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Sex Abuse in Islamic Schools By: Brian Murphy
Associated Press | Wednesday, September 21, 2005


The accounts are disturbing: beatings, forced sex and imprisonment with shackles and leg irons. Abuse accusations from hundreds of children sent to study at Islamic schools are prompting growing calls from parents and rights groups for a full-scale investigation.

But officials have moved slowly and cautiously in probing the charges of mistreatment in Quranic schools, or madrassas - pointing to a paradox across much of the Muslim world. It's often easier to tackle Islamic militants than to confront the cultural taboo on publicly airing alleged sex crimes and challenging influential clerics.

Still, if Islamic institutions ever face a reckoning over sexual abuse - such as the Roman Catholic upheavals in recent years - it could begin in Pakistan where institutions already are under unprecedented scrutiny by anti-terrorism agents.

"We are forcing people to look this problem in the eye," said Zia Ahmed Awan, whose group Madadgaar, or Helper, compiles reports of sexual abuse of children in Pakistan. "It is not anti-Muslim. It is not anti-cleric. We are looking out for the most vulnerable in society."

Last year, a Pakistani official stunned his nation by officially disclosing more than 500 complaints of sexual assaults against young boys studying in madrassas. Children's rights advocates were elated, feeling their long-standing claims had been validated. They also hoped Pakistan's actions would open related inquiries in other Muslim nations - similar to the domino effect through parishes after the Catholic abuse scandals broke in the 1980s.

No arrests

But there's been little progress since.

There have been no significant arrests or prosecutions involving alleged sex abuse in madrassas. Also, the official who made the revelations - Amir Liaquat Hussain, the deputy minister for religious affairs - now refuses to discuss the issue after reported death threats and harsh criticism from Islamic leaders. He turned down repeated interview requests by The Associated Press.

Every discussion about Pakistan's madrassas leads eventually in an uncomfortable direction for authorities: the potential problems of leaning too hard on Islamic schools.

The madrassas have ties to influential religious and political groups. The core of madrassa funding is a tour of powerful networks: government aid, Saudi donations and zakat, the traditional Islamic practice of giving alms.

The schools also serve as a social safety net in a nation with a galloping birth rate and nearly one-third of the population under the poverty line - meaning they cannot afford basic necessities.

Advantages

Poor families often count on the nation's more than 10,000 madrassas to take one or more young sons to ease financial strains at home. The boys typically receive little more than Quranic studies for an education. But the big dividend for families is the housing, clothes and meals offered the boys. The schools, which have up to 1 million students, operate with almost no official oversight.

"The mullahs think they are above the law," said Asma Jehanghir, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-government agency. "We have to break this wall of silence."

An Interior Ministry official confirmed that police are investigating some cases of alleged sex abuse by madrassa instructors. He declined to give further details or to be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Hanif Jalandhri, the head of the Federation of Madrassas, the main overseeing agency in Pakistan, acknowledged that abuses could occur, but disagreed it is a widespread problem.

"I cannot rule out isolated incidents of sex abuse at madrassas, but I reject reports that hundreds of students are being subjected to sexual attacks at madrassas," he told AP. "It is wrong."

Pakistani rights groups are encouraging parents and children to speak out and document abuse. Dozens of allegations of abuse in madrassas are being compiled - part of a wider campaign to draw attention to child abuse in a culture where domestic violence is common but rarely reaches the public's attention.

"The difference now is that no one can deny (abuse) is happening," said Manizeh Sano, executive director of Sahil, a group assisting child victims of sexual abuse. "The leaders of madrassas cannot turn their back on this problem anymore. That's a first step."

A madrassa teacher and two others are jailed awaiting trial in the port city of Karachi for an acid attack on a 14-year-old boy in 2002 after he allegedly refused to have sex with a cleric. The boy was blinded and badly disfigured. The suspects deny the charges.

In December, in another part of Karachi, Muhammad Askoroni's mother noticed a bite on the 10-year-old boy's neck. The child started crying and vomiting when asked what happened, said his mother, Dil Jauher.

The boy's claim: a cleric at his madrassa sodomized him after evening Quran classes, according to a complaint filed with police and the rights group Madadgaar.

Jauher claims a madrassa official and village elders offered her a bribe to keep the incident quiet. "But I want justice for my son," she told AP.

There have been no arrests yet in the case.

The files of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan include the affidavit of Atif Rehman, who was 11 when he was admitted to the Lahore Children's Hospital in April 2004 with head injuries and extensive bruises. He told investigators he was routinely beaten with iron rods at a madrassa in the northern city of Faisalabad and was chained when he tried to escape.

"The boy was bleeding from the mouth and nostrils," said his father, Muhammad Aashiq, according to the commission report.

A madrassa teacher, Qari Mahboob Aalam, denied the torture allegations, but admitted "it is a practice to chain students," the report said.

Penality

The maximum penalty in Pakistan for sexually attacking a child is life imprisonment, according to Karma Cauchy, a senior Pakistani lawyer. But tribal justice and Islamic law dominate in some parts of the country and could bring calls for violent punishment.

"When you start talking about it, then you start to think that things can change," said Fazila Gulrez, spokeswoman for the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. "That is what's happening here in Pakistan. People are starting to talk about it."

Other countries

The problem goes beyond Pakistan, according to scattered references to alleged sex abuse and other rights violations in madrassas noted in recent international reports.

A 2003 survey by the Thailand-based group ECPAT - or End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes - raised concerns about madrassa teachers in Mauritania forcing students to beg on the streets and hand over the money.

In Bangladesh, rights groups have increased calls for madrassa investigations after a teacher was arrested in March and charged with raping girl students, who are allowed to attend the schools that in many other countries are male-only.

In the Middle East, few activists have demanded investigations into conditions in Islamic schools, but that could change as groups increasingly challenge traditional centers of influence.

"Pakistan is now a center of the showdown between modernizing Islam and forces resisting change," said Irfan Khawaja, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who follows Islamic affairs.

"The madrassa issue is part of this. It will spread around the Islamic world."

Amnesty International and the Human Rights Council of Pakistan have recounted cases in Pakistan of students shackled to prevent escape and noted growing allegations of sex abuse.

"Leaders of religious parties resent official probing into the functioning of the madrassas and threaten retaliation if they are more closely controlled," Amnesty wrote.

The London bombings in July, meanwhile, could hasten the end to the madrassas' traditions of secrecy and autonomy in Pakistan.

At least one of the attackers visited a Pakistani madrassa. Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, has vowed to stamp out "extremism and militancy" in madrassas and has threatened to close schools that refuse to register with authorities by the end of the year.

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