Content warning: Discussion of domestic violence.
For much of the second half of the Obama administration, Iranian-born pastor Saeed Abedini was the face of persecuted Christians around the world. He spent almost four years in an Iranian prison on trumped-up charges of endangering national security. In truth, he had been ensnared in the heavy-handed persecution that Christians in Iran have long faced under the mullahs. But by the time he was released in January 2016, he had been exposed as an abusive jerk. HIs wife, Naghmeh Panahi, revealed in November 2015 that she had endured years of physical and emotional abuse at Abedini’s hands. According to Panahi, the emotional abuse continued unabated, even while Abedini was imprisoned.
Last month, Panahi—who divorced Abedini in 2017 and returned to her birth surname—told Christian journalist Julie Roys that when she began speaking out, one of the biggest heavyweights in the evangelical world tried to bludgeon her into silence: Franklin Graham. Panahi released a tranche of email exchanges in which Graham subjected her to victim-blaming and victim-shaming of the worst type, and also recounted phone conversations in which Graham did the same.
Not much fazes me about the religious right anymore, but reading and listening to Panahi recount how Graham subjected her to this ham-handed bullying made my blood run cold—even more so after I chatted with Panahi myself via Twitter direct messages. As outrageous as it has been to see Graham use the legacy of his father, Billy Graham, to carry water for the religious right, what he did to Panahi is far, far worse. The more I’ve thought about it since writing about it late last month, the more I believe that we need to find a way to make Graham answer for it.
Of all the emails Panahi released, the one that Graham sent her in January 2016—not long before Abedini was released—really drove me up the wall. By this time, Panahi and her two children had moved back in with Panahi’s parents. And yet Graham saw fit to rebuke her for it, saying that the Bible required her to “leave mother and father” and “become one flesh.” He told Panahi that her kids “need their father (and) they need you,” and warned that “a broken home” could potentially “destroy their lives.” He suggested that she and Abedini “get away from both (your) families” and reconcile.
Graham fired off this email knowing about Abedini’s abusive history. Panahi told me that the abuse started almost from the time they started dating, not long after they met at a church in Iran—with Abedini first “criticizing me of my looks,” then “isolating me.” He started pushing and shoving her, and it progressed to full-on beatings after they were married. For instance, in 2005, he beat her so badly at their then-home in Dubai that Panahi says she actually feared she would die.
Over the next seven years, Panahi alleges, Abedini abused her in almost every conceivable way—as she told me, “everything from name calling to isolating me to beating to the silent treatment.” She only realized it was abuse when she had a conversation in November 2015 with David Chadwick, a longtime pastor here in Charlotte. It was only then, she told Roys, that the scales built up by her own Middle Eastern background (she was born in Iran and came to the U.S. when she was nine) and how she was taught to “submit” to Abedini fell from her eyes.
How in the world could Graham even think that any woman should go back to that environment—especially a mother with children? The lack of empathy is appalling. And to suggest that staying out of that environment could “destroy” her kids? Panahi was doing her most basic duty as a mother by protecting her kids.
Then again, it isn’t all that surprising considering how Graham reacted when Panahi told her family’s supporters that she was coming to terms with the abuse she endured. Panahi told Roys that Graham actually had the nerve to ask her if she was cheating on Abedini. She also recalled that American Center for Law and Justice general counsel Jay Sekulow, who helped lead the effort to advocate for Abedini, suggested—with a straight face—that she ought to apologize and chalk up her claims to mental illness. The drumbeat continued throughout 2016. Later that January, Graham chided Panahi for coming forward, saying that she “exposed [Abedini] to the whole world and embarrassed him”—while in the same breath calling Abedini a “hero.” At a tense meeting in August 2016 between Graham, Panahi, Abedini, and their shared pastor, Graham actually suggested Panahi was making the whole thing up.
