“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” –Dr. Martin Luther King
I was nine years old when I woke up one morning and realized I was no longer going to be living in Iran. I had overheard my parents discussing their immediate plans of moving to America. The Shah of Iran had been overthrown from his secular monarchy by the Ayatollah Khomeini, a bearded 77 year old once exiled to France, now ruling Iran as the sign of God on earth. My country was then, as it is now, in turmoil.
35 years have passed from those dying days of 1979. And yet, I remember vividly the scenes of what transpired at the airport in Tehran. Running alongside my mother and father, I held my 7 year-old brother’s hand as my parents desperately tried to board us on a plane in hopes of rescuing us from dangerous elements that would potentially challenge the safety and stability of our family.
En route to the United States, we were detained in Mexico for a 2-week period. I was too young to understand what was happening but we were being refused entry into the United States. We could not get a proper visa for my grandfather, who at the time was almost 90 years old. I later remember my mother saying that my father would repeatedly go to the American Embassy to obtain an entry visa for him, but for unknown reasons, his application was constantly denied. It was during this period of chaos and instability, uprooted and vulnerable, with no country or home to call our own and dependent on the trust we had forged with one another as family that I was left alone in our hotel room with my dad’s cousin. What happened in that hotel room and in the years to follow would ultimately challenge any stability or peace of mind I would know for the next 3 decades.
His name is Haji Muhammad Aazami, also known on social media as Mike Aazami. He is a Real Estate Appraiser who currently resides in Rockville, Maryland, and is the son of Kuchek Aazami. Muhammad is my dad’s first cousin and at one point, his long-time and very close friend. He still remains married to my dad’s sister and his children, my first cousins, were the first set of friends I once knew.
The sexual abuse that began in that hotel room and continued in the few years that followed, I kept to myself for decades. It was a secret I had planned on taking with me to the grave. The weight and pressure that was imposed on me by Muhammad is not something I can easily describe. I was 9 years old at the time. He was in his mid 40’s. He had repeatedly told me his behavior was normal but was not something he could do with his own children because he did not love them in the same manner.
It is important to remember that power takes many forms. Muhammad had warned me sternly not to mention what he was doing to anyone because if I did, it would create schisms within our families and I wouldn’t be able to see my cousins anymore. It was a veiled threat imposed on me at the age of 9 of all the bad things that could happen to our families if I disclosed this matter to anyone. I was scared. Terrified of the consequences it could have on my friendship with my cousins. My parents left behind every bit of support they had created for themselves. Their family, friends and finances…their whole life was left behind in a far away land as they tried to create new beginnings in the United States. We relied on each other because all we had was each other. It was not easy making friends in those years either. I was alone. I barely spoke the language and could not understand why at the age of 9, my American classmates bullied and singled me out as the Iranian kid who had something to do with the Americans hostages held in Iran. All I had were my brothers and my cousins. They were my only set of friends. Muhammad understood this, which is why it put him in a position of power to coerce a 9-year-old child into submission.
In those days, there wasn’t much awareness raised towards sexual abuse. It was a perfect opportunity for Muhammad. At his home, he would always be lurking behind doors or hiding in closets; waiting for my grandfather, his wife or his children to leave the room and for me to be left alone. He spared not a single moment. If I spent the night at their home, he would risk every opportunity available even if I were sleeping in the same room as his children. If I wanted to walk home, he would insist on driving me, stating before his own family that it is not safe for a child my age to walk home by himself. When I came to the recognition that I was on my own in a dangerous situation, I decided for the sake of my safety to never be left alone with him. If my cousins would leave to go to another room, nervously I would run after them. If Muhammad would offer to drive me home, I would refuse and walk the distance. Even though he sensed this and understood what I was doing, Muhammad still treated the matter as a competitive game. He knew he had the upper hand because he was confident I was too afraid to discuss the matter with anyone.
Iranian people have many issues to work through when it comes to the topic of sexuality. Our culture considers it taboo and incredibly perverse to discuss the subject openly. The reason I haven’t come forward about this publicly is because of the stigma that my culture places on people who have been abused sexually. It places the burden of blame on the victim rather than the abuser. Instead of empowering the victim to speak out, it forces them to hide what was done for fear of what society may think of them. The silence not only imposes a burden on the victim, preventing them from healing, but it also empowers the cycle of abuse to continue because the abuser receives their power from anonymity.
