15 Mar Season 2. Episode 4: Imam Mohamed Magid and Magda Saleh: Protecting Children
Imam Magid and Sister Magda discuss what parents, teachers, and administrators must do to keep children safe in Muslim spaces, including by listening to children and giving them protective knowledge and agency.
Imam Mohamed Magid
Imam Mohamed is the Executive Imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center in Sterling, Virginia. He is the Chairman of International Interfaith Peace Corps (IIPC) and the former President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). He is also the Chairman of Muflehun, a think tank which focuses on confronting violent extremist thought through research-driven preventative programs within a religious paradigm. Imam Magid has a long history of commitment to public service through organizations, such as The Peaceful Families Project. Imam Magid has co-authored three books: Before You Tie the Knot: A Guide for Couples, Reflections on the Qur’an, and Change from Within. Read more about Imam Mohamed Magid by clicking here.
Sr. Magda has been an administrator in Islamic schools since 1992. She served as Vice Principal and then Principal at Universal Academy of Florida (UAF) from 1992 – 2003.While at UAF, she led the accreditation process which led UAF to becoming the first Islamic school in Florida to be fully accredited by FCIS & FKC. She then joined American Youth Academy (AYA) as its founding principal in 2004 and then served as AYA’s Head of School until 2015. Since 2010, she has served on the Planning Committee for ISNA’s Education Forum held each year in Chicago and has presented topics and conducted workshops at the Forum numerous times. In 2014, she became President of Radiant Hands, a non-profit, social services organization, whose mission it is to help empower women and families in the community.
Read more about Magda Saleh by clicking here.
Season 2. Episode 4: Imam Mohamed Magid and Magda Saleh: Protecting Children
The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
[00:00:00] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Hello. Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to Season Two of the Hurma Project Podcast, where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. I am Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Hurma Project, which I direct with my friend and partner Mihad Fahmy, a human rights lawyer and workplace investigator, and a lecturer at Huron University College, where I’m also chair of Islamic Studies.
Hurma is an Islamic legal term signifying the divinely granted inviolability of the human person from abuse, assault and exploitation. In this podcast, we speak with experts from a variety of fields about how to prevent and respond to violations against all those who are present in Muslim spaces.
Today, we’re speaking with Imam Muhammad Magid and Sister Magda Saleh about keeping children safe in our Muslim spaces. Imam Magid is the executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society – the ADAMS Center, in Sterling, Virginia. He is chairman of the International Interfaith Peace Corps, and former president of the Islamic Society of North America, ISNA. He serves on the advisory board of Peaceful Families Project and as co-president of Religions for Peace. He is also the co-founder of the Multi-Faith Neighborhood Network, which focuses on building bridges between Muslim, Evangelical Christian and Jewish communities.
Sister Magda has a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of South Florida. She has been a leader in Islamic schools in Tampa since 1992 and is currently the head of school of Bayan Academy. She has been an active participant for the last 20 years in ISNA’s education forum and is currently ISNA’s vice-president for the USA. In her many years as an educator, sister Magda has witnessed how economic, social, and domestic stress often lead to students’ poor performance. To help address and overcome these issues, in 2014 she led the opening of a local branch of Radiant Hands, an organization whose mission is to empower women and families.
Before we begin, we want to caution listeners that today’s conversation contains mature, sensitive topics related to sexual violence, child abuse, abuse of authority, spiritual abuse, and trauma. We encourage you to take care of yourself both while listening to this podcast and afterwards, as we recognize that the content is heavy. This is a powerful conversation about topics that are not often discussed publicly in Muslim and other faith communities. Inshallah by engaging in this conversation with mutual respect for those speaking and respect for the dignity of those who are living with these realities of abuse, we hope to make it a little easier for you to discuss these issues in your community.
Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Imam Magid, today we will be discussing how Islamic institutions can best protect children from exploitation and abuse. To begin with, can you say a few words about the hurma of children from the perspective of Islam?
[00:03:53] Imam Magid: First of all, thank you Dr. Mattson for inviting me and sister Magda and others to speak about this very important issue, you know, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says in the Qur’an that He entrusted us with children, He said children are gifts from God. And the one of the five objectives of Islamic law is protecting families and children. And therefore it is very important that this innocent creation of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has to be protected from any kind of abuse – the physical, emotional, psychological, sexual abuse. And therefore when we think about children, we thinking about the importance of preserving community, preserving the umma, preserving our own society. And therefore that is why the Prophet, peace be upon him, he was so kind and so gentle with children, that even when he communicated with them, he will sit down to have the eye contact. So they don’t get intimidated by him standing there and they’re sitting down. He was so gentle with them and have his grandchild would play on his back and he don’t want throw him but would gently place him on his head [shoulders]. The importance of taking care of the children is the importance of taking care of the community.
[00:05:11] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: All right. Now when we think about these innocent children, born with this beautiful divinely created spiritual capacity, you know, spiritually perfect really, at birth, but they’re coming into a world that of course, is not perfect, that is imperfect, that is full of all sorts of bad influences and harms and dangers and risks. So parents have this, I would say, this overriding attitude of wanting to protect their children, and they want to make sure that when they put their children in a certain place that they’re safe there. And we know that the religious instruction that’s given to us by our faith that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala sent us through the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the blessed Prophet sallalahu ‘alayhe wa sallam, is there to inform us about the afterlife and about unseen things, but also how to interact in this world so that we’re safe and we’re good, and we do good. It seems to me that sometimes the way Islamic terms are invoked or Islamic norms or conveyed to children, sometimes we can do this in a way that is harmful to their dignity and to their relationship with Islam. So what do you think parents and caregivers and teachers need to understand about the way that religious instruction relates to this divinely created spiritual capacity of children?