I’m well aware that divorce is still a scarlet letter in a good chunk of the evangelical world—a big reason why much of that world still has its head up its rear about domestic violence. I’ve seen it firsthand myself; when I was still dating after my own divorce, one woman told me that even though she knew the hell I’d endured in my first marriage, she still looked at me and thought, “This is someone’s husband.”
Yet even with that understanding, I couldn’t get my head around these blatant low blows from Graham and Sekulow. Panahi, however, has an idea about the root of these allegations; she told me that people believed that she was making up her claims of abuse because “Naghmeh must be with someone and is throwing Saeed under the bus and calling him abusive so she can move on.”
Panahi told me something else that threw me for a loop: Over the years, she’s had a lot of women reach out to tell her they went through similar experiences. I initially thought such wrong-headed thinking was restricted to particularly hidebound elements of the evangelical world. For instance, Baptist fundamentalist Larry Solomon believes that a woman calling out emotional and verbal abuse is stepping out of her “subordinate place.” When I was still dating, one woman I talked to, who was raised in the United Pentecostal Church (the fringe Pentecostal sect that requires women to wear long skirts and not cut their hair) recalled that when she left her husband after years of the kind of verbal and physical abuse Panahi endured, her then-pastor actually told her she had no biblical grounds for doing so.
Then I remembered that James Dobson, who is as “mainstream” as you can get in the conservative evangelical world, has told women for the better part of four decades that they shouldn’t walk out in an abusive situation. In his 1983 book, Love Must Be Tough, Dobson tells “Laura” that “divorce isn’t the answer” to the ordeal that her two-faced abusive jerk of a husband has put her and their kids through. Rather, she should try to “change her husband’s behavior.”
Dobson does concede that the woman should move out until the husband shows he’s willing to change. But it’s beyond comprehension that anyone, especially a trained psychologist like Dobson, would even think you should stay in a marriage when abuse has gone on for this long—especially when there are kids in the picture. What makes this even more outrageous is that this advice has remained unchanged through four editions, the most recent in 2010. That is way, way beyond any possible good-faith interpretation. And yet, apparently this is still standard operating procedure in much of the evangelical world.
Panahi told Roys that she felt compelled to attend that August 2016 meeting. At the time, she felt that if she didn’t do so, she would be blamed for the marriage falling apart. In what world can a man beat and berate his wife for more than a decade, and be arrested for it at least once—and the wife potentially get blamed if the marriage implodes? Apparently, in the evangelical world.
This sounds even more outrageous considering the historical context. Remember, this played out right around the time that Graham and the nation’s other so-called “moral guardians” had dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s on their Faustian deal with Trump. Indeed, Graham’s emails to Panahi have almost the same tenor as his breathtaking suggestion that, as outrageous as the Access Hollywood tapes were, they didn’t matter as much as the Supreme Court. In particular, that suggestion has the same tenor as an email in which he called Abedini a “hero.”
I already knew why the religious right bowed down to their new messiah, Lord Donald Trump, The Most Merciful. But now I know how. If Graham was willing to throw a fellow “sister in Christ” who was a domestic violence survivor under the bus, is it any wonder that he was willing to effectively give the finger to the women who have come forward to say Trump harassed them? Or to dismiss Trump bragging about how he could “grab ‘em by the pussy”? The more I think about it, Graham’s outrageous treatment of Panahi proves that Trump didn't exploit a bug in the religious right. He exploited a feature.
This is a feature that has no place in our discourse. Graham’s reckoning for what he did to this brave woman is long overdue. And he won’t be able to say a damn thing about it if we demand that reckoning. Roys did us a public service by making it impossible to spin this as just another “librul” attack on people of faith. Even without the politics to consider, when a man purporting to be a minister bullies a mother for doing her most basic duty of protecting her children, not even the most warped interpretation of the First Amendment can or should insulate that supposed man of God.
The signal must go out—Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association must dump Graham, and promptly. I repeat: When you bully a domestic violence survivor in this way, it absolutely is our business ... and we demand accountability.