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|May 14, 1999||
Sexual abuse charge against NY imam riles Bengali Muslims
Arthur J Pais in New York
It will be months before Mohammed Rahman, the 51-year-old imam of a mosque in Brooklyn, will be defended against charges of sexually abusing two boys. But outside the mosque for the last two weeks, his defenders -- who seem to outnumber his critics -- believe the charges will have no prayer in court. They heckle the imam's critics and invoke the wrath of Allah on them as police keep a wary eye on the situation.
The imam's supporters believe those who resent his orthodoxy and want to wrest control of the Masjid Dul Aman have framed Rahman. Then there are those who insist the cleric touched the genitals of the boys -- ages 17 and 10 -- to teach them about the "Islamic way of hygiene". They portray him as a deeply pious man who wanted to make sure the young men understood what he was saying.
But liberal Muslims such as Mina Farah, a physician, say supporters of the cleric are misusing Islam to get him off the hook. She said they are citing Islamic prayer guidelines to defend the imam, but doubted whether a jury would buy the argument.
Critics like Farah are reminded of an Italian immigrant from Sicily who was found fondling his pre-teen daughter. His lawyer argued, unsuccessfully, that the man was showing affection for his daughter in the Sicilian tradition and his act was "culturally misunderstood".
Farah said to show the boys how to shave was a proper thing. But it could have been done without touching their private parts.
The last aspect of the controversy is intensely debated not only at the Masjid Dul Aman, but in other mosques and shops in New York frequented by Muslims from the subcontinent. "My teenage sons wanted to know if it is true that they have to shave the genitals if they have to attend religious classes in summer," says Aslam Chowdhary, a liberal Muslim.
Adding to the tension are the alleged death threats to a Bangladeshi editor who ran a story on Rahman's arrest.
Though the alleged incidents took place in 1997 and 1998, the parents of the boys came to know of them only a few months ago, and the cleric was arrested on April 22 and released the next day on a $ 5,000 bond. But the arrest was hardly known till the Bengali weekly Thikana ran a report on April 28.
While the cleric told the media he was innocent of the charges, his backers accused the editor of the weekly, Sayeed Ur-Rabb, of playing politics. More than a dozen stores in Queens and Brooklyn, where more than 20,000 Bengali Muslims live, have been persuaded by the cleric's supporters not to sell the paper.
More seriously, Ur-Rabb has received death threats and sought police protection.
Imam Rahman's supporters believe it was wrong for the newspaper to publicise the event. "There are many people in this country who want to write bad things about Muslims all the time," said Mohammad Chaudhary, a taxi-driver. "By giving publicity to these bad rumours, our community is made to look very silly."
The boys' fathers say it was not easy for them to go to the police, but they felt they could not get justice elsewhere, least of all in the mosque.
The 17-year-old told the police that in August 1997 the imam grabbed his genitals. The complaint said he pushed the imam and fled the basement of the mosque. The imam had reportedly told the young man that under Islamic law, men had to shave their pubic hair. According to the complaint, the imam also tried to kiss him.
According to the second complaint, the imam asked the 10-year-old boy last year to remove his pants and touched his buttocks.
While several of the eight Bangladeshi publications avoided discussing the story of the imam's arrest, Weekly Bangladesh rose to support him. Its editor, Mohammed Khan, said teaching young men to "beautify" themselves before going to the mosque adds to the sacred atmosphere.
"This man is very well loved and respected," Khan said. Echoing Khan's sentiments, another Bangladeshi businessman reminded a reporter that many Catholic Church leaders have been accused of sexually molesting children. "Cardinal Bernadin faced a lot of charges, didn't he?" the man asked, referring to the late Catholic leader in Chicago. "And yet his accuser recanted and Bernadin became even more famous."
When reminded that several Catholic leaders in America have been found guilty of sexual charges, the man wrung his hands, looked upward, and said, "Allah's will be done."
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