[00:06:56] Imam Magid: Unfortunately, Islamic schools or Qur’anic schools – let me be more specific – many times that you see the videos from overseas or certain things happen in America, where people believe in order for you to have those children even memorize Qur’an, you have to be very harsh with them and use the physical abuse. I have seen things that broke my heart – children being chained in the Islamic schools, you know, and it just contradicts every aspect of what you want to teach them. And it creates a lot of resentment. I have met huffadh al-Qur’an who have resentment for Islam – the way they were treated in Islamic schools.
There’s five things that I think, very quickly, that trouble me: Number one, that they – some people – believe that the teacher have absolute rights over the children – whatever he tells them, even if he has abused them verbally or physically – it’s okay, it’s your teacher. Number two, no adult should complain about the teacher because the teacher is being held in higher levels of social protections that no one should touch it. Okay? Number three, people conflicting (conflating) the idea of a hafidh al-Qur’an with the dignity and the honor of the Qur’an itself. Like hafidh al-Qur’an does not means that he been granted all kinds of respect, regardless of what he or she does. That is not acceptable. Number four, they believe that sometime this teacher is not a human being. If we put them and the children, in very compromised situation and put the children in a very compromised situation, and they think that everything will be okay with no supervision – the purity of every human being. We believe that every human is good by nature, but you have to understand, also people can abuse the people in a vulnerable situation. Number five: I think that the disconnect between moral principles and information is so obvious in so many places. Like when you pass information to the children, and want them to memorize the information, the person conveying the information himself is part of the teaching, by the perspective of Islam. For example, the Prophet Muhammad sallalahu ‘alayhe wa sallam, he embodied the Qur’an, he lived the Qur’an. And people think that children, they don’t see that. One of the big mistakes, (thinking) that children can not feel the abuse. Oh, they will they’ll grow up and later we’ll tell them. They would be there for them. No! I have seen those hafidh al-Qur’an cry in my office that say, “I was wronged. Those teachers have abused me.”
Therefore, it is very important that to establish standards for a person who is teaching the Qur’an and teaching Islam, to establish standards of the school environment, to establish standards for training for teachers and principals. It is very important to have basic guidelines on how children being treated. This reminds me, since I’m a Maliki, I have to throw in Maliki things. (It’s) very interesting that the mother of Imam Malik said to him, I’m sending you to a teacher, his name Rabi’a al-Ra’y. And she said, I want you to learn from his manners and etiquette before you learn from his books. That’s a wise mother. She chose a teacher who she knows his akhlaq, his moral conduct. And she said, I wanted to look for his moral conduct and akhlaq. That means she was not after information. She could have sent him to anyone to go memorize Qur’an with. No, no, she selected the teacher – the mother is the one who selected the teacher – and she made sure that the teacher has this moral and akhlaq, and guidelines and personality, and the demeanor that her son can look up to. The other thing is that they used to teach people – kids – in the group. When you have a person completely in isolation and completely a child and the teacher by themselves, that’s an issue too. But that’s just one of the things I want to turn back to.
[00:11:31] Mihad Fahmy: Imam Magid, I’m wondering about the fifth point that you just mentioned around, us assuming that children won’t notice, or that they won’t be aware of what’s happening to them. What does that say about how we view children? Even some of our own children, I mean.
[00:11:52] Imam Magid: You know, when I train imams on the issue of domestic violence, for example, I tell them the impact on children is unbelievable when they see the violence at home. Because they think that the only person that’s a survivor, only is the mother. We don’t realize the children have observed this. I think misunderstanding the capability and ability of children absorbing things and their emotional state, it led to so much abuse in our community, I’m going to be honest with you, that sometimes that, people expect the child to get over it because you know, he’s going to forget, he’s going to get over it, and so forth. I told you that, you know, one time I dealt with a case where the child was molested by the family member and the family want to do hush-hush-hush. And they said, it happened to you when you were seven years old, you are 20 years old, why bring this dirt in the family? You should have forgotten about it. That is the assumption that if you are a child, we want you to forget the abuse when you grow up. Just forget about it. You’re going to grow out of the abuse. No, this is not acceptable. You’re destroying really the innocence of the child. You took advantage of his purity and innocence and you created so much of a dent on it, and expect then, they just to forget about it. That’s what bothered me so much, that even as that person becomes 19 years old, 17 years old now, 20 years old, he’d been blamed that he still remembered what happened in the childhood. They become a victim twice. I don’t believe he brought this up! You didn’t tell us when you’re seven… you know? Because of the way you’re talking to him now! Why he would tell you when he was seven, because of this attitude that you had with him, or her? Now, they’re 17 saying I’m having difficulty even thinking, I have nightmares. Or the person about to get married says, I have the speak about this issue. They say, oh, I don’t believe this! And they come to me, like, complaining and say, Imam, I want to tell you something: my daughter or my child said this and that, please tell them that, you know, forgive, forget. I said, you’re not upset? It’s not bothering you that your child was violated? What’s wrong with you? It should make you upset, rather than blame your child. Therefore, that’s why I get so worked up, you know, when I see people not seeing this and blaming the child of having this dark memory from what happened to them just to be forgotten.
One time, somebody said to me that, you know, people, sometimes they don’t think that a child five, six years old can understand curse and foul language and so forth being used in their home. And he says, I was shocked, we were in the gathering – a social gathering – and my child said the word, and I know I’ve been using it. I said, really, you expect the child have no feeling as only ears? What are you talking about? This completely- like, they try to act like clueless, you know.
