An imam from one of the nation’s largest mosques has resigned over a controversy that erupted over another imam’s endorsement of female circumcision, highlighting divisions between Muslim leaders in the U.S.
Mosque outreach coordinator Johari Abdul-Malik, who was brought to help Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Va., after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, announced his resignation on Friday. He cited “the lack of decisive leadership” from the mosque’s board and “many reprehensible statements” by the mosque’s senior imam Shaker Elsayed.
Elsayed’s comments that appeared to endorse female genital mutilation (FGM) during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month was circulated by a right-wing watchdog group. In his lecture, Elsayed spoke of cutting “the tip of the sexually sensitive part of the girl so that she is not hypersexually active.”
Abdul-Malik and 20 other Muslim leaders released a statement on Monday calling on the board to fire Elsayed. “We cannot and will not stand for any Imam or Muslim leader who endorses human rights abuses antithetical to our beautiful faith,” they said.
Calls to Abdul-Malik were not immediately returned on Friday. He said in his statement he has no immediate plans for future employment. Calls to Elsayed were also not returned. Earlier this week, they both declined to comment.
Earlier this week, the mosque’s board of directors condemned Elsayed’s comments, saying his comments broke both U.S. and Islamic law.
FGM is a common practice among some Muslim and Christian populations in parts of Africa and Asia. The procedure varies, and it is considered a human rights violation by the World Health Organization, which says the practice can lead to infections, hemorrhaging, childbirth complications and death. It is a federal crime in the U.S., and a federal case recently sparked calls for stricter penalties.
In his lecture, Elsayed warned of the dangers of some forms of the procedure, but he advised observers to seek the advice of a Muslim gynecologist. He said 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.”
The mosque’s board of directors said that it rejected Elsayed’s opinion, and that FGM is “prohibited in Islam as well as the laws of the land.” The statement also included a retraction from Elsayed saying that he regretted his comments on “hypersexuality.” However, Abdul-Malik wrote on Friday that the board was proceeding in a different direction than what he believes is best.
Abdul-Malik was brought in to help with the image of the mosque, which has about 3,000 regular congregants and came under scrutiny after the 9/11 attacks. The mosque was then receiving a lot of attention because two Sept. 11 hijackers once worshiped there.
The Virginia mosque congregation felt it needed a Muslim who grew up in America and spoke English, so they brought in Abdul-Malik, who grew up in Brooklyn, where he and his family worshiped in Episcopal churches. He converted to Islam as a graduate student at Howard University in the early 1980s and served as Howard’s first volunteer Muslim chaplain.
Tariq Nelson, who has been involved in the mosque in the past, said he believes many at the mosque didn’t like the progressive direction Abdul-Malik wanted to take them, such as doing interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews. While he does not support the comments by Elsayed, he believes a majority of the members at the mosque do.
“A lot of Muslims [there] 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,” Nelson said. “It’s been boiling under the surface but came to a head over this.”
Shahed Amanullah, a Muslim whose father attends the Falls Church mosque, said the issue reflects a larger struggle for what it means to be a Muslim American. While most Muslims in America would reject FGM, Amanullah said, there’s a generational and cultural divide, a struggle between those who consider themselves culturally American or from somewhere else.
“The question we need to be asking ourselves is, how are we going to define our values as American Muslims?” said Amanullah, who lives in Arlington and attends other mosques. “How are we going to do it in a way that’s consistent with the values we expect of our neighbors and the values we expect of ourselves?”