Muslim Civil Rights Leader Accused Of Harassment, Misconduct
For months, stories swirled around a prominent Muslim civil rights leader, alleging secret marriages, bullying, sexual harassment.
Then, late last year, some of the allegations against 34-year-old Hassan Shibly burst into public view. In a video posted on GoFundMe, Shibly's estranged wife, mother of their three children, looked directly into the camera and begged for help. She said her abusive husband had cut her off financially.
"For years, I've been in an abusive relationship, and the situation at home has become unbearable," Imane Sadrati said. "I finally decided to build the courage to start over for my children and I."
The accusations were shocking not only in their content but in the public airing of a nationally recognized Muslim leader's personal drama. For a decade, Shibly led the prominent Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. It's a nonprofit rights watchdog known for defending Muslim civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 era.
Within 15 days of his estranged wife's video going live, Shibly resigned from his high-profile job at CAIR's Florida chapter. In an interview with NPR, Shibly denied abuse allegations, including that he twisted Sadrati's arm, slapped her and shoved her against a wall during one incident last summer that Sadrati detailed in court documents. Shibly also denied all other allegations of misconduct.
His resignation, though, didn't put the matter to rest. Shibly's departure emboldened a slew of women to come forward with their own accusations of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct by him and of workplace discrimination at CAIR's national office and several prominent chapters.
NPR interviewed a half-dozen Shibly accusers and reviewed internal CAIR documents, social media posts and email exchanges. Together, the accounts portray Shibly as a man who used his position to seduce women and bully critics with impunity.
Shibly's critics say his alleged actions were shrouded by a culture of silence, rooted partly in Muslim taboos about discussing personal scandals and partly out of fear that the fallout would fuel vicious anti-Muslim hostility.
When concerned parties brought allegations to senior CAIR officials in Washington, D.C., and Florida, former employees said, there was little, if any, follow-up action. They said leaders were aware of some of the allegations as early as 2016.
Laila Abdelaziz, who worked under Shibly at the CAIR Florida chapter, said she resigned in 2016 in part because Shibly sexually harassed her. She said she believes CAIR leaders have failed to adequately address the situation, partly because Muslim communities already face such a barrage of discriminatory and sometimes violent anti-Muslim hate.
"When your community is being attacked and diminished and demeaned every single day," Abdelaziz said, "it's difficult to invite even more of that."
"Muslims do turn to them in crisis"
In 1994, a handful of young Muslim activists in Washington, D.C., decided to push back against what they saw as the growing demonization of Islam in politics and pop culture.
The result of their organizing was CAIR.
Nearly 30 years later, CAIR has grown into the largest and most recognized Muslim civil rights group in the U.S., with some 33 independently operated chapters nationwide. CAIR leaders show up on TV to defend Muslim civil liberties, and they speak out against anti-Muslim hate and authorities targeting Muslim communities.
"There is a certain brand recognizability," said Zareena Grewal, a historical anthropologist at Yale University who has written extensively on U.S. Muslim communities. She said many CAIR chapters do excellent grassroots work that's seen as vital. "Muslims do turn to them in crisis."
Still, Grewal said, there have been growing pains and an apparent lack of accountability. Externally, CAIR has had to fend off vicious and unfair Islamophobic political attacks. Internally, it has faced turmoil too, including thwarting employees' efforts to unionize in the national office in 2016.
"They've been very resistant to growing and letting a new generation of leaders come in who may have a much deeper commitment to things like reckoning with sexual harassment or gender bias, corruption and things like unions," Grewal said.
Parvez Ahmed, a former chairman of the CAIR national board, left over a decade ago and has since been critical of CAIR leadership over issues like inclusion and gender equity. He said the Shibly case offers CAIR an opportunity to show the people it serves that "they are doing everything within their power to take these allegations seriously."
"The leadership of CAIR owes the community an explanation as to who knew what and when and how those complaints were handled," Ahmed said.
Shibly agreed to a more than two-hour interview with NPR on the condition that it not be recorded. He denied that he ever hurt his wife, Sadrati, or cut her off financially.
He provided a photo of himself with a black eye, saying he was injured by Sadrati during a fight. (The incident was not reported to police, and NPR has no way to independently verify it.) Sadrati denies it.