[00:16:38] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Just one follow-up about this Imam Magid. One thing I’ve noticed, you know, and I grew up in a Roman Catholic community and we had a lot of predatory clergy in our community. And, you know, the instances were always covered up. The children were never believed. And what was interesting is that over the years, talking to people, what you discover is that very often the adults say the parents who don’t want to listen – they don’t want to listen to it, they don’t want to believe it – you realize that in some cases, it’s because they themselves have experienced this and they’ve buried it. They’ve buried it so deep, and this is why they become, in particular, angry when they hear about it, because it’s raising this memory that they don’t want to remember. And so you just have this ongoing system of trauma and they deal with it by either burying it, forgetting about it, or they have this weird way of joking about it, where, oh, we all went through this. It’s not a big deal. So it just continues to go on generation after generation. Have you ever observed something like that?
[00:17:00] Imam Magid: Yeah. Like some people who experienced physical abuse, for example, in school. Their parents maybe grew up in Sudan, grew up in Pakistan, grew up in some parts of the Muslim world and he or she was physically abused in the school. And therefore, if the child comes and is being bullied, they become emotionally not connecting. Like, I went through that I survived it. I want you to be stronger to get over it. And so they don’t give the child the help they need. And the other thing is that it maybe in also in the background of a person, maybe he grew up in very trusted environment. Also that could be. And then he assumed that the child would have the same experience. You don’t… maybe you were lucky, even if your parents left you with the teacher who didn’t do anything to you, and now you’re going to make an assumption that what’s going to happen to every child? That’s also a wrong assumption. You know, if what we sometimes we’d like to inform the- when the parents come to me and say, I left a child with this Qur’anic teacher, but he touched my daughter in the way that I don’t believe he did this. I had a Qur’anic teacher, but he never did anything to me. So I said, but we cannot project our experience in life on everyone else, because we have to do what is necessary to be done. And to make sure that that this not have happened. If my parents make a mistake and put me in a vulnerable situation, I’m not going to make a mistake and put my daughter in a vulnerable situation because I need to know better than that. The other things also sometimes awareness. I’m so glad you’re doing this work, is all about awareness. But many parents innocently – they don’t want to harm their children – but they believe that the Qur’anic teacher will not do any harm. And themselves, they live in different reality and realize that could happen. Before, I think more of awareness in Muslim community and people understanding that, what things you need to protect their children from then make people become understanding, is that there’s a real possibility of threat and vulnerability and wrongdoing that happened to their children.
[00:19:16] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Assalamu alaykum Hurma Project Podcast listeners. This is a Dr. Ingrid Mattson interrupting here to acknowledge that the content of this conversation can be difficult to process. You might want to take a break at this point and listen to the second half later on. We also want to point out that this episode does not include a checklist or comprehensive guide to child safeguarding. There are many more steps that must be taken such as conducting criminal background checks, scrutinizing employment histories for red flags, ensuring compliance with government regulations, instituting policies for technology use and communications by staff and volunteers who have contact with children, and many other things. We do have some resources on our website and more we’ll be forthcoming inshaAllah, but we encourage you to consult with a local professional organization that specializes in child safeguarding to evaluate your current policies. Now, back to our conversation with Imam Magid and Sister Magda.
[00:20:37] Mihad Fahmy: I want to turn to you now, Sister Magda, from your long experience as an educator and a leader in the education field, what do you think we’re getting wrong as parents and as teachers, in fulfilling our role as educators for our own children, when it comes to religious education. You know, many of us – most of us – are, as teachers and parents, well-meaning, and we’re trying to do the best that we can. What are things that are being overlooked or perhaps misunderstood?
[00:21:12] Magda Saleh: So I’m going to tie in a little bit with Imam Magid. I think no matter where we are teaching or leading, we’re seeing the same things repeated. And one of the things I’ve always told my parents for the last 30 years is never assume your children are safe just because they’re with Muslims or in an Islamic institution. Because I see it repeatedly, they’ll drop off their kids and they’ll drive off. But it’s the masjid! I’m like okay, but they’re human beings. Never assume your child is safe. The other thing, I always try and impress upon them and all of our teachers and our community leaders is always know that anyone can be a perpetrator. So the child will come and say something about, [and they’ll say] oh, no, but it can’t be that person, but he’s the Imam or, but she’s the Islamic studies (teacher) or, but she’s…you know this. And so the first time I did the training with our teachers at Bayan Academy, they got a little bit upset with me. I said, I don’t care who you are, if a child comes and accuses me that you’ve done something wrong, I’m going to believe the child. Because we are all human and we can all make mistakes. And the other thing I do, and it’s been a challenge really more with parents is that we train the students to speak. And if somebody doesn’t listen, find the next person, and if the next person doesn’t listen, keep telling people until somebody validates what you’re saying. Because I had an instance where I did not touch a child, but I yelled. It was something, it was a many, many years ago and they had done something really bad at school, but I must have scared them half to death, the way I yelled at them. And somebody thought I’d hit one of the kids and nobody didn’t – and I didn’t hear about it, but maybe a week later, one of the students came to my office and said, why did you hit this girl? I like, I never touched her. And then I went to the girl and she said, no, no, no, you didn’t touch me. But you were so angry. I was so scared. I said, well, why didn’t you tell your parents? And she said, but I told my parents and they