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Not Turning a Blind Eye

Danya Shakfeh helps elevate the spiritual abuse conversation with In Shaykh’s Clothing

Published in 2023 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

Danya Shakfeh doesn’t like the idea of being a bystander. “If I see injustice, I do something about it,” she says. “And if I can’t do something about it, I’ll at least speak out against it.”

This particular injustice, however, has nothing to do with Shakfeh’s law practice at Motiva Business Law in Oak Brook. Shakfeh, who for years had volunteered for various Islamic groups and organizations, began to notice a particular pattern of abuse and corruption within her community.

“The umbrella term for the type of behavior I was seeing is spiritual abuse, and essentially, it’s the abuse that results when a person of religious authority—a shaykh, for example—uses their position for personal gain,” she says. “That abuse can be in the form of financial abuse, domestic abuse; you see a lot of gaslighting, and as you dig deeper, this form of cult-like behavior. Many, myself included, find it extra offensive to use God or the divine for personal gain.”

Such abuse is not exclusive to Islamic communities. “This happens in any religion, as well as in secular communities. It’s behavior that exists everywhere,” she says. “But for the Muslim community in particular, talking about this is taboo.”

“We want to help these people first, but ultimately, we want people to know how to help themselves.”

—Danya Shakfeh

For most victims, she says, it’s simply too painful to admit that a person of God was abusive, manipulative or controlling. The widespread misconceptions about Islam play a role, too.

“As Muslims in this country, there’s already so much stigma around our religion,” Shakfeh says. “Many consider talking about this and giving it a name is ‘airing our dirty laundry,’ so to speak, and many feel we don’t need to give certain groups any more reason to hate us.”

Helping victims is challenging, Shakfeh says. “I found myself being the one to say, ‘You think your abuser is helping you but, in reality, it’s part of the scheme of the abuse itself,’” she says. “I make the red flags clear, but then the person would go try to get help from the one person who is manipulating and trying to control them. I realized I needed something to point to and say, ‘Look. These are the criteria for spiritual abuse. You can read this and make a judgment yourself.’”

So, in 2017, Shakfeh and co-founder Danish Qasim launched In Shaykh’s Clothing—a play on “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—an online resource dedicated to helping Muslims understand and recover from spiritual abuse. On the site, victims can find resources and support, and read accounts of abuse. Islamic organizations, like mosques, can find Shakfeh’s policy and procedures and adopt them in an effort to look for such behavior and try to root it out.

“For a lot of the actions that would be considered spiritual abuse, there’s not exactly legal recourse,” she says. “If physical abuse or rape was involved, sure, there are no gray areas there. There also could be employment claims in the context of sexual discrimination within a particular organization. But if a shaykh starts favoring a certain student who has money and pressures them into giving to the organization, there’s no recourse there. These policies exist to educate and to fill in the legal gaps.”

Thanks to the increased awareness of spiritual abuse, multiple people in positions of religious authority at various Islamic organizations have been asked to step down at institutions in California that have adopted Shakfeh’s policies. “In general, I’m finding that institutions are just not tolerating certain behavior anymore,” she says.

It’s not just institutions. Thanks to the site, the conversation among the community has been elevated. Shakfeh and her partner have been guests on multiple podcasts, and she says people from all over the world have shared articles from the site.

“More and more people are becoming aware of spiritual abuse and choosing not to be involved in a situation where they can be harmed,” she says. “When someone says, ‘This is exactly what this looks like,’ it’s hard to ignore that truth. We want to help these people first, but ultimately, we want people to know how to help themselves.”

No amount of authority will make the work any less emotionally taxing for Shakfeh.

“We’re talking about a lot of deep pain,” she says. “What person could turn a blind eye to something like this?”

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