"Her accusations are absolutely and blatantly false," he said. "She's using my position and the legal system to gain advantage in our ongoing legal divorce process."
He noted that the temporary restraining order Sadrati requested was not granted and instead a hearing was set. According to court documents, Sadrati has since withdrawn the request for a restraining order on the condition that a no-contact order be included in their divorce proceedings. Shibly also shared a letter from the Florida Department of Children and Families. It said the agency found no indication of "intimate partner violence" that threatens the children.
Shibly said the couple separated more than two years ago. He said they divorced in Islamic tradition about eight months ago. They filed for legal divorce after Sadrati's public allegation of domestic abuse.
As for the other allegations of misconduct against him — including workplace sexual harassment and bullying — Shibly said they are part of a campaign to "humiliate me and hurt me" and to smear CAIR and his work with the organization.
"I'm speechless," Shibly said. He contends that many of the allegations "are verifiably false," adding he has "faith that the way I was misrepresented online doesn't reflect who I am."
Shibly said that he did enter into religious marriage contracts with women outside his legal marriage when he and his wife were separated and prior to that — with her permission and when he felt their marriage was essentially over. He denies that any of the relationships were secret or abusive and described them as courtships.
Most religious scholars do not see a conventional Islamic marriage as legitimate unless it is publicly declared, and having more than one wife is generally frowned upon in jurisdictions where that's not allowed under local law.
Sadrati declined to be interviewed by NPR beyond denying Shibly's counteraccusations. She said her desperate online plea for help speaks for itself.
"The GoFundMe is there for a reason, an honest reason," she said. "I'm standing by my statement."
In response to NPR queries about the claims involving Shibly and others, CAIR's national office sent a written statement saying that leaders "take any allegations of misconduct against our staff or volunteers seriously." It also noted that chapters operate independently.
In an online statement after Sadrati's video went public, the Florida chapter that Shibly once led described his resignation as part of a succession plan for a leader who wanted to focus on family. There was no mention of Sadrati's haunting claims.
"This was my decision," Shibly told NPR about his departure. "I absolutely could have remained, I would say."
CAIR National hires outside investigator
NPR sent CAIR Florida a list of questions detailing each of the claims against Shibly and seeking a response. Spokesman Wilfredo Ruiz said the chapter condemns "all forms'' of domestic abuse but declined to discuss Shibly's case, saying he couldn't comment on personnel matters.
CAIR National told NPR in a written response to questions that it has hired an outside investigator "in response to anonymous claims" about two "local chapters circulating online in recent weeks."
"So far, the firm's investigator has not been able to substantiate any of the claims due to a lack of cooperation from the mostly anonymous individuals posting these claims online," board Chairwoman Roula Allouch wrote.
A Southern California-based religious scholar, Aslam Abdullah, said that women mistrust that CAIR will handle their claims seriously. He said numerous women have come to him with what he regards as credible allegations of harassment, sexual misconduct or unfair treatment against senior men within CAIR or CAIR affiliates. These women don't believe that CAIR National's investigation will be fair and have refused to cooperate, he said.
Shibly alleges the head of the organization has personal animosity against him. Meanwhile, some critics of CAIR don't trust FACE to be fair because the executive director is a former CAIR chapter leader.
Alia Salem, the head of FACE, said that there are no conflicts of interest in the Shibly case.
Other complaints emerge
Other complaints are emerging against CAIR National and several prominent chapters.
Two lawsuits against the San Diego office of CAIR California allege that women were given a modest dress code and men were not. CAIR California said the dress code applied to both men and women for professionalism and modesty.
The lawsuits against the San Diego office also allege gender and religious discrimination and a hostile and retaliatory work environment. One lawsuit was settled and dismissed. The second was filed in January by a woman who said she was treated differently as a woman and a Muslim from the minority Shiite sect. It is still pending. CAIR California said the claims "lack merit" and denies the allegations.
Several former employees at two other prominent chapters told NPR that CAIR leaders would police or comment on how women dress.
NPR interviewed 18 former employees at the national office and several prominent chapters who said there was a general lack of accountability when it came to perceived gender bias, religious bias or mismanagement. Many of those interviewed, both men and women, asked NPR not to use their names for fear of legal or professional retaliation.
The former employees described a range of complaints, from a gender pay gap and women being shut out of closed-door meetings at the national office to women feeling tokenized and the career development of men being prioritized over women.
