Hassan Shibly, once the prominent head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Florida chapter, resigned after allegations of domestic abuse were made against him. Since then, other women have come forward with accusations of their own. Shibly has denied the allegations.
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….