Al Jazeera

Alleged victim in Illinois imam sex abuse case speaks out

Former employee of school founded by Mohammad Abdullah Saleem details alleged abuse to Al Jazeera America

Following the arrest earlier this week of a prominent Illinois imam accused of sexual abuse, one of his alleged victims is speaking out about the ordeal she says was suffered at the hands of Mohammad Abdullah Saleem. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the alleged victim told of how she was at first honored to meet the respected imam, but ended up “terrified” to be in his presence.

Saleem, 75, founder of a school called Institute of Islamic Education in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, was charged Tuesday with felony criminal sexual abuse. Saleem’s attorney Thomas Glasgow has said that his client "categorically denies" the allegations.

Prosecutors allege that Saleem abused a young woman in her 20s in a series of escalating incidents that took place in the months after she began working as an administrative assistant the school in September of 2013. A civil lawsuit has also been filed, accusing the imam of abusing three others — all minors — alongside the administrative assistant.  

The former employee spoke with Lisa Stark in a television exclusive that will air Thursday night at 8 P.M. ET on Al Jazeera America. 

The alleged victim, who asked to be identified as “Lana” and requested her face be hidden and voice changed for the interview in order to protect her identity, said she was honored when she first met with Saleem a few weeks into her new job because “within my community and … within my family, he is just this great guy.” 

“I was very honored to meet him, and he sat with me in the office and just talked to me, and he said, ‘oh do you wear that veil outside of work’ and I said ‘no,’ and then he said, ‘you don’t have to wear it in front of me,’ Lana said. “I was like ‘OK,’ I didn’t see anything wrong with that, because I don’t wear it outside, and he’s an older gentleman, fatherly, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

But that perception would change months later after Lana said Saleem got physical with her — something she initially thought she was “misreading.” 

"In December, he came in and he gave me a hug, and his hands wandered downwards toward my lower back region, and he squeezed my bum. I was shocked," she said. "But I did not come to terms with it. I let someone in my family know it had happened, and they told me to quit then and there. But I just couldn’t come to terms with something like that happening, and I thought maybe I am just misreading into this, he couldn’t have done something like that."

Lana said that the touching happened “on and off” and that it “aggressively got worse” as time went on. 

She explained that the unwanted attention would go from “groping my backside, to groping my breasts to kissing me on the cheek to massaging my body, to asking me to massage him,” she said. “I was terrified to go to work. I would take all the precautions that I could — I would leave my office door unlocked when he would come in, but he would come in and lock the door.”

The tipping point came last April when, according to prosecutors, Saleem locked the door of the woman's office, lifted her dress, forced her to sit on top of him, massaged her and held her down when she tried to get up. Prosecutors said they collected evidence, including evidence found on the woman's clothing.

The civil lawsuit said that the woman turned over her clothing to Elgin police who “have tested it and have confirmed the presence of human semen on her clothing.” 

“That April incident that happened — I went home and I told somebody in my family. And another person in my family ended up overhearing everything that happened. And he didn’t believe me, and he’s like ‘I don’t believe … this can’t happen. What are you talking about? He could never do something like that’ — till I showed him the pants. And I said, ‘well I have this on my pants,’ and he was utterly shocked."

Lana said when her mother first heard of the incident "she wanted to march into his office and she wanted to demand that he apologize and she wanted for him ... to be punished for what he did ... but it was me who was so scared, because he is so powerful, and it was — 'who is going to believe us mom.'"

Lana said that Saleem later apologized to her mom, but never to her. 

Saleem was released Tuesday on bond and and was ordered to have no contact with the alleged victim, any members of her family or anyone under the age of 18. Saleem has also been ordered surrender his passport. His next court date is March 10.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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