said, never say anything like that about your principal. And that’s when I started- this was back in 97. And that’s when I started telling all the kids all the time. If your parents don’t listen, tell somebody else. And if they don’t listen, keep talking until somebody hears what you’re saying. Because that culture of covering up what’s happening in our community is really scary. Imam Magid came to our community, oh my gosh, years ago, we did our first domestic violence training for the Imams. I think we had five people show up, and I got emails telling me how dare you bring up this topic in our community. We had just had a murder-suicide, that’s why I scheduled it. So that awareness that nobody is… never assume somebody is safe because you know the person you’ve left them with. The other concept is where brother Imam Majid was saying how people, you know, think kids shouldn’t react or shouldn’t be affected. What I found is, adults think kids aren’t human beings. I think they think they’re like this different species, you know, we don’t lie, but we can lie to kids. We don’t gossip, but we can gossip about kids. It’s like they’re not real human beings that are included in all of those teachings that we’re given in Islam. They’re kind of on the side and when they become adults, then we’ll treat them like adults. So when we opened Bayan Academy – this is my third school – and we tried to do it in a way that we wished all the other schools were done and we call it the kinder and gentler Islamic school with a hifdh program. And I have to tell you what you, Imam Magid, our ninth student, I think, is finishing their hifdh this week. This is our seventh year and by the end of the summer we’re expecting all of our 11th graders have completed the hifdh. None of it is with punishment. None of it is with insults. None of it is with screaming or yelling. What we, what I was telling Dr. Ingrid Mattson before we started is when we designed our mission: it was very intentional. Every word we put in there was very intentional and it was the first one is to cultivate a culture of God consciousness so that you’re always thinking if nobody else is there, Allah’s always here and trying to get the kids to always believe that. And then next statement is where everyone is respected and valued, because if you’re respected and valued, that abuse won’t happen. We do a lot of social-emotional learning training for our teachers. One of our parent’s like what is SEL, I’m like, we’re trying to teach people to be nice. And he’s like, oh yeah, our community really needs that.He was- but it’s in the very last part of our mission is accountability. And we did that because in every organization I’ve been with and in our communities, it seems like the higher people are in authority, the less accountable they are. And I always start the school year by telling our kids, if I make a mistake, you guys have to call me on it. And the first year my parents got really upset. They’re like, how are you teaching our kids to correct you? And I said, because we teach them that I want for my brother, what I want for myself. And if they want Jenna for themselves, they want to need it for me. And if they want it for me, I can’t be making all these mistakes. So we bring it, we really try and bring it together from an Islamic point of view. It’s not easy. And when Imam Magid with saying, how you pick or Dr. Mattson, how you pick who’s going to be there in our interview process, we have something called ruhfactor at the very end. So it doesn’t matter how qualified you are, how much experience you have, if your ruh is going to disrupt my organization, we don’t hire you and people get offended. I mean, I had a lady ask for three interviews, and I’m like, it’s not about your qualifications. When you come into my campus, something happens. We just kind of feel, it’s not, it’s not right. You’re not going to be able to give that ruh to the kids because you don’t have it. And so it’s really hard to maintain, but I think if your, your mission is very clear and you focus on it, we can make change in our – we have made change – in our community, but it’s hard. It’s hard to fight culture.
[00:27:36] Mihad Fahmy: There’s a lot there I want to pick up on. But I’m going to start with the pushback that it sounds like you’ve got from parents and from staff. Can you just give us some examples of like, what is the objection and what is the fear? What were they afraid of? And then how did you respond?
[00:27:58] Magda Saleh: So I’ll tell you from a previous school, I had a teacher who was very abusive emotionally to the students, the way he dealt with them, the way he insulted them in class. And the students eventually came and talked, and I met with him. I said, you know what, brother, you have to apologize to these kids. And he said, if I apologize, I lose dignity. I said, brother, you lost it already. They don’t respect you already. They know that you’re not doing what we teach them is right. If you don’t apologize, you have no hope. And eventually he- we asked him to leave the school because he couldn’t bring himself to do what we’re asking the kids to do. And so really that’s the key is, are the adults willing to do what they’re teaching?
We had a teacher a few weeks ago, a student came and she was just distraught. This teacher has never done anything wrong. Perfect, perfect woman, almost. And then she called this girl a not very nice name. It took us a week to get her to sit down and apologize to the girl because they feel like as an adult, if I showed that I have a weakness, then they won’t respect me. My mother-in-law used to tell me, never apologize to your kids. Never tell your kids that you have a fault. I’m like, but then this poor child is growing up thinking that he has to be perfect. I’m not perfect. So I used to tell him, when I was five, I did this, I got in big trouble and I learned if you do it, you’re going to get in big trouble, but you will eventually grow out of it. And so it’s that- and its culture. The culture from overseas tells us that adults are untouchable. Adults are these perfect human beings. Even though every adult, I would talk to parents and they would yell at their child in front of me, how dare you embarrass us in front of, you know, sister Magda? And then the child would leave. And the parent would say, you know, I was just like him. I’m like then why are you yelling at your child? Genetics doesn’t play favorites. I’m a biologist by training. Your genes are in your child. So if you were like this, you need to accept that your child is going to be like this, unless we intervene in a way that’s going to change that behavior or that characteristic.
[00:30:11] Mihad Fahmy: Can you just tell us a little bit more about what it is that you’re looking for or trying to sense when a candidate comes to you and you said they just don’t have the ruh for the school, like, what is it that is that?