The worst decision any individual can make is to disregard their own intuition, and compromise their safety or sanity, so that others around them are comfortable and the façade of unity can exist. For 21 years I kept this matter secluded within the privacy of my own heart and in doing so, I allowed myself to be in Muhammad’s presence, constantly. With each long and endless passing year, every family get together, every sleep over, every religious holy day, every camping trip, I kept “his” secret not aware of the effects it was having on my own mental health. I had never heard of the words Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, nor was I aware of how it would one day relate to me. In those formative years, I could not see the value and the necessity of my own personal identity nor could I comprehend how that identity had been compromised by trauma. In the absence of feeling supported, I couldn’t understand why anxiety and anger were the accompaniments of my life rather than the safety that was owed to me. I thought by keeping his secret, it would maintain some semblance of unity towards an extended family that has been plagued with generational conflict. I couldn’t foresee how this in the long run would bring about disruption within the sacred soil of my family life, undermining the safety and unity my parents had committed themselves to when they fled from their homeland. I lived through each passing day with the consequence of silence. And as depression, anger and anxiety took their toll on me, the only solace I found was prayer and my attempt at humor. Without their presence in my life, I would have been nothing.
The worst type of sexual abuse any child can endure is that which is done to him at the hands of a family member. It is the most challenging type of trauma they can experience because the disruption it creates within the family is immeasurable. The level of support, sensitivity, patience or outreach that is available to that victim can also be non-existent. To quote the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
“When children are abused by adults who are supposed to protect them from harm, their ability to trust and rely on adults may be shattered… Sexual abuse of a child by a trusted adult also puts tremendous strain on relationships within the family. Some family members may find it hard to believe the abuser could do such a thing, and take sides over who is telling the truth. Family members may also struggle with how to manage their divided loyalties toward the abuser and the victim. Even in families that accept that the abuse occurred, reactions to the abuser may run the gamut from “lock him up and throw away the key” to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Tensions may arise when different family members have different opinions about loyalty, fairness, justice, forgiveness, and responsibility.”
When Muhammad’s own children became parents, I was suddenly faced with a pressing conflict: Muhammad is now a grandfather. I was now confronted with the realization that what was done to me could easily happen to my cousin’s children. Reluctantly, I made the decision to break my silence but only to my cousins. In doing so, my fears were slowly made manifest. Over the years, I felt my relationship and my trust with my cousins dissolve as they consciously chose to make decisions that would safeguard their father’s secret and stand by him. Although I understand the difficulties one is faced with when in a position to sever ties with a parent or a loved one, I cannot empathize in this situation. It hurt my feelings to see my aunt, my father’s sister, stand by Muhammad and say to me she would prefer to stay married to her husband because of the “questions people would ask” should she divorce him. It was shocking to hear her ask me not to breathe a word of what her husband had done to me, so her grandchildren could continue to maintain a loving relationship with their grandfather. To this day, despite my numerous objections, it is distressing to hear my aunt and her children humanize a pedophile by telling sentimental stories of him in my presence at family gatherings. It was hurtful to see how aloof and removed Muhammad’s siblings were when I wrote them and informed them of what their brother had done to me. Muhammad’s brother in Los Angeles ignored my letter, just as he had done when my father wrote him. The only person who acknowledged the abuse took place was Muhammad’s sister, who never contacted me but my mother. Her only request from my family was that we never speak of this to anyone again.
Due to their need for secrecy to keep honour for their family name, it’s betraying to be a part of a family that goes out of its way to protect this individual. It is shameful and appalling to see photographs of Muhammad that his siblings or his children have publicly posted on social media where he is surrounded by their kids, sitting on his lap because he has assured them that what he did to me and to others, (in his own words): “I would never do to my own blood.”
The last time I saw Muhammad was in August of 2007. I was invited to speak at the annual Association of Friends of Persian Culture Conference in Chicago. As I sat in the front row, waiting for the MC to finish her introductions, I had no idea that Muhammad had driven down from Maryland to Chicago, registered at the conference and taken the exact seat behind me. When I took to the stage and looked out, I was stunned to see him sitting in the audience. I stood frozen, unable to speak for the first minute. My mind was blank. Were it not for the outline I had prepared as a back up, I would have stumbled my way through that presentation.
