A child custody battle in New York City is raising questions about freedom of speech and religion – and civil liberties advocates are sure to be paying close attention.
Nabila Albarghouthy, a naturalized American citizen and a practicing Muslim, claims that her ex-husband has been indoctrinating their child with extremist ideology and is seeking sole custody of her now 11-year-old son – a claim he denies.
“I fear that my son is learning extreme violence and that can potentially put him and others at risk,” she said during a press conference on Wednesday. “I don’t know what happens when he goes to his father. I know that when he returns he’s not happy. He’s irritable. And that’s not the beautiful young boy that I know.”
She divorced her ex-husband, Isam Albarghouthy, in 2013, according to court documents. They had two children together: a daughter in 1999, and a son in 2006. Nabila also has a daughter from a previous relationship.
In an affidavit filed this month in support of her petition seeking custody, Nabila Albarghouthy claimed the marriage disintegrated after her ex-husband “became extreme in his interpretation of the Muslim religion” in a way that “detrimentally affected our family,” according to the complaint. She said he demanded that she dress more modestly, stop exercising and allow him to bring home an “additional wife.”
She alleged that he became physically abusive toward her when she confronted him about his correspondence with the woman he was planning on taking as a “second wife,” according to the affidavit.
Isam Albarghouthy’s lawyer denied the allegations, calling them “false and outrageous.”
“She’s clearly retaliating against my client for filing a petition to award him custody of their son,” attorney Joy S. Joseph said. “And she is obviously hoping to use these false allegations both to defend against the charges that Isam made against her in his custody petition and to gain leverage in her own motion for a change of custody that I just received this morning.” She declined to provide CNN with a copy of the petition filed by her client.
“I’m appalled that these parents’ private custody dispute has been exposed and exploited in an apparent effort to capitalize on the current wave of Islamophobia and make some news,” Joseph said.
Attorney Larry Hutcher, a managing partner at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron, the firm representing Nabila Albarghouthy, said she was not seeking to foster an anti-Muslim response by filing the custody petition.
“To us, the concerns that we had in bringing this petition was just the opposite: that this would be used as a further proof to support anti-Islamic beliefs or conduct. The fact that she had the bravery and the strength to bring this preceding on, knowing that that would be a question that she’d face, was a very difficult choice for her,” he told reporters Wednesday. “To claim that it was done to take advantage of an anti-Islamic notion in this country is just the opposite. So what she has done is very, very brave, and she’s did it with great risk to herself, but her need to protect her child is what motivated her.”
Nabila Albarghouthy claims in the affidavit that her son has started to express extremist, anti-American views under the influence of his father. Her son also told her that he wants to amass a “cabinet full of guns” when he gets older, she said.
According to the filing, the child, who spends every other weekend with his father and has dinner with him one night a week, has been coming home and telling his mother that she is not a good Muslim because she participates in the exercise program Crossfit and dresses inappropriately.
The affidavit also describes an incident on the child’s middle school playground that alarmed school officials and led federal authorities to investigate Isam Albarghouthy. The investigation included “several” interviews of Nabila “by a person who identified himself as part of a special task force.”
The court papers say that in September 2016, “certain students” told Albarghouthy’s son that “Jesus is God.” Her son responded, saying ”’No – Allah is God,’ and adding that (he) is different because ‘I would die for my God and they would not die for their God.’”
That comment prompted the school principal to call the police, who then alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
A law enforcement source told CNN that nothing was found as a result of the probe. JTTF policy is to neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.
“My deep concern is that Respondent (Isam Albarghouthy) is radicalizing a beautiful, young, innocent mind; a fragile child,” Nabila Albarghouthy said in the affidavit.
’Unprecedented’ for a custody lawsuit
This lawsuit is the first of its kind, said Leslie Barbara, Nabila Albarghouthy’s lawyer. “It is unprecedented that a parent has sought custody predicated on indoctrination of extremist Muslim philosophy,” said Barbara, the co-chair of the Divorce and Family Law practice group at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron. “But there is precedent where courts have gotten involved and shifted custody when there is exposure to religious indoctrination that has been detrimental to the child.”
While the Constitution protects free speech and the freedom to practice religion, Barbara said, courts are authorized to award or modify custody arrangements to protect the best interests of the child.
Nabila Albarghouthy is seeking sole custody of her son, with the child’s father allowed only supervised visits.
“I myself am a proud Muslim American,” Nabila Albarghouthy said in the affidavit. “I assure this Court that I am not seeking to impinge Respondent’s right to practice however he believes,” she continued. “What I will not tolerate is his efforts to harm (my son) based on his misguided and extremist beliefs.”
Her lawyer laid out the thrust of the argument she would make in the case.
“If you have a father making derogatory statements, if he’s ranting Anti-American sentiments, if he’s instilling hatred toward others that are not Muslim, that, by its very nature, is psychologically harmful,” Barbara said. “That is the basis for seeking custody.”
His character started to ‘noticeably change’
When she first met her husband, Nabila Albarghouthy said in the court filing, he was a different person.
“During most of our relationship up until 2007, (Isam Albarghouthy) was pleasant, open minded and allowed me to be myself,” she said in the affidavit. The family faithfully observed the pillars of Islam, she said, and while she dressed modestly, she did not cover her hair, and he accepted her choice.
“Respondent’s character first started to noticeably change in approximately 2007, which I believe was precipitated by his losing employment in Minnesota, where we were living at the time,” she said in the filing.
Isam Albarghouthy had been working as an IT specialist for Hennepin County, Minnesota, but was convicted of taking and selling county property, later serving 10 days in prison, after which he had a hard time finding work in the area.
The family moved to New York after a cousin offered Isam a job at a shipping company. At some point in 2008, Isam began insisting on worshiping at a more “formal” mosque than the one the family attended and began attending other mosques in Yonkers, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx with his cousin, in order to “be around Arab-speaking Muslims,” the court papers said.
Soon after, according to the affidavit, he began demanding that Nabila change her clothing and exercise habits, stop wearing makeup, stop socializing and stop taking the children to visit her father in Jerusalem. Over time, he stopped contributing financially to the family, began to take trips alone and requested that she turn over her paycheck to him or stop working entirely, the affidavit said; he also began to forbid their daughter’s attendance at school events like homecoming, graduation parties or other outings, and would not allow her to read books in English.
“We are different than Americans; we do not socialize with them,” Nabila’s affidavit quoted him as saying. Her son also said his father told him “Americans are different, we are not like them, Allah states we are in a state of war against them, and we die for Allah,” according to the affidavit.
The couple’s son has echoed those anti-American comments at school, leading to fights, the court papers said.
“This is not an indictment of any religion,” said Barbara, the attorney. “This is not fighting any ideological war. This is really brought on to protect an innocent child.”