[00:30:25] Magda Saleh: So it’s a peace. So we’ve had- I had a new board member going to school and when she walked in to the school, she said, I felt like a hundred angels descended upon me. There’s a peace and it comes from really accepting what Islam teaches. And it’s not only Muslim teachers. I have non Muslim teachers who have the ruh factor. They really believe in what we believe, in this… so the first one is our vision where everybody has to be a leader. So if I interviewed somebody and like, yeah, I don’t know what I can do for the school, and I don’t think… I’m like, you know what? If you are weak, you can’t raise strong children. You need to come in and tell me how you’re going to help make my school a better school, or you can’t work here. And then it’s gotta be, they can’t have an ego. Anybody who has an ego does not survive. Because ego is that nafs that Imam Magid is talking about, and that nafs can kill us. And I tell teachers, you have to know before you walk into your classroom, that every student in that classroom may know more than you do. They may be smarter than you are. They may have solutions that you’ve never thought of. And so people who can’t accept those things, people who raise their voice, we’re not allowed to yell at kids, they’re not accepted in our school. And it’s just, we got old enough where we could turn people away. When we were younger, we thought we had to accept all the norms. And then we decided if you like us, you can come, and if you don’t, this isn’t the place for you. But, but it really shows in the kids.
So I’ve sent Dr. Mattson, a few emails and workshops that we’ve done this year about being gentle with children. And it came out of a conversation I had with the students. I’m teaching fourth grade English, and we were talking about… it was a hundredth day of school and we were talking about a hundred quotes that have impacted you. They can be from hadith, they can be from a movie star and they can be for a newscaster, they can be from your parents. What is the thing that stands out the most in your mind? And they all started talking about, they’re giving me quotes about their parents, threatening them with something: I’m going to throw in my slipper at you, or I’m going to do this, or I’m going to beat.. And I didn’t- I couldn’t respond for about 10 minutes. I was totally incapacitated. And then I’m like calming the kids down. And then I emailed the parents, I said, you guys need to know that whatever you’re doing is not acceptable. And I sent them ahadith, and this is from the Sunnah. And then we did a whole workshop on it, about the sakeena that is supposed to be in our homes. And these kids, what they have, they feel safer at school sometimes than they feel in their own homes. And so for us as adults, a lot of people are afraid to tell parents what you’re doing is wrong. But anything, if it comes from Qur’an and Sunnah, they can’t really argue with it. You know, we’re not- I have email as “a gentle reminder from Qur’an and Sunnah.” It’s not, you guys are terrible parents and we always talk about we’re in this together, and it’s a joint project. We’re not trying to blame you for something. It’s a tough world we live in and we just have to do it together. But not allowing things to just happen and turn the other way. I think that’s the biggest key and teachers who will turn the other way- I’ve actually fired people for that reason. I had two ladies in daycare and one of them was hitting the kids and the other one wasn’t saying anything. And when we found out I fired both of them, and the second one said, I never touched the kids. And I said, these kids are two years old. You sat and watched them being hit. And you never said anything. You’re just as guilty. And so it’s really that accountability with adults. And not being afraid to show people the right way. That’s really been key with us and alhumdulilah, even people I’ve fired I have really good relationships with them because they know it was a good reason. They really, they knew they shouldn’t be there in that position.
[00:34:19] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: It’s very clear by what we’ve heard so far in what we’ve discussed so far, with both of you sister Magda and Imam Magid that we can’t create a safe environment for children by only focusing on the children, right? It’s not just about the children. And Imam Magid you see Muslims from, from the times they’re babies, they’re youth mashaAllah, you’re there at their marriages, when they first start having families on their own. Can you tell us Imam Magid, what you’ve learned about the relationship of children to the community and what- maybe a bit more of a holistic view? You as an Imam of a masjid, what do you think our priorities need to be to keep children safe, to have them grow into their full potential in all ways, including spiritually?
[00:35:23] Imam Magid: Thank you Dr. Mattson. I think what we need to do integrated approach, we have the integrated approach. The integrated approach here that, we have to do parenting classes to prepare the parents. Sometimes you need to prepare them before they become parents. That’s why, when I do premarital counseling, I do talk about the importance of preparing yourself to become parents. There’s something important about parenting in America or in the West in general, you have different levels of people, of educations and awareness of the environment they live in. In order for us to have our children be protected, we have to have members of our community become familiar with public school. What’s going on in public school, how to advocate for their children, to understand the concept of bullying, to teach them bad touch, good touch, who to report to, if your child had been wronged. You know, those kinds of things. It is important for every Islamic school and every mosque to involve- and every community – to involve parents in this kind of awareness, parent is skills sets, training, and development. Then there’s also language issues. And we have to be able to create kind of access and resource for parents who just come from Afghanistan. You know our community is hosting one thousand families – they arrive from Afghanistan – in our neighborhood. We have to have someone that – my wife was helping and others people helping that – to introduce them to public school, especially everyone who taught in public school can help those parents because the children going to get to be in those schools. But you need interpreter. We need translators to tell the parents whom to go to. And then the county should provide that line of communication with the parents because the children more vulnerable than other children, because the parents could not advocate for them. They might advocate for them in Afghanistan, but then they’ll be able to advocate here because they have fear that maybe misunderstood and those kinds of things.