For the first 15 minutes, Muhammad sat with his hands clasped together between his legs. He sat motionless. His head was looking down, unable to bring himself to look at me. I was uncomfortable with Muhammad’s behavior. I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I feel comfortable to bring attention towards him and have him removed. I continued with my presentation but maintained a close eye in his direction. Soon after, he got up and walked out of the hall. I felt a sense of relief when I saw him leave only to find him returning shortly afterwards to his seat, accompanied by family members I had not seen in years. Now he sat head up, looking directly at me, smiling from ear to ear.
When my presentation had concluded, I gathered my notes and was approached by a member of the audience. He began to ask a question regarding the presentation when I heard my name being called. I turned around to find Muhammad standing next to our mutual family members. It had been 5 years since I exposed Muhammad to his children. 5 years since I had uttered a word to him. And yet, here he was in a public setting, in a crowd of people playing the same power games he played on me as a child. Pointing to the man next to him, he said: “Don’t you remember Dr. Aazami? Don’t you want to come over and say hi to him?” I have gone over this incident a million times in my head since then, each time wondering should I have handled it differently and with less dignity. Would it have been wrong for me to walk over and knock him out for being the pedophile that he still is? Would I have lost my own humanity had I responded violently to another human being that lost his benevolence to women and children many decades ago? Would I have been any different from him had I struck him down?
Cautious of Muhammad, I walked over to say hello to the relative I had not seen in years. As soon as I finished hugging him, Muhammad made an immediate attempt to hug me. He quickly put his hands on my shoulders and brought forward his pelvis to embrace me. Something inside me snapped as he placed his hands on me. I pushed him off before he got too close and took a step towards him with both my fists ready to strike him down if he came towards me again. I stood there and I stared him down, waiting for him to make a move. He just smiled and walked away laughing as he began conversation with a random stranger. That was the last time I saw Muhammad Aazami.
This incident shattered whatever trust I had remaining with my aunt and my cousins. It marked the beginning of the end of my relationships with them. I was livid when I found out they knew about Muhammad’s intention to come to Chicago, to be present at the same conference they knew I was participating in, and they didn’t even have the courtesy to warn me.
The level of disruption this has brought within my own family is not something that can be easily discussed either. Upon hearing what I went through, it destroyed my mother and father. I’ll never know to what extent this affected my father because he kept most of his feelings inside but for years it was evident on my mother’s face. The rippling effects of childhood abuse whilst physically bullied by other cousins and school-mates, created a great deal of anger in me during my childhood and teenage years, which in turn caused me to take out my aggression against my own brothers. It has been nearly impossible to undo what has been done to my parents, my brothers and I at the hands of those who have called themselves family. Threads, which once served the purpose of binding a household together, are now tangled. It disrupted the foundation of our existence; challenging the relationship I once held with my brothers and spun us out “into this environment, as tumble weed, unhealed.”
Families that have healed from similar incidents, despite the obstacles and setbacks, have been able to do so as a result of standing up and defending the victim in every respect. To passively sit in silence only condones the behavior of the abuser. For healing to take place and trust to be reestablished, the victim needs to feel supported by the very people who call themselves family. They need compassion, sensitivity and warmth but above all, they need to see their loved ones stand up, speak up and build an impenetrable wall around them. Not an eggshell that can be easily penetrated by outside forces.
Let the record reflect that the person known as Muhammad Mike Aazami is a dangerous pedophile. Let it be known that my intention is not malice, but to bring awareness to every parent out there of the dangers that lurk within this predator. As it stands, I am aware of a number of children whom Muhammad either violated or tried to violate in their childhood. Some of those families were torn apart because of abuse, one as a result of suicide, while other victims who have carried the burdens of his abuse for an entire lifetime have struggled and contemplated such an escape. One victim in particular was a classmate of mine in Junior High School. I never understood why this classmate or his older brother held such animosity towards my cousin and I, until later in life when my cousin confided in me about what his father had attempted to do to this boy. Their names shall remain anonymous but if by chance they are reading this, I want to apologise to both of them and to their families for the disruptions this abuser brought into their home.
I have made every effort within the means of the law to have Muhammad Mike Aazami held accountable for what he’s done to me as well as others. The frustration lays within the law itself and how it inadvertently protects such predators from being held accountable. The Montgomery County Police Department sees this as a matter that is beyond their jurisdiction since the abuse took place 35 years ago in Glendale, California. The only way they would get involved at the current moment is if children within their county are in danger. Since this is the case, I contacted Child Protective Services of Montgomery County and informed them of the pedophile living within their county, whose questionable character, unknown by his family and friends, has placed him in the presence of children. I had repeated conversations with the individual from CPS who took down the names and phone numbers of people I knew with children whom Muhammad would have access to. I was told that families would be contacted and children would be interviewed. When I called back a few months later to see what the status of the investigation was, I was told there was no record of his name or the complaint I had filed months before. I was then informed that if CPS decides to drop an investigation for whatever reason, or if they felt the accused was not a threat to children, the complaint is then purged from their system, leaving not a single trace of the person accused.
I also contacted the District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles but they cannot look at this matter unless there is a police investigation from the Glendale Police. Although I have already filed a police report against Muhammad prior to moving to Australia, the Glendale Police Department cannot currently investigate this matter for complicated reasons due to Statute of Limitations and because I no longer live in the United States.
While most children do not step forward to accuse their abusers until they reach adulthood, which can be attributed to cultural misconceptions about sexual abuse or power, intimidation and fear tactics used by the abuser which has a lasting influence on a person’s life — I find it difficult to comprehend why the statue of limitations applies to sexual crimes perpetrated against children. It is shameful that from the inception, the burden of proof is placed on children to convince family members and continues to stay with them as adults when it comes to the legal system.
It should be noted, the only institution that responded to this matter with the care and diligence necessary was the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of the United States. In the absence of the promise made by my cousins and my aunt to corroborate my story, the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly launched their own investigation and when gathered the evidence necessary, they removed Muhammad from serving as an elected member of its Local Institution in Rockville, Maryland. They also took further steps to bar him from attending and participating in Baha’i community events. For their alertness to such a sensitive matter and for their caution in safeguarding a community of children from this dangerous predator, I will always be indebted to the U.S. Baha’i National Assembly.
I know that what I have faced in my life will one day die with me, peacefully. This is the only sense I can make of what has happened to me. Amidst the apathy I was born into, this experience has given me a voice…a loud one at that. Despite the lack of support that has existed throughout this journey within my own family, this experience has taught me empathy. We alone have the power to stop any cycle from repeating. We alone have the power to make that choice. It is so our children may have a brighter future and their generation can walk with greater dignity. It is through our struggle for self-awareness that the future of our children will shine. It cannot be done through silence. Nor can it be achieved through humanising a pernicious and monstrous act accomplished by those who wage a war against God by taking away the humanity of others.
I am entitled to the same happiness as everyone else but it cannot be achieved with the toxic elements that have surrounded my life since the age of 9. You don’t reassure an alcoholic to overcome his addictions by encouraging them to surround themselves with the same components and choices of their past. Although I have severed ties with the abuser, my intention has always been to maintain a relationship with my aunt and my cousins. That is no longer an option since his family members as well as my own siblings have taken on characteristics of the abuse and its toxicity has been present throughout my life. Although they may remain in my heart, they cannot remain in my life any longer. Despite the years of therapy, I now see the futility of my attempts of trying to heal from a past whilst placing myself in the shadows of the very people who have with every footprint, consciously and unconsciously, taken steps to protect their own and diminish my abilities in this world.
In honoring the legacy of my parents for the courageous choices they made throughout their lives, for the hardships they encountered along the way and their will to overcome adversity whilst safeguarding their family, I now choose the same for myself and those who come after me. Given the burdens I inherited, it was more important for me to figure out the type of man I needed to be in life, rather than what I wanted to be. And of all the battles fought in my life, of all the choices that would bring a better tomorrow, this one, at this moment in time, is most precious. As I make every effort now in starting my own family, in rising from the troubled ashes of my past, I can no longer associate myself with those who carry the same last name as my father, as their actions impune the integrity he lived by and the goodness I strive for.
It has taken me 35 years to get to the place where I am now, where I can publicly and candidly speak from my heart about what was done to me. By writing this open letter, I am asking for any help available to bring my abuser to justice. If you have any family, friends or know of any attorneys that specialize in child sexual abuse cases, or have friends in the media that are willing to help, please contact me with their information. And in publicly discussing this matter, I hope it is recognized that I am present to offer my support to any person who has endured a similar journey. Considering what I’ve been through, it’s a miracle I’ve been able to hold it together. Just as I have found my way, so shall you.
Muhammad, time has finally caught up with you and you can no longer lurk in the shadows. You can have your wife, your children, your siblings and anyone else who stands by you to keep your secrets hidden…but I am taking back everything else you took from me.
The burden of proof is now on you.
 Attallah Shabazz, CBS 60 Minute Interview, May 14th, 2000