CAIR's national office denied discrimination, a gender pay gap and closed-door meetings among male leaders.
Allouch, the board chairwoman, pointed to top jobs filled by women: five CAIR National department directors, prominent chapter leaders and her own leadership role.
"Our civil rights organization absolutely does not tolerate gender discrimination, religious bigotry, sexual harassment, or a retaliatory work environment," Allouch said in the organization's written response.
"Our office has never been sued for such conduct, never settled any claims related to such conduct, and never signed any confidentiality agreements about such conduct — or any other form of misconduct, for that matter," Allouch wrote.
A disillusioned activist
As Laila Abdelaziz watched the way CAIR Florida and CAIR National handled Shibly's exit, she said everything came rushing back. In 2014, she joined CAIR's Florida chapter. Shibly was her boss.
At first, she was thrilled to be working at a chapter with a national profile. But as she tells it, the luster began to fade following a business trip with Shibly to Moscow in 2015.
According to Abdelaziz, Shibly was given a phone for the trip that had its memory wiped clean for security reasons. When he returned the phone, she said, her colleague showed her images saved on the device while it was in Shibly's possession.
They were photos of flight attendants in short skirts, their backsides facing the camera. The colleague that showed her the pictures corroborated Abdelaziz's account but asked not to be named by NPR because he's at a new job where he's not allowed to speak to the media.
"It was just very explicitly uncomfortable to know that my supervisor was essentially taking secret pictures of women while I was on an international trip with him," said Abdelaziz, now 29.
Shibly said he never took the pictures. "That's disrespectful and humiliating, and I would never do that," he said.
Abdelaziz said her initial unease turned into distress when, weeks later, Shibly walked into her office, closed the door and sat opposite her. She said he leaned in close, put his arms on the desk and said, "I love you."
"I looked at him in shock and disdain, and there were several seconds of eye contact," Abdelaziz said, recounting the alleged incident.
Then, she said, he backtracked. " 'I love you, like, I love my sister,' " she recalled him saying.
"I consider that harassment," she said. "It's a very difficult position to be put in."
Shibly also denied this allegation: "It's absolutely false. It never happened."
Abdelaziz said that the first person she told was that same male colleague who had shown her the photos on the phone. He confirmed that she told him her story and recalled her being shaken and distraught.
Abdelaziz said she didn't know where to turn. When she and others flagged issues to the CAIR Florida board, she said, they were told: "Hassan's the executive director. He has all the relationships with donors."
In a written response, the Florida chapter spokesman, Ruiz, said the allegations about the photos and the harassment were never brought to the board.
"CAIR Florida has very clear and strict policies against workplace harassment of any kind and takes appropriate disciplinary action in cases brought to our attention," he said.
In 2016, Abdelaziz said she put in her two-week notice. She shared her exit memo with NPR.
"I am very sad that I am leaving CAIR Florida so disenchanted and so hurt by an organization I truly, sincerely gave my all to for two years," she wrote.
"Where is my voice"
When Kyla McRoberts saw Shibly's estranged wife go public with her allegations, she took to Facebook and posted her own:
"Hassan Shibly broke me.
"I want justice.
"Where is my voice"
In an interview, McRoberts said Shibly used his stature as a Muslim leader and her naiveté as a recent convert to Islam to "trick" her into a "secret marriage" behind his legal wife's back in 2016.
"He definitely uses his reputation," McRoberts said. "I was very naive and fell into it blindly. I was a new convert. He promised to teach me Islam and help me strengthen my faith."
She said Shibly found her on Snapchat. He told her he was getting divorced, and they entered into a religious marriage over the phone, with only a friend of his on the line as a witness.
It struck her as strange. But Shibly assured her it was all religiously sanctioned.
When he'd see her only on business trips or stopovers on his way back from those trips, she said, she realized his wife didn't know about her. She shared screen grabs of texts in which she told Shibly's now-estranged wife.
Then there was the alleged abuse. One night she woke up and reached up to touch her long hair, and her ponytail was gone. Shibly, she said, cut it off while she slept, angry she had posted a picture of herself online without her headscarf. When she refused sex, she said, he told her that, as his wife, she couldn't say no.