That aspect of this is, absolutely I agree with sister Magda, that you do not compromise on whom you choose to teach the children in school. Do not hire your uncle, your auntie, your brothers, and your sister, because they need a job or because you have to be nice to them, or because of… No, you have to hire someone who’s qualified and you cannot feel embarrassed by training the teachers and what it looked like in terms of verbal, physical, sexual abuse. You have to tell them that if you’re gonna be in a classroom with a child, you have to keep the door. And perhaps sometimes if you, when you hug a child, when you don’t hug a child. Be blunt with them! Some people get offended. If you get offended, you are not belonging here- don’t belong to the teaching in the school. We’re going to teach you as the way it is. We’ll tell you the things you can do and you cannot do. That aspect of this is the teaching that been done in the minbar or the Friday sermon, Friday sermon sets the tone. I remember when, as we got mental health, people come to me who been suffering with depression for a long time, said I’ve been suffering with this, but I feel ashamed to talk about it. And you just mentioned, in you khutba that you have 10 mental health counselors in your community you subsidize them. Can I get help, but let me ask you this how confidential this services is! Is anyone going to know my business? That’s a very important aspect of this. The reporting mechanism about abuse in our community has to be being told to everybody will be confidential, but the consequences, not be confidential.
What I mean, you know the teacher was fired. Everyone knows like if the teacher going to tell people what being fired, but there areconsequences, it’s very important I think is to stop this coverup. He’s a big sheikh, has a nice voice. Oh my God. You’re going to talk about sheikh so-and-so! Unbelievable? You know what that means? People of islamophobia, gonna attack us, you know, the people are going to look down to Muslims, exposing the sheikh like that. You know, some people might leave Islam… You’re really blaming the victim of behavior of somebody have molested the children. You’re blaming the children of someone leaving Islam? Blame him! What are you talking about? Is very important that the community, the excuses sometime they give to me, it’s unbelievable.
You know what happened in this country. These teachers from here to Canada, to everywhere, where they have molested children and so forth, and people want to cover up for them. You know, but with the excuse that, you know, how Islam going to look like? Really? Islam will look better if we stand for children. Islam would be understood as a religion that not tolerate, does not tolerate children abuse.
Therefore, it’s very important I think, that to have this holistic approach- and by the way, in our mosque, we have used -non-Muslims services. We hired them. We get a grant even from them to teach our community and our teachers about bad touch, good touch, about what it means to have a sexual abuse, what are the boundaries… to the teacher, to the staff, the board, everybody. Because it is something that is basic and principles – basic principles – that everyone had to adhere to.
The last thing I would like to say in this is that to have the information accessible in all levels, because sometimes you speak to the second generation who might be fluent in English and so forth. They understand it, but there’s parents who just arrived in the country, not just to depend on the county, but also people in the masjid, to have that access, make sure that the language is being translated, or the pamphlet and so forth, you know, being translated into the language that people can understand.
And one of the things that we realize is that we need to create like a support group. Yes, parents are suffering. Some parents withdraw from the community because how the children was treated. A woman that her child was touched in a way that not acceptable by one of the teachers. She heard that that teacher is given a lecture in one of the mosques. She was so upset that still this person will be honored. And when she approached the mosque, the mosque said bring your evidence. It’s already been investigated and been proven that this person have done that. What do you mean to have to give evidence to every mosque? One modwur make a decision this person cannot teach there. Why do we have to see the evidence? Just accept the mosque investigated, the other mosque investigated, That’s the kind of things that people get away with it. Because he says, if this mosque did this to me, I’m going to go to another mosque and being hired. As you know, that’s happened. This is not- that’s not the right thing. The community have to have a collective stance on this issue. To say- we are not going to say, oh, this people reacted to, we are going to- and why? Let them do something else. If the person crosses the line, molested a child, I don’t believe she should become a teacher again, ever in the life with children. No, no, no way come close to children. I believe in forgiveness and repentance between them and God, but I’m not going to put another child in front of this person. Ever. And that should be the standard.
[00:44:09] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: I know Imam Magid that at ADAMS Center, and you mentioned this, that everyone who has a position of authority at the masjid, including board members, were trained in the child safeguarding program that you have. I think that’s really interesting because I think very often the training is restricted to teachers, but then the problem happens when the board, who has hiring and firing authority, then resists some of the consequences of this training. And we find that in many cases, whether it has to do with abuse of children or violating boundaries, even with adults, that very often the board members seem to be the ones who are least amenable to really taking responsibility for those consequences. And I think it just has so much to do with leaving them out of the training. Can I ask you about…you mentioned that you teach – that both the students, but also parents need to know about things like bad touch, good touch. What about- I mean, what’s the role of some kind of, you know, sex education or health education for students in a Muslim environment? There are many experts who say that this is protective of children. So the protection doesn’t come just externally, but the children themselves, as sister Magda says, you know, encouraging the kids to speak up, to keep telling people if something wrong happens, that’s part of it. But what about just awareness of sexuality and their bodies? Many parents feel uncomfortable with that in an educational environment. What do you think the role of that is in a, say a full-time Islamic school?
[00:46:05] Imam Magid: It’s very important to teach children about this issue. I remember that we, our Islamic schools here in the area have created a curriculum and I reviewed the curriculum myself and contributed to it and they use it in addressing family education, and sexuality. Some parents in the beginning said, why are you going to teach them that? This is wrong? And then they told them Imam Magid said it’s okay. And they come to me, they call me, they said, okay, we know that you said, yes, you have approval to this. I said, by the way, first of all, I don’t like to accuse you, but the person told you is a female, and she has a lot of knowledge than me in education, by the way, and I think she would have accepted her explanation to you. But since you have asked me, I would tell you that if your children does not learn from us, they’re going to learn somewhere else. If you don’t give them the information they’re going to seek it themselves. It’s better to give it to them in the healthy way and a holistic way, rather than learning, you know, after God forbid, something happened to them. Therefore it’s very important is prevention, but also creating a healthy child, that you don’t have to sneak- like a child doesn’t have to go and open a book and find something about sexuality and reading and hiding from their parents and so forth because of what they do. The person’s so ashamed not to talk about this issue they see information, they hide it from their parents because their parents should not know about this. Really? I tell them my community, if your child is 8 years old, he probably, he knows things you don’t realize they know. It’s in your face. You are sitting with a child, walking in the street, a walk and you have a truck pass by having an advertisement that says a lot. And he telling me, no, no, I’m not going to interpret to him this, let him just process by himself. Why, why is that? They need to teach the children before they reach puberty over this issues, it’s in Islamic tradition. I think this is important to do that.
