A convicted child sex offender still helps oversee Islamic boarding school in Elgin

Mohammad Saleem, founder of a religious boarding school in Elgin, was convicted in 2016 of molesting a girl and sexually abusing a young woman, but he continues to help supervise the school and lives within close proximity of it.

Robert Herguth/Sun-Times photo; Illinois State Police headshot

After he was convicted in 2016 of molesting a girl and sexually abusing a young woman, Mohammad Saleem was told by a judge that he’s no longer allowed “at or in the Institute of Islamic Education.”

That’s the religious boarding school in Elgin that the Muslim scholar founded years earlier. He was running the school when he committed the crimes that now require him to register as a child sex offender for the rest of his life — with his name, photo and address in an online database maintained by the Illinois State Police.

But Saleem still helps supervise the school. And, though Illinois law bars child sex offenders from living within 500 feet of a school, Elgin police records show his current residence is “well within” that distance.

Also, in August, the Institute of Islamic Education posted on its Facebook page that the school is “under the eminent supervision and wise guidance of Hadhrat Maulana Mohammed Abdullah Saleem Sahib.”

A Facebook post by Elgin’s Institute of Islamic Education says the school for middle school and high school aged children is under “the eminent supervision and wise guidance” of convicted sex offender Mohammad Saleem.

Facebook

That’s a reference to Saleem, according to his son Sulaiman Saleem, the current president of the coeducational Elgin school for children of middle school and high school age, many of them boarders.

In July 2022, another Facebook post showed photos of Mohammad Saleem seated inside the mosque adjacent to the school for a graduation ceremony. Another photo in the post shows diplomas.

The Illinois State Board of Education lists Mohammad Saleem as the school’s administrator. Sulaiman Saleem says that’s because the agency “did not update their list.” He says his father “doesn’t have any position” with the school.

Role in school oversight continues

But Sulaiman Saleem says his 84-year-old father still helps oversee school matters.

He says he does so without violating conditions of his court case that say he can’t be in the school.

Mohammad Saleem at the mosque adjacent to the Institute of Islamic Education in 2022 for what’s described on the school’s Facebook page as a graduation.

Facebook

“ ‘Supervise’ does not mean ‘present,’ ” the younger Saleem says. “He’s the founder, so he’s giving suggestions, advice. He doesn’t have to be in the school for that purpose. He can do it over the phone.

“Supervision doesn’t mean physically supervising. It’s guidance, in a sense, because he has so much experience. He’s been following the law. There’s nothing in the law that says he can’t supervise something.”

Asked what Mohammad Saleem does for the school, his son says, “Like, for instance, the education, the material that we learn. We have so many books. The Quran has so many explanations.”

He says his father might advise which “books are good for teaching in certain classes for certain age groups.”

Sulaiman Saleem says that, although his father attended the graduation, as the Facebook post shows, his presence wasn’t barred by the judge.

“I was there during this whole event, and we made sure that nothing illegal would happen,” the younger Saleem says. “He is not prohibited. He is allowed to attend prayers and programs.”

The judge’s order says the elder Saleem is “allowed to attend his mosque for worship.”

Asked what message it might send having him at the mosque at school events with children despite his conviction, Sulaiman Saleem says, “If he doesn’t come, then still it will send a bad message to the community because many who attend the programs, they want him to be there.

“They ask us and him, too, but, due to his health, he rarely participates in the programs.”

Reached by phone, Mohammad Saleem handed the call to a man who asked a reporter to contact Sulaiman Saleem.

Sulaiman Saleem says his father also gives advice to “community members, and we cannot stop them . . . This is a free world.”

The mosque that’s adjacent to the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

“No, no, not students,” he says of those who contact his father. But he says some who stay in touch with him are “former students who graduated. You cannot stop them. They are adults.”

According to Elgin police records, the department got a complaint that Mohammad Saleem was still teaching at the school in 2017 — after his conviction. But a school official told a detective that wasn’t true, and the case ended up being closed.

Listed on school, state records

Mohammad Saleem is listed on the school’s website as the school’s founder in the 1980s and also its X/Twitter account.

The school submitted the elder Saleem’s name as its administrator to Illinois officials more than 20 years ago, according to Jackie Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state education board. “And yes, the administrator name remains the same unless the school provides an update,” Matthews says. “We will reach out to the school now to confirm he is no longer the administrator and get the correct administrator’s name.”

Elgin police, who monitor sex offenders in their jurisdiction, won’t comment.

At the time of Mohammad Saleem’s guilty plea in August 2016, he was living in the rectory of the mosque that’s part of the Islamic school campus in Elgin, records show.

He was apparently allowed to still live there after his conviction, for which he was sentenced to 24 months of probation.

Questions about that arrangement led to a January 2017 hearing before the judge who approved his plea deal, Cook County Judge James Karahalios. At the 2017 hearing, Karahalios issued an order clarifying that Mohammad Saleem could stay there.

