There is No Room in Islam for Clerics Who Abuse Women—Not in Iraq, Not Anywhere | Opinion

Child abuse revelations have rocked the Catholic church in the last generation, leading to lasting damage to how the Church is viewed worldwide and even shaking the faith of some believers.

Some speculate that a similar scandal is brewing in Shia Islam, with abusers exposed to be using egregious misrepresentations of religious law to facilitate their attacks.

The limelight has been shone on this in a recent BBC documentary, provocatively titled "Undercover with the Clerics." Girls as young as 13 were essentially pimped out by Iraqi men who claimed religious legitimacy. Specifically, the men stated they were followers of Grand Ayatollah Syed Sistani, despite the fact that the cleric has condemned their actions as abhorrent not only to Islam's values but to Iraqi law and human rights.

Those human rights have come on in leaps and bounds in Iraq since the toppling of Saddam and his dictatorship in 2003.

Civil society has gone from being all but non-existent to becoming one of the more vibrant examples of life in the region. Iraq's constitution guarantees that at least a quarter of the country's members of parliament are women (a slightly higher percentage than in the current U.S. House of Representatives.)

This renaissance is most pronounced when it comes to Iraq's Shia Muslims.

Despite being a religious majority in the country, the community's members are still recovering from decades of repression under Saddam. But in in the mere 16 years since Saddam's removal, Iraq's Shia, including Shia clerics, have gone from being brutally persecuted to forming the backbone of Iraq's civil society. This makes it all the more shocking that what is an overwhelmingly progressive, democratizing institution is now being accused of providing cover for abusers.

The man who bears no small amount of responsibility for this progress is Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the leading global authorities in Shia Islam with perhaps 200 million followers. The 89-year-old cleric is the antithesis of Islamophobic ideas of a Muslim scholar: he has single-handedly driven the embrace by Iraq's largest confessional community of elections and democracy, and has relentlessly campaigned for human rights in general, and women's rights in particular.

I have visited Iraq several times every year since 2003. On many of those visits I have had private meetings with Ayatollah Sistani. I cannot remember ever meeting him without him mentioning women's rights.

In Iraq, these issues are not an ideological luxury; they are a societal necessity. There are over a million war widows in Iraq, many of whom have no access to welfare or assistance. This has become exacerbated in recent years as the international community's attention has shifted towards Syria, and policy makers tend to view Iraq through a security, rather than a humanitarian, lens.

Iraq's largest charity, the Al-Ayn foundation, was formed and is supervised by Syed Sistani's office. It is funded directly from within the Shia community, allowing it a continuity of service that is difficult when dependent on international donors and NGOs.

It looks after more than 57,000 orphans and widows in everything from healthcare to education to psychotherapy. The potential of Iraq's Shia clerics for social good has become clear since they were allowed to function independently in post-Saddam Iraq.

Al-Ayn also has safeguarding procedures to internationally recognized standards, far beyond what some Western aid volunteers adhere to. All staff undergo thorough background checks and only contact beneficiaries through official channels. Syed Sistani has personally insisted, for example, that only female members of staff deal with vulnerable women beneficiaries.

This makes it all the more infuriating to see the allegations the BBC report that so-called Shia Clerics are using the cover of religious institutions to coax Iraqi women and children into prostitution.

Any abuse of vulnerable women and girls, anywhere, must be absolutely stamped out. When it is done in the cloak of religion, it is even more repugnant. Syed Sistani has issued an absolute and unequivocal disavowal of those acts, and instructed his followers to root out these behaviours wherever they are found.

It is not entirely clear what claim the abusers can make to being clerics themselves, or if this religious affiliation is as deceptive as the rest of their trafficking scam. The main abuser's most demonstrable link to religion was his title of "Syed" which can, as the program noted, mean that he is a descendant of the Prophet's family, but can also mean "Mister." Based on decades of intimate knowledge of the Iraqi Shia clergy, I would like to believe that these men are imposters. But whether they are or not doesn't substantially change how the Shia community should respond to these revelations: if they are imposters, they need to be exposed as such; if they are—or ever were—clerics, they deserve condemnation all the more.

Reports like these, where religious legal instruments such as fixed-term marriage, or mut'ah, are abused, disgust me and all Muslims.

That those abuses repeatedly victimize vulnerable women and children is bad enough. But they also feed into Islam's worst sectarian divides. Distortions and actual malpractices of the mut'ah concept are also seized on by fanatical anti-Shia jihadists like Daesh. Fixed-term marriage between consenting adults exists in Shia religious teachings as a way, for example, for an engaged couple to get to know each other without contravening gender boundaries. It is a marriage relationship with strict requirements, and rights, for both parties. As Syed Sistani's office stated in their own comments to the BBC team, they are not mean to pimp out women, least of all underage girls.

To some extremists, however, the notion of mut'ah marriages is falsely used to feed their narrative that Shia Muslims are not Muslims at all, but infidels, who do not believe even in the sanctity of marriage.

It is essential that the most vulnerable in every society, whether they are Iraqi widows seeking assistance, parishioners in the far-flung world of the Catholic church or British children appearing on popular BBC shows, are protected. And at the same time, we must protect important institutions from those criminals and charlatans who abuse not only their innocent victims, but also the organizations to which they claim to be affiliated and whose values they so obviously betray.

Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hilli is a long-standing British Shia Muslim scholar based in London. He was born in Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.