The other things that I have young people before they get married, they wanted to know about intimacy, because their parents told them, don’t ask anybody. And they said, should we ask you, and you know about this? I used to do to teach to the male and somebody else teach the young ladies, because I don’t want to myself to teach a female about intimacy. We do that. But they will say, our parents avoided the topic, completely. They don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about this stuff. You know, there’s no man in history, his life becomes so public more than the Prophet Muhammad sallalahu ‘alayhe wa sallam. No privacy of his life! Everyone knows about what he did. For a reason! For a reason. I agree with you a hundred percent that we have to have empowered all level of children. By the way, you know, people said to me, okay, what are the boundaries? You know, a child who’s five years old, you don’t teach them the same thing as a child who’s 10 years old. We understand that. Or 18 years old or 17 years old. But there’s a gradual kind of build knowledge on children as they grow up, until you get to that point. But you don’t wait until they become 18 or 17.
[00:49:42] Mihad Fahmy: Sister Magda, what’s been your experience, at Bayan Academy and the other schools that you’ve led. When do you introduce these kinds of topics? When are they, when do they start appearing in the curriculum?
[00:49:55] Magda Saleh: We used to start in sixth grade, and a lot of parents used to get upset because they said it was too young and they, these kids are too young, and we told them, you know what, like Imam Magid said they probably know more than you do already. And as of this year after spring break, we’re going to be starting with fourth and fifth. Just at a more basic level because I have for the first time, in my 30 years of fourth grader who hit puberty. And she stayed home for three days and she didn’t know what was going on. You know, she was too embarrassed to come to school and she finally came and she just blurted it out to me. I’m like, alhumdulilah. And one of the teachers hugged her and said, you know what? This is just a beautiful process. You’re going to go through and we’re going to go through it together. And she was okay. But it was – even for her mom, she wasn’t expecting that age for it to happen. So it does start. It’s going to start earlier and earlier. I had a situation with one of my grandkids who’s five, she plays soccer, and she saw a lady on the sidelines who was a friend of her grandmother, but she couldn’t see her friend. And she asked her mom where’s my friend, and her friend had become a boy over the summer that he was four years old. And the parents actually went through the full operation and transgendered him from female to male. And it’s really hard to explain those things. But it’s happening younger and younger, and we have to be able to give them answers.
And that’s where I think that that part about children are human beings and we can’t lie to them. We don’t have to be so explicit about everything, but we can’t say something that’s not true. We can’t just make up stuff because one day they’re going to figure it out and they actually just get very angry at us that we didn’t tell them the truth. I know I’ve I teach, I’ve taught biology a few times and in biology, I don’t shy away from any of the topics. I do separate the boys and the girls when we talk about human reproduction. And I sometimes I wonder, do you know, are parents okay with this? And I asked the parents and usually they say, you know what, we’re glad you’re talking about it. Cause we don’t know how to talk about it. It’s so much easier when you have a curriculum to follow. And when you’re just trying to figure out. In our high school for sure, we talk a lot to them because they’re in the same classroom since they were in elementary school and they become very close. And now we’re talking about you may feel like your brothers and sisters right now, but you guys got to keep your distance because these emotions are gonna come up and these things are gonna happen. And you have to change how you behave, even if your feelings haven’t changed. So there are a lot of those conversations so that when they leave high school, they’re not totally lost when they get to college or when they enter the workforce. And it’s a huge responsibility we have. We do send the presentations home cause the puberty ones are kind of graphic for the- we do show them all the pictures and parents consent through it. We had one parent few years ago who did not consent. And then when her son got to biology, he was a mess. He was turning red all over the place. But then he got used to- he was okay. We managed, you know, we’ve started with plant reproduction and then once he could get through that one and using the terminology, he was okay when we got the human reproduction.
[00:53:03] Mihad Fahmy: But having all of these conversations that you’ve been talking about from the girl who in fourth grade, who came to you and told you that she had gotten her period for the first time, to the conversations in biology lesson, and the more difficult ones, all of those are about, creating that safety.
[00:53:24] Magda Saleh: Yes.
[00:53:24] Mihad Fahmy: Which is something that we’ve been talking about throughout our discussion this afternoon. And I’m wondering about what beyond the things that are not so tangible that are creating that sense of safety. What are the more accountability pieces that are necessary in a school? So codes of conduct, policies, procedures, what kind of things are you seeing being introduced in Islamic schools and perhaps yours as an example, that are introducing accountability and creating safety for students and I would also think for your staff?
[00:54:05] Magda Saleh: So all of our staff go through training every year, even if they’ve been with us since the beginning. And we start with, they have to feel safe so that they can say anything. They can come up with things. We do a lot of anonymous surveys where they can be very honest with us and sometimes it hurts, but then we come back and tell them, by the way somebody said this about me, and I really apologize. I have no idea who to apologize to in person because it’s anonymous, but we make them feel that you are safe in this environment. You have to be safe. We do standards of ethical conduct training every year with the teachers, with all staff members. It’s not just the teachers and they have to sign off at the end that they’ve gone through it.
