman later discovered semen on her clothes, which she photographed, McCarthy said.

Two days later, after informing relatives of what happened, the woman quit, prosecutors said.

Also, prosecutors said, during a Nov. 18 meeting between the school's board and the woman, her mother and Saleem, he admitted what he had done and signed a document to that effect. Afterward, several others came forward with accusations, and the woman filed a complaint with Elgin police on Dec. 4, 2014.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Defense attorney Thomas Glasgow said his client denies the allegations.

"He is not running from this investigation. He has never hidden himself," Glasgow said of Saleem, who retired from the Institute last year.

4 decades of abuse

On Tuesday, four women and one man filed the lawsuit, alleging sexual abuses dating as far back as the early 1980s.

Their attorney, Steven Denny, said it was the 23-year-old's decision to step forward that emboldened others. "Without her courage, it is most likely that nobody else would ever have been bold enough to come forward," he said.

The other female victims say they were abused as minors during the 1980s and 1990s. A man also is alleging he was abused as an 11-year-old by another school employee.

"Saleem took advantage of his position of power and authority. This place was ripe for abuse of children and that's what happened, and IIE covered it up," Denny said at a news conference in Chicago, adding that he expects more victims to come forward.

Denny called on the leaders of the school to establish a fund to compensate the victims.

Glasgow, who represents the Islamic Institute of Education, would not comment on the lawsuit. He said the mosque board is concluding its own internal investigation into the allegations.

"We have completed six weeks' worth of investigation on this," he said. "We've interviewed many people. I haven't seen anything that would give rise to credibility of the allegations."

Glasgow stressed there have been no claims of abuse made against any of the current board members or management of the mosque and school.

The school is now run by Saleem's son.

"Allegations of this nature, they are very inflammatory, to say the least," Glasgow said. "This is a very conservative bunch of people. These are good people running this board."

Root out problem

Kaiseruddin said many community members are in denial over the allegations, while others are angry. "But everybody is in favor of bringing this up and resolving this issue rather than hiding it ... root this problem out before it becomes pervasive in society."

The council -- an umbrella group of more than 60 member mosques, schools and other Islamic organizations -- has taken steps to review sexual abuse prevention policies of the roughly dozen Islamic schools in the metropolitan area to ensure it does not happen again, Kaiseruddin said.

The council also has set up a task force to develop guidelines on how to run these schools, he said.

Kaiseruddin said a flaw with the governance of the Elgin school was that one man had all the authority without any checks and balances.

"We are taking a holistic view (of) what can be done to prevent this problem from occurring in other places," he said.

The council will develop programs this summer and train its staff before the start of school in the fall, he said.

The Elgin school's students primarily come from Indian and Pakistani Muslim immigrant families belonging to the more conservative Deobandi movement. Talking openly about sexual matters within these communities is uncommon.

Speaking up

"It's been very challenging but at the same time also quite empowering," said Nadiah Mohajir, co-founder and executive director of Chicago-based HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit working with sexual violence survivors and promoting sexual and reproductive health in faith-based communities. "They (plaintiffs) are finally able to find their voice and speak up against this. It's going to be a long road, but we're very proud of the bravery they have shown right now, and they have a lot of supporters."

The 23-year-old cited as a victim initially confided in a respected Muslim scholar Omer Mozaffar that she had been sexually assaulted, Mohajir said.

Mozaffar, a Muslim chaplain and teacher at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago, made the allegations public on his blog in December but later took down his post. He also acted as a mediator between the woman and Saleem before he signed the statement, according to the suit.

Mohajir said her group soon encouraged the woman and others to step forward.

"There are people who are committed to talking about this issue in a very public way," she said. "With any prominent, charismatic leader, when allegations like these happen, it's really hard to believe. It's devastating. There is this tremendous hurt that people will feel about this. There is a ton that they need to process."

Mohajir's group conducts workshops at mosques, Islamic community centers and schools on sexual violence, sex education, and how to talk to children about sexual abuse. Since allegations against Saleem became widely known within the Muslim communities, the group has seen an increase in requests for such workshops, she said.

She said there is a need for "safe and open conversations about sexual abuse in our homes, mosques, communities."

"We must replace blame, shame and stigma with openness, support and healing," she added.

The group also has set up a support hotline and website in case additional victims come forward: (469) 708-SAFE, safetyforsurvivors.com.

• Daily Herald staff writer Barbara Vitello contributed to this report.

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