"He stole my self-worth," McRoberts said in an interview. "I just don't want him breaking another person so bad that they have no self-worth and contemplate suicide daily because of his lies and manipulation."
She said she needed money and he paid her to take down the Facebook post.
Shibly denied paying McRoberts to take down the post and said she is making up the allegations. He denied the alleged abuse, calling the accusations "utterly ridiculous and shamefully false."
"I did not give in to her attempts at extortion, and she has unfortunately communicated lies against me to the media as she hinted she would if she was not paid," Shibly wrote in a text.
"Intimidating" and "making indirect threats"
Also in 2016, another woman took to social media to accuse Shibly of manipulating her into a "love affair" and a religious marriage behind his legal wife's back. She tagged CAIR in some of those posts.
Ruiz, the spokesman for the Florida chapter, said the chapter's board was alerted to "concerning social media posts" by the national office in 2016 but found "this was a personal legal matter being addressed in court." He said the board received no formal complaint.
In Shibly's telling, he's the victim. He acknowledged he was religiously married to the woman but said it was not secret. He said that the woman made violent threats and that he got a temporary restraining order before settling out of court with a confidentiality agreement.
When NPR reached the woman who made the allegation, she said she was too afraid to speak because of the confidentiality agreement. A friend she confided in at the time, Lulu Al-Zahrani, said Shibly emotionally abused the woman and made up accusations to get the protective order after she posted publicly about the relationship.
"It's sad," Al-Zahrani said, "and it makes me angry that she's been put in this position."
In another incident in 2018, Shibly was reported to CAIR National by a Muslim couple for allegedly harassing them and their teenage son.
A CAIR National internal review obtained by NPR looked into the allegations that Shibly was "intimidating" the family and "making indirect threats." It noted that the son had been diagnosed with autism. The review said the alleged harassment started after the woman called the organizer of a religious conference to warn about an invited cleric who had been accused of having sex with a student. She also sent texts to other religious scholars.
The accused cleric was a teacher of Shibly's, according to the internal review. Shibly called the family's home, repeatedly called their cellphones and sent a series of aggressive texts. One threatened the family with civil and criminal charges, according to the review.
Shaken, the family turned to CAIR National. In the review, the organization called the allegations a "serious matter" that may point to ethical violations.
CAIR National's findings were shared with CAIR Florida. The chapter spokesman, Ruiz, told NPR that the chapter's board took "corrective action," but he did not provide further detail.
Shibly said he was unaware of the internal review. He also said he didn't know the couple's son was a minor. As a lawyer himself, he said he was acting on behalf of clients who felt "harassed and intimidated."
"The standard for them was just to not believe the women"
Jinan Shbat seethed as she watched the Shibly scandal unfold in recent months. For her, it brought back her time at the CAIR National office in Washington, D.C., where she worked for about three years through the start of 2020.
She said she dealt with indignities that a lot of women face in the American workplace: being overlooked in meetings, not being given opportunities for professional development, getting paid less than her male colleagues.
CAIR National told NPR that Shbat got a raise of approximately $11,000 after her first year on the job. But according to tax documents and an offer letter she shared, Shbat left making just over $1,600 more than when she started.
A year later, she said she watched CAIR leaders wish Shibly well on his Facebook page after he announced his departure.
"Hassan got to leave on his own terms, looking good in a specific way, and CAIR just let it happen," Shbat said in an interview. "The standard for them was just to not believe the women and to believe him first, you know. And it's just on-brand."
In the wake of the abuse allegations, Shbat started a campaign to try to force CAIR to hold Shibly accountable and take other claims seriously as well.
First, she posted on Twitter:
"@CAIRNational has a history of turning a blind eye to many incidents over the years, and the information is coming out. No NDA will save them from what's to come," she wrote, referring to nondisclosure agreements signed as part of employment with the CAIR National office.
Then, she turned to Instagram and launched an account, cairvictimsforum, where people are anonymously sharing their experiences. In an interview, she said that several women who say they are former chapter employees have contacted her. She said they don't want to speak out publicly for fear of violating nondisclosure agreements with CAIR.
"The amount of women who have been reaching out to us who are like, 'I used to work for CAIR. Thank you so much for finally doing this and speaking out,' " Shbat said in an interview. "So many women have basically told us that they experienced a lot of the same sexism and misogyny."
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