A viral video has in many ways exposed a practice of child abuse at some religious schools that clerics don’t want people to talk about.
A sexually explicit video involving a senior Muslim cleric that surfaced a few days back has reignited a debate on the seemingly rampant abuse that takes place in Pakistan’s religious schools known as madrassahs.
Seventy-year-old Aziz ur Rehman, a scholar at one of the top Islamic institutions in Pakistan's second largest city of Lahore, has confessed he forced a student to perform sexual acts in return for a promise to let him take an exam after he was caught cheating. Rehman is now in police custody.
The case involving Rehman, who’s a Mufti, which means he’s among the highest echelons of the clergy, can become a test case for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government on how to tackle a politically sensitive matter, experts said.
“What I am concerned about is all those kids who are still studying at that madrassah (seminary). We don’t know how many of them have been abused in the same way, ” said Dr Kishwar Enam, a pediatrician who works with underge victims of assault and is affiliated with multiple NGOs.
“Authorities must immediately screen all the students for any signs of abuse. We can already see many supporters of this mufti are coming forward in his defence — this clearly means many of them could can even be involved in a similar crime,” she told TRT World.
Jamia Manzor Al-Islamia, where Rehman has been a teacher for many years, is home to more than 500 kids between the ages of 8 and 25 who come from poor families and remote towns and villages.
Both Rehman and the student who leaked the video hail from a region in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which borders Afghanistan.
It’s difficul to estimate how rampant sexual abuse is in the 20,000 seminaries spread aross the country as most cases are never reported because victims and their families are too scared to come forward, said Rana Asif, a childs rights activist who has assisted street children since the early 2000s.
“One way to look at the stats is that in the last year there were 2,690 cases of sexual abuse involving children. And out of every 100 cases that we deal with, between 10 and 20 percent involve kids from the seminaries,” he told TRT World.
Sahil, an NGO, said it recorded 42 cases of sexual abuse or assault that took place within a religious insitution in Pakistan. It collected the information from the crime reported in the newspapers.
Assault at the hands of a cleric hasn’t come as a shock for many. In Europe, North America and Australia, Catholic churches have faced a storm of criticism for trying to hide systematic abuse at the hands of priests.
In Pakistan, generations have grown up hearing stories about a friend, sibling or a cousin who was molested by a religious tutor — even if the recitation classes were taken in their own homes.
It’s only recently that cameras in mobile phones have helped capture some of the most heinous violations. With such videos going viral, many more students are coming forward to share their own tales.
But Pakistani courts do not consider videos as admissible evidence, making the job of the police difficult when it comes to building a case, said a senior police official.
“Conviction rate in cases of violence against children is low because the witnesses, in most instances, change their statements. For a long time we have been recommending that it’s time to update our criminal justice system,” he told TRT World.
‘Everyone has to go through it’
Even if a child in a seminary dares to come forward to complain about abuse, he’s very often told to keep his mouth shut and not to discuss it