Ed. Note: Saeed Abedini is an Iranian American man and Christian pastor who holds dual Iranian and United States citizenship. He has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012. His crime? The official charge was “compromising national security,” but most people seem to agree that the real issue was his activity starting and supporting many Christian house churches throughout Iran. Saeed was released in January of 2016. His wife of 14 years, Naghmeh (an American citizen), lobbied diligently and publically for his release, but in November publically revealed that Saeed had been abusive during their marriage. She has since filed for legal separation. Read a good summary of the situation here on The Washington Post. See a thorough report of the available online resources and commentary here on Spiritual Sounding Board.
A ViewPoint by Dr. Christy Sim
Mainstream Christian media has come a long way since my February 2015 critique of the handling of the Jones/MaMahon issue, and that is encouraging. In this case, the media seems to be more even-handed in its approach to Naghmeh’s disclosure. But there is still room for improvement.
For the purposes of this article, I will be working with Katelyn Beaty’s April 24, 2016, Christianity Today interview of Saeed Abedini.
In this ViewPoint post, I’ll discuss two issues. First, I’ll examine what we can learn about Saeed (and other abusers) by looking at his responses to Beaty’s questions. And second, I’ll look at specific concerns in the interview that illustrate issues in the approach and response to domestic violence situations in the media.
Here are some common characteristics we see in a person who chooses to abuse and feels entitled to behave in an abusive manner. 1
Abusers tend to:
- Be disrespectful of the very humanity of their partner, turning them into an object instead of a being.
- Cause their partner to feel the abuser is two different people; the man who adores them and the man who loathes them.
- Flip who is victimized and who is oppressed, playing up their own victimization for sympathy.
- Strive for a flawless public image, investing in being seen as awe-inspiring.
- Find justification and find friends who approve of them. They seek alliances for their own side.
- Spread confusion and have double standards.
- Exaggerate the good they have done and overemphasize their worth.
- Underemphasize the victim’s legitimate reactions to minimize their own injurious actions.
- Speak with absolute certainty.
- Speak less in anger toward an ex-partner, but more with disrespect and contempt.
- Work hard to show how they’ve been misunderstood.
- Do everything in their power to shift blame on others.
- Be self-centered, focusing mostly on themselves and what they want and need.
Abusive characteristics illuminated in the Christianity Today interview
Tendency in Abusers
What Can Be Pulled from the Christianity Today Article
|Turning partner into an object||“Now with these false accusations, trying to make the churches all around the world confused—it’s clear to me that Satan is behind this.”
A person cannot possibly be objectified more than to be reduced to a tool of Satan.
|Victim feeling like the abuser is two different people||“The pastor said Jesus is Lord, so I made a decision to kill the pastor before killing myself.”
“Naghmeh is my hero; she stood strong for years.”
“People now have two different Saeeds. One of them is a hero of their faith; one of them is an abuser, an addicter [sic].”
|Playing up victimization for sympathy while flipping who is the victim and who is the perpetrator||“The news, the false accusations—today I can’t feel my freedom yet; it was just like coming out of a prison to another prison.”
It is clear that, in Saeed’s mind, Naghmeh should still be standing strong and celebrating victory with him. He’s the victim, the poor prisoner still being tortured.
|Striving for an awe-inspiring, flawless public image||“I was trying as hard as possible to encourage them from the phone.”
Here he shows how he was the one to encourage his wife and children when he was imprisoned.
“Naghmeh is my hero; she stood strong for years.”
He still calls Naghmeh his hero.
“I stayed one night in jail, and the day after that was the court hearing, and Naghmeh said, ‘I made a mistake. He never did those things.’”
He shows that she’s the one who admitted she made a mistake calling 911 to report his abuse.
Saeed works hard in his answers to paint himself as the perfect, non-perfect sinner in need of his Jesus. He hopes the reader will think he is a wonderful, loving, forgiving man.
|Seeking alliances on their side||After being found guilty of domestic assault, Saeed “talked with Franklin Graham. He asked me to keep silent and not say anything about anyone.”
It’s not like Saeed has reached out to any experts in domestic violence. Instead, he reached out to someone who blatantly minimizes it.
|Spreading confusion and double standards||I found so many examples of double-speak that I just picked my top three:
1. In 2007, he didn’t understand what was happening in the court system—but Franklin Graham told him to keep silent. Well, which is it? Why would you need to keep silent if you didn’t understand what happened in the first place?
Let’s be honest—wanting to kill a pastor is abusive.
|Exaggerating what they have accomplished and overemphasizing their worth||“People now have two different Saeeds. One of them is a hero of their faith . . .”
“I believe my case and my imprisonment was just to bring the revival, to bring unity, to start a momentum that pushes the leaders in the way that we should go.”
If God calling him with “a huge voice shaking my room like a bomb” isn’t a dramatic telling, I don’t know what is. It’s not like he’s Saint Paul.
|Minimizing and underemphasizing the victim’s concerns and thoughts||Regarding Saeed’s 2007 domestic abuse conviction:
“Everything that happened was between Naghmeh, the lawyer, and the court, so I didn’t know what was going on.”
“Naghmeh said, ‘I made a mistake. He never did those things.’ So they told me they had dismissed it.”
Victims often claim to have made a mistake the day after an accusation. It’s how you survive in the world with your intimate partner after the violence. Her choice was actually completely normal, if that’s what happened.
|Speaking with absolute certainty||He’s asked point blank if the accusations are false and his answer: “Yes.” That’s it. He’s certain.