And it’s pretty intense. And it goes through all the steps, how to behave, how not to behave. Like Imam Magid was saying, you can’t be in a room with a closed door and one student. We have a policy that you can’t be the only adult on campus with students. There must always be at least two adults on campus. So we go through that training with the teachers. It’s a pretty intense training and who to contact if you think there’s alleged abuse and then how we deal with it when it gets to that point. I’ve called – not from this school, but another school I was with – I’ve called child protective services, two or three times. And I always meet with the parents after I call them. And I tell them, this is what we saw. You’re going to get a visit today. You need to be prepared. And if there’s something we can help you with, it’s this. I’ve actually taken kids away from a family. I had a father who had a small record in the past, and if we had called the police, he would have been in jail. And we basically called in his brothers and his dad. And we told them, you guys have to take these five kids from him. Cause he doesn’t know how to work with them. And that was one of those situations where he’s – one of the brothers was like, but my dad beat us and look how well we turned out and I’m like, yeah, it’s pretty obvious it didn’t work, but we want to, we want to break the cycle. So we, we do get very involved about those like touchy discussions. A mom, alhumdulilah, came to me and said, her daughter had been talking, it was a girl from middle school kids. And they’re talking about, how do you identify gender-wise? And the discussion was, it was very interesting, and a lot- very disturbing to a lot of people. It might’ve been, but kids hear things and then they talk about it. And so I met with each mom individually and I told her, this is what happened and I need you to not go home and yell at your daughter. And then I brought the daughters in and I had them meet with the moms in my office. And we just told them this is something that they’re exposed to every day of their lives and they’re going to talk about it. And they’re going to wonder, where we fit. So we discuss it and we, hopefully we move on, but we have to provide that safe space for them to talk inshaAllah.
[00:56:51] Dr. Ingrid Mattson: Imam Magid, I know… Iman Magid, in our conversation today, we’ve talked about being quite frank and sometimes a little bit tough on parents and on teachers and others. And I know that you like the rest of us, we’ve all been on a learning curve. We’ve all made mistakes in the past and we’ve come to know more. We’ve taken classes, we’ve learned from our mistakes, we’ve been corrected by others. Can you just say something, you know, to those who are listening today, who are thinking, oh my gosh, like we haven’t been doing things right. Whether they’re parents or teachers or schools, can you just give some words of encouragement?
[00:57:39] Imam Magid: Yeah. It’s never too late. First of all, I think that all of us, we make mistakes. But one of the beauty of these discussions is to create understanding among ourselves. What do we need to become aware of? You know, we are not in this by ourself, all of us we”re here. There’s resources you can check, and Hurma Project is really creating this great awareness in our community. And I think, all of us, we have best intent. And I think when we have been told that there’s certain things we can do better, I think we should celebrate the fact that alhamdulillah, that we have resources and means to to improve our take into this. But the other things I don’t want to have anyone to point fingers as they hear this and they go, you are this, you are that, this school… be gentle with your leadership and so forth, and tell them we heard about this program or heard of- I think we should do this and so forth and also volunteer. You volunteer to say, I can help with this. If you want me to help with that, I can collect resources. I can do that. That is how we make change. But I’m very encouraged by this process and having people coming together and sharing resources. I think more people now really want to do the right thing, but sometimes they don’t know where to go. And I think that we, inshallah, all of us will have the same objectives. Let’s do it.
[00:59:14] Mihad Fahmy: We often say that our children are a trust. They are also gifts from God. And as they enter this imperfect world, it is our individual and collective responsibility to protect them. As parents, we sometimes fall into the trap of believing that the best way of protecting our children is to surround them with other Muslims. We place them on waiting lists for Islamic schools. Sometimes before they’re even born. We put them in Qur’an classes once they begin to speak. We find tutors to teach them Arabic. And while all of these things can be beautiful ways to instill the love of Islam in them, we cannot assume that they will be safe in these Muslim spaces. They may have been safe spaces for us, but projecting our own experiences onto our children’s is extremely dangerous. It’s crucial that we take our own protective measures, including choosing teachers based on strong moral character, rather than simply based on the memorization of the Qur’an and Islamic knowledge.
Teaching our children the difference between good touch and bad touch, as well as age appropriate sex education, are two best practices we heard about in this episode. Equipped with this knowledge, children can then be taught to disclose abuses if they happen, first to their parents and then to whoever will listen until they are believed. Coupled with such training must be accessible education for parents in multiple languages and learning formats. When it comes to hiring our teachers at Islamic schools, we simply cannot continue to compromise. Of course they must be qualified, but they also need to undergo ongoing training on the standards put in place to protect the safety of the students. Taking care of our children is part of taking care of our own community. As with many of the topics we discuss here on the Hurma Project Podcast, it starts with awareness and we hope that this conversation will open the door for further discussion in your own community.
We want to take a moment and recognize that the issues and information we discussed in this episode are difficult, weighty, and can take a toll on our mental health. We encourage listeners to seek out resources and community supports, and we’ve listed some that we hope will be of use on our website. We want to thank you for listening and learning along with us. If you would like to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few simple things that you can do. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Leave us a rating or review and tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project Podcast. We’d like to thank our Funders Pillars Fund and the Waraich Family Foundation, as well as the El-Hibri Foundation for supporting the work of the Hurma Project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton with additional assistance provided by Maram Albakri. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you. Until then, assalamu alaykum.