Elsayed’s comments during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month sparked a brief controversy last Friday after a right-wing watchdog group circulated a video clip of his speech online.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), branded a human rights violation by the World Health Organization and by most governments, is a common practice among certain Muslim and Christian populations in Africa and parts of Asia. The practice can range from a small incision or partial removal of the clitoris to a full removal of the clitoris and labia and the infibulation of the vaginal opening — procedures that the WHO says can lead to hemorrhaging, chronic infections, childbirth complications and even death.
Although the practice, which is sometimes also called female circumcision, has no basis in the Koran or in the Bible, experts say it is perpetuated in large part because of false claims about religious obligations and health benefits, societal pressures and the desire to suppress female sexuality.
In his lecture, a video of which appeared on the mosque’s YouTube channel, Elsayed spoke about circumcision as the cutting of “the tip of the sexually sensitive part of the girl so that she is not hypersexually active.” He warned about the dangers of more serious forms of the procedure, but advised congregants to seek the advice of a Muslim gynecologist to see whether minimal action was necessary. He also warned that “in societies where circumcision of girls is completely prohibited, hypersexuality takes over the entire society and a woman is not satisfied with one person or two or three.”
Dar al-Hijrah’s Board of Directors on Monday said that it rejected Elsayed’s opinion, and that FGM is “prohibited in Islam as well as the laws of the land.”
“We at Dar Al-Hijrah, DO NOT condone, promote, or support any practice of FGM,” the board said in a statement. “The reference to “Hyper-sexuality” is offensive and it is unequivocally rejected. The Board of Directors is particularly disturbed by such comments.”
The statement also included a retraction from Elsayed, who said he “referred the audience to their OBGYN to inform them why it is illegal and harmful,” and that he regretted his comments on “hypersexuality.”
“I admit that I should have avoided it. I hereby take it back. And I do apologize to all those who are offended by it,” he said.
But some community members said the statement didn’t go far enough, and two mosque officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the mosque’s second imam and outreach coordinator, Johari Abdul-Malik, was threatening to quit if the board didn’t fire Elsayed. Abdul-Malik and Elsayed both declined to comment. But Abdul-Malik and 20 other Muslim leaders and intellectuals, including prominent activist Linda Sarsour, released a statement Monday evening, calling on the board “to immediately terminate Imam Shaker El Sayed’s contract. We cannot and will not stand for any Imam or Muslim leader who endorses human rights abuses antithetical to our beautiful faith.”
While some classical Islamic texts endorse the practice, “it’s extremely important to know that the prophet Muhammad and his family did not experience female circumcision in any way, shape or form,” said Suhaib Webb, a popular imam at the Center D.C. who has a large youth following and who supports the call for Elsayed’s ouster. Numerous modern-day Muslim leaders, including Egypt’s Grand Mufti, have condemned female genital mutilation, Webb added. “I think there’s a very real concern [comments like his] contribute to the idea that Muslims are backward and out of touch, as is their religion.”
One longtime Dar al-Hijrah member said that the controversy reflects ongoing tension between the more conservative and liberal ranks of the mosque’s leadership. “He’s a very old-school guy. He has old-school views,” said the member, who worried that Elsayed’s continuation at the mosque would be a “breaking point” for progressives like Abdul-Malik. He asked not to be named so he could speak candidly.
Dar al-Hijrah, one of the nation’s largest mosques with about 3,000 regular congregants from more than 20 countries, has sought for years to scrub its image, after it became the focus of public scrutiny and FBI investigations following 9/11. A former imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, became one of the most recognizable global proponents of extremist ideology years after he left Dar al-Hijrah. And two of the 9/11 hijackers, along with Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, all worshiped there at some point.
Although there is little indication that female genital mutilation is common in the United States, the issue drew fresh attention in April when federal prosecutors charged three Michigan doctors with involvement in the female genital mutilation of two Minnesota girls, marking the first case to be prosecuted under the United States’ decades-old ban.
Attorneys for the doctors, all of whom are Indian American and belong to the tiny Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shiite Islam, are expected to invoke religious freedom in their defense at trial later this month, an argument that is likely to further inflame the stereotypes.
The controversies come at a particularly fraught time for American Muslims. Hate crimes against Muslims shot up 67 percent in 2015, according to the FBI. And hate crimes in general went up more than 42 percent last year in Maryland’s Montgomery County — a 30-minute drive from Dar al-Hijrah — according to an analysis of preliminary data by Brian Levin, a hate crimes expert at California State University in San Bernardino.
Last month a white supremacist, Jeremy Joseph Christian, killed two men on a Portland light rail train when they intervened to protect two Muslim girls Christian was harassing, authorities there say.
Dar al-Hijrah and its members — including women and girls who wear headscarves — have been the target of anti-Muslim hate speech, threats and, on one occasion, violence.
After a video clip of Elsayed’s lecture circulated on social media last Friday, the backlash erupted on Twitter.
“This is a loser monster that needs to be exterminated off the face of the earth! This is what our wonderful President is saving us from!” wrote one person, whose Twitter avatar featured a picture of a Trump-Pence campaign button.
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.