Karahalios allowed Saleem to continue to attend religious services at the mosque but said he wasn’t allowed in adjacent school buildings.

Karahalios, now retired, says: “It isn’t a situation that I fashioned — this order and these terms. The state and the defense hammered all that out. I ratified. If there are issues that are concerning, they should be brought to the attention of the state’s attorney to see if they should file a petition with the court.”

The mosque’s rectory, where, records show, Mohammad Saleem lives.

Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

A spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx says, “The plea deal was agreed upon by all parties . . . including victims” but that, “It’s the court that made the decision.”

The Cook County probation office won’t discuss Mohammad Saleem’s current living arrangement. But Elgin police records show his probation officer “expressed concern reference Saleem’s proximity to the school” around the time of the 2017 hearing.

A victim’s account

Sadia Ahmed Sarwar says Mohammad Saleem molested her as a girl when he was staying as a guest in her family’s northwest suburban home shortly after arriving in the Chicago area from India more than 40 years ago. Sarwar says he abused her and a friend while he taught them the Quran.

Among the criminal charges against Mohammad Saleem.

Provided

“Why is this man living and being able to walk on the street without any ramifications?” Sarwar says in an interview. “He did such horrible things to so many people.”

Yet, Sarwar says, “There’s nothing that really happened to him at all.”

She was among the women and a man who sued Mohammad Saleem and the school in 2015, accusing him and another former school employee of sexual abuse. She and another accuser in the lawsuit were later removed from the case because too much time had passed for them to be able to sue. The case continued for three other accusers, but the outcome of the case remains unclear.

Criminal charges were filed in 2015, and Mohammad Saleem pleaded guilty the following year to abusing another girl and a woman.

At that hearing, prosecutor Jaclyn Lantz said the younger victim had been 14 and a student at the Elgin school when Mohammad Saleem invited her into his office.

The Institute of Islamic Education’s X/Twitter page mentions Mohammad Saleem prominently as the school’s founder.

X

He “began to touch the victim’s legs” and, at later times, “touched the victim’s breasts” and vagina, according to court records.

“Between Sept. 1 of 2001 and Aug. 31 of 2003, on 10 to 15 separate but similar incidents in the defendant’s office the defendant would have the victim sit on his lap,” while he was aroused, records show.

Lantz said in court that, between Aug. 1, 2001, to June 1, 2002, the girl notified a teacher at the school about what was happening, “but nothing was done.”

In 2003, the victim moved out of town, records show.

The other victim was 22 and working for the school when she was repeatedly groped and sexually abused by Mohammad Saleem, who also is known as Abdullah Saleem, records show.

A photo of Mohammad Saleem contained in Elgin police records.

Elgin police

In one incident in April 2014, Mohammad Saleem walked in to the victim’s office “and locked the door behind him,” Lantz said in court. “The defendant asked the victim to sit in his lap, but the victim refused.

“The defendant placed his hands on the victim’s hips, pulled her towards the chair and sat the victim on top of him. The defendant massaged the victim’s chest with his hands. The victim attempted to get up from the seat, but the defendant used force to restrain her. The defendant then lifted the victim’s dress, her abaya with his hands, grabbed her hips and turned her around so the victim was sitting facing him.”

The woman pulled away.

Later, semen on her pants was matched to Mohammad Saleem, court records show.

He could have faced up to 14 years in prison, though the plea agreement included no prison time.

Sadia Ahmed Sarwar, who accused Mohammad Saleem in a lawsuit of sexual abuse when she was a child.

Provided

Sarwar’s lawsuit also said another, unnamed school employee molested an 11-year-old male student, who, after the assault, “could not locate any IIE staff to assist him and to help him call his parents,” so he “had to climb through the ceiling tiles of the locked office where there was the only telephone available for students to call their parents; his mother removed him from IIE the next day.”

It’s unclear whether there was ever a criminal investigation of that accusation of abuse in 1996, records show.

Sulaiman Saleem won’t identify the school employee but says he no longer works for the school, and, “I don’t [know] much about the allegations.”

Eman Hassaballa Aly, a social worker who served as an advocate for some of the accusers, criticized the way the school continues to treat Mohammad Saleem.

“It’s [like] they’re putting a sex offender on a pedestal,” Aly says. “His home, it’s not far from the school. They’re not putting the safety of the students first.

“Either they don’t believe he did those things, or they know and don’t care.”

Sarwar says something positive that emerged from the case was that Muslim parents were made more aware of sex abuse in the Islamic community, in which historically there’s been “blind trust” and reverence for faith leaders.

In recent years, numerous abuse accusations have emerged from Islamic schools overseas and child sex abuse lawsuits are pending against a Muslim school in Buffalo, records show.

“The good thing is this blew open this” subject of child sexual abuse “in our community,” Sarwar says. “We opened the eyes that it does happen, it’s in our community, too.”

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