Two young women and a young man reached out to me respectively this past week, none knowing the others, but all having gone through a similar experience as children. Each had been the victim of sexual abuse at a very young age, and none of them had really spoken about it for quite some time. All three had at some point tried to speak with the one or both of their parents about it (one spoke only to the mother as her father was the abuser) and none had received any support or validation of their concerns—one was even told it’s not a big deal. All three were told not to speak about it with anyone so each ended up holding it inside for quite some time.
Aside from these three, 108 unique individuals in the month of July have reached out to me on issues ranging from depression, anxiety, suicidal tendency, domestic violence, alcohol and drug addiction, sexual orientation, dealing with mental health disorders, marital issues, issues with parents, relationship issues, theological issues, and much more. They have corresponded in the form of emails, phone calls, and in-person meetings. These people are mostly from the NYC area, a good number from different parts of the United States, and the smallest demographic is from outside of the country. They are both male and female, diverse in age, ethnicity and socioeconomic background. All are looking for someone to talk to—most are finding a hard time in doing so.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with anyone seeing a counselor. I actually think it’s an important thing to have someone to talk to. The difficulty for the Muslim community is two-fold. Primarily, it’s hard for us at times to get the motivation and comfort needed to go seek a counselor and, secondly, in the instances that we do, it’s hard to find someone who actually understands what we are going through.
It’s not very common to find Muslims comfortable with the idea of speaking about what they have or are going through. Some think it somehow displays weakness of faith and is a form of questioning God, others come from cultures that don’t appreciate or encourage seeking out such help. Many think it’s wrong to “reveal sins” whether it be their own or those of others. Most have been in a place where when they have attempted to speak to someone about it, their attempts have immediately been shot down and it takes a long time before they can speak about it again or, unfortunately, they just don’t speak about it ever again.
In the instances where one actually does find someone to speak with, they run into a few different types of people:
- An individual who is not trained to provide them the support that they need, but still attempts to do so
- An individual who does have training and/or experience to provide the support that is being sought out, but doesn’t understand the diversity of Muslim experience, or anything about Muslim identity
- An individual who is not trained to provide them the support that they need, recognizes this and refers them to someone who is
- An individual who does have training and/or experience to provide the support that is being sought and, and does understand the diversity of Muslim experience and Muslim identity
Most will find themselves in a place where they meet someone from one of the first two categories and get discouraged with the process. Our goal should be to enable and empower more people who are in categories three and four so that we can ensure proper care and attention to those who need it. Why should we do this? Because there is a lot of unreconciled pain in many hearts out there and it’s not justifiable that we allow for that to continue. The number of tears that I have seen shed in front of me and the amount of frustration and anxiety that has been let out afterwards tells me that the Muslim community is not a happy community, and that’s in large part due to the fact that we are not healthy. It’s unjustifiable that I stand in a comfortable place while I am fully aware that the person sitting next to me is uncomfortable or struggling on the inside.
I don’t think the solution is simply in having more imams that are American-born, because that alone doesn’t mean that they will have the training or experience to counsel someone. A young man came to see me with his female cousin who was walking in the hallway of her high school one day in between classes when a boy grabbed her, pulled her into a stairwell, and raped her. This young woman worked up the courage to tell her parents, who, not knowing where else to go, then took her to their local mosque, where she was told by the imam that she deserved what happened to her because she goes to a mixed-gender school and doesn’t dress properly. Aside from recognizing the stupidity of this statement, why is this person even in a place where he would be dealing with circumstances like this? And what do we think it did to the young woman? She will take what this man has said as being what Islam says, which is not the case, and more importantly then that, she is going to hurt even more on the inside then when she had first come in.
Education is key, and training current religious leaders as well as mental health professionals, whether they are Muslim or not, on issues relevant to the Muslim community is essential. The stereotype that paints the Muslim community as monolithic is most problematic here because it keeps us from being in touch with how diversity plays a role in proper counseling. Not all Muslims are the same and dealing with them means understanding that one will be different from the next, even though they adhere to the same faith.
Despite this, there are many out there who are trained, attuned to the realities that Muslims are facing, and are great resources. If you find yourself in a place where there is something that you need closure on and feel like talking about, whether you are going through it now or went through it a long time ago, don’t let yourself think you have to go through it alone. It is not a weakness of faith to seek support from the people around you. The companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sought support from him in this manner all of the time. Young and old, male and female, Arab and non-Arab all spoke to him about things that they had going on inside and he listened. He heard them out, helped them to make critical sense of it and set out on a path to reach their potential best. People who had addictions, bereavement issues, relationship issues, mental health issues, victims of domestic violence, people who had to deal with the realities that race, ethnicity, gender, and privilege all brought, and many others came to speak to him about what was going on in their respective lives, and he listened. He also turned to those around him at times when he needed counsel and advice. If we require religious legitimacy to seek support when we need it, undoubtedly Islam tells us we are allowed to and that we should.
You don’t have to speak to just anyone. Find someone you are comfortable with and will hear you out before simply telling you what you should do. Not every religious scholar will be able to play this role, nor should they be expected to be. It’s not a shortcoming on their part by any means. Professional help in the form a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker is also important and should not be looked at as a bad thing. Just like a doctor is there to help us be be physically well, these individuals are there to help us be emotionally well, which in turn has the potential of aiding in our spiritual growth.
For those of you who are not in a place where you need this kind of help, be mindful that there are those who do. If you are speaking to an audience, understand that audience has many people in it that have lived lives that may not have had the best of experiences. Not everyone has good parents, not everyone has Muslims in their families, not everything is a test from God, forgiveness is not always the easiest thing to do, and it is not a weakness of faith to try to understand why you have gone through what you have gone through.
This has gotten somewhat long but I have more thoughts on it and will probably write on it again before the month is over.