The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leading imam quits as debate over women’s ‘hypersexuality’ boils over at major U.S. mosque

A Friday prayer service at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church in December 2015. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Johari Abdul-Malik has worked to pull his embattled mosque “out of the fire” too many times, and on Friday he decided he had enough.

Abdul-Malik, an imam and the public face of Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Va., one of the nation’s largest and oft-embattled mosques, resigned after he said the mosque’s board failed to adequately address a brewing controversy over the banned practice of female genital mutilation.

The mosque’s lead imam, Shaker Elsayed, drew a wave of condemnation from Abdul-Malik and young Muslim activists earlier in the week after he appeared to endorse a certain form of female genital mutilation as sometimes necessary to prevent “hypersexuality.”

A Virginia imam said female genital mutilation prevents ‘hypersexuality,’ leading to calls for his dismissal

The practice — considered a human rights violation by the World Health Organization — is banned in the United States and throughout much of the world, and it has no basis in Islam’s holy text, the Koran. The mosque’s board condemned Elsayed’s comments as out of line with both U.S. and Islamic law and placed him on administrative leave.

But Abdul-Malik, who has worked on helping the mosque to scrub its image in the 15 years since 9/11, said Elsayed needed to be fired.

In a letter tendering his resignation Friday, Abdul-Malik cited “the lack of decisive leadership” from the mosque’s board and Elsayed’s “many reprehensible statements.” Abdul-Malik had called for Elsayed’s dismissal, and resigned Friday after the board decided not to do so: “I have worked to pull us out of the fire many times. And this is indefensible,” Abdul-Malik said.

Elsayed said last month during a lecture that limited “circumcision” of girls is sometimes necessary to curb women’s sex drive, advising congregants to consult with a Muslim gynecologist before proceeding.

FGM is a common practice among some Muslim and Christian populations in parts of Africa and Asia. Experts say it has no health benefits and can lead to infections, hemorrhaging, childbirth complications and death.

Communities that engage in the practice do so for a variety of reasons, including societal pressure and myths that it serves health or religious purposes.

The U.S. government estimates that there are roughly 500,000 women and girls living in the United States who hail from countries where FGM is prevalent; it is unclear how often the practice occurs in the United States. Federal prosecutors recently charged three Michigan doctors in the female genital mutilation of two girls, the first such federal case.

Right-wing critics of Islam have long sought to highlight female genital mutilation as a distinctly barbaric practice condoned by the Muslim religion, and one that is likely to spread if more Muslims are allowed into the country. ACT for America, the country’s largest anti-Muslim organization, is staging nationwide demonstrations on Saturday partly to protest FGM.

Dar al-Hijrah hired Abdul-Malik 15 years ago, after the mosque came under intense scrutiny for being the onetime house of worship for two of the 9/11 hijackers. Several years later, the mosque’s former imam, Anwar al-Aulaqi, invited further investigation of the mosque after he began espousing terrorist ideology from a hideout in Yemen. And then there was Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood shooter, who had also visited the mosque at some point in the years prior to his rampage.

Imam Abdul-Malik serves as public face of an embattled mosque

Abdul-Malik, a charismatic 60-year-old American-born convert with a penchant for youthful slang, has acted as the mosque’s public liaison; hosting roundtables with FBI officials, giving media interviews, leading Dar al-Hijrah’s efforts to build friendships with rabbis, priests, pastors and local officials, and above all, providing answers.

“Aulaqi was not radical while he was with us,” he’d repeat time and again in response to right-wing critics who accused the mosque of being a haven for terrorists. “Nidal Hassan was not part of our congregation. The 9/11 commission found us harmless regarding the two hijakers,” he’d say, noting also that the mosque believes in peace, tolerance and education.

A little over a month ago, Abdul-Malik went through all these talking points at a meeting in Manassas with the Republican Party of Virginia. The party was promoting a petition that demanded an apology from the state’s attorney general for visiting the mosque, arguing that the mosque was a hotbed for extremism. Abdul-Malik responded to the allegations, and he defended previous statements by Elsayed: “out of context,” he told the meeting. He considered the conversation a victory.

Then came Elsayed’s comments on female genital mutilation.

“For 15 years I’ve been able to defend Dar al-Hijrah,” he said. “And I can make progress if we have a kind of partnership to move controversial issues forward. But if there isn’t enough capacity in the institution to face challenges like this, I ruin my own reputation to be able to make change by staying.”

The scrutiny over Dar al-Hijrah’s track record, which has also made the mosque a prime target for hate mail, threats and inciteful blog posts over the years, was traumatic for its congregation of some 3,000 Muslims, most of them immigrants. And in the face of crisis, “hunkering down” often felt like the best option, members of the mosque said.

“A lot of Muslims [at Dar al-Hijrah] feel like they’ve been under attack and feel like they’ve made a lot of concessions since 9/11 and now they want to plant this flag on this hill,” said Tariq Nelson, who has visited the mosque in the past. “It’s been boiling under the surface but came to a head over this.”

Dar al-Hijrah’s board said Friday that it stood by its “unequivocal” condemnation of FGM as un-Islamic, but also that it is seeking to forgive Elsayed and move forward.

This story and headline has been updated to reflect several interviews and the final print version.