He speaks with complete certainty in a few other places, like, “I completely reject all allegations” or “I never abused anyone in my life.”
|Speaking with contempt and disrespect for their ex-partner||“I’m very sad that the people who have prayed for me for years, some of them with tears and some of them writing me letters—I heard that 100,000 letters came to prison monthly, so people did a good job. But we couldn’t rejoice together for what God did in my life?”
So Naghmeh’s false accusations have halted the entire Christian community’s celebration of God’s work
|Working to show how they’ve been misunderstood||Saeed sat in prison. He was beaten and tortured. He was pressured to recant his faith. And now that he has been released, he is shocked about these “false accusations.” He thought he would be able to “relax.” But he feels like he’s still in prison.|
|Shifting blame onto others||There were many examples. Here are my top five.
1. He blames Naghmeh. She’s the one who admits to making a mistake. She’s the one who made the legal filing. She’s the one who’s a tool of Satan to bring confusion. She’s the accuser of false things. She’s the reason the Christians’ celebration was disrupted.
|Self-centered, focused on self above all||I tallied the number of times “I,” “I’m,” “my,” “myself,” and “me” were used in his answers.
If my count is correct, there are 84 uses of “I/I’m,” 25 uses of “myself/my,” and 15 uses of “me.” Total? 124 references to himself, in one short interview!
Problems inherent in the Christianity Today interview
Media outlets, especially Christian media outlets, must continue to improve how they handle allegations of domestic abuse. The Christianity Today interview illustrates several ways in which a victim is caused more suffering and a perpetrator is given more consideration than deserved.
I believe Beaty was careful not to minimize Saeed’s very obviously inconsistent statements about the abuse. And I would guess, after reading the interview, most readers will have serious doubts about Saeed’s claims that no violence occurred in the marriage. However, it is imperative we remember Saeed is a convicted abuser. His victim, Naghmeh, has come forward with allegations of ongoing abuse.
The decision to do this piece as an interview virtually ensured that Saeed, the convicted abuser, would be able to control the narrative. By structuring the piece in this way, it was almost inevitable that Naghmeh would be shamed and retraumatized. Christianity Today presented her convicted abuser with a very public forum in which to call his victim a liar.
Even though Naghmeh had been given the opportunity to present her case in other pieces run by Christianity Today, their decision to publish this particular interview (in which a convicted abuser denies his crime, shifts the blame to others, and exaggerates his own importance), truly underscores the patriarchal blindness we suffer in this society generally, and Christian culture more specifically, which inevitably allows abusers, especially males, the opportunity to control the abuse narrative.
Allowing Saeed a public forum in which to further denigrate Naghmeh, Christianity Today also denigrates every woman who has heard an overuse of the word “I” as they were being beaten, and shames every victim who takes the blame on themselves when it’s not theirs to take. The consequences of this piece reach further than one victim.
Was this Christianity Today’s intention? I highly doubt it. But this secondary trauma will still affect hundreds of readers in ways unintended.
This is a problem within our society. We constantly give the abuser a voice over the victim and intended or not, this article reinforces that problem. This piece strengthens the argument that victims should not be believed and abusers (particularly men) deserve an opportunity to control the narrative.
Those of us who working In the fields of domestic violence and sexual assault often speak of the importance of language and phrasing. I am troubled by the wording of Beaty’s question about Saeed’s 2007 abuse conviction. She asks, “Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.” If the question had to be asked, it should have been framed in a way that allowed the language to reflect the severity of the crime. By using the word “misdemeanor,” the offense is relegated to the severity of a traffic violation. Was the word “misdemeanor” necessary? Probably not.
A leading publication like Christianity Today could lead the way in changing the language we use to describe domestic abuse. Domestic abuse is not a traffic violation. It is a horrible crime of dehumanization.
Another issue I find in this article involves the questions in the later part of the interview. These questions seem to allow Saeed the status of an expert on persecuted Christians and the future of the Church. By first asking questions about his marital abuse, in which he denies wrong-doing despite a conviction, and then continuing the interview and framing him as a trusted expert in any area of Christian life, is to risk minimizing the fundamental problems with this man’s judgment, honesty, and character. This begs the question: Should an abuser who is unwilling to admit to injuring another person be asked to give advice about where America is heading? Again I say, probably not.
Finally, as a survivor of domestic abuse, I cannot emphasize enough how painful and damaging reading this article must have been for Naghmeh. Even if she knows people support her, reading this interview could have only served to magnify the pain, doubts, and confusion that are the inevitable result of trauma. When something similar happened to me, it tore into the core of my being, becoming a source of secondary traumatization. I hope in the future, Christian publications more carefully consider their responsibility to all survivors, and not allow a convicted abuser a forum in which to attempt to control the narrative, and thus inflict more trauma.
1 – Similar lists can be found in resources like Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (Berkley Publishing Group: New York, 2002) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s resource When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse (Hunter House: Alameda, 2006). (back to text)
Dr. Christy Sim has a doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness with her main area of emphasis and research centering around healing after domestic violence. Her dissertation was titled: “Body, Theology, and Intimate Partner Violence: Healing Fragmentation through Spiritual Play.” She currently works at the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and sits on the Institutional Review Board for Claremont School of Theology, where she assesses care for vulnerable populations being researched by PhD and Masters students.
She has a chapter titled “Celebration of Strength,” published in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith (edited by Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro, White Cloud Press, 2013), where she tells her own story of leaving an abusive relationship.
Related Material on Christian Feminism Today
“How to Help a Victim of Domestic Violence“
“Domestic Violence Allegations in the Faith-Based Community: How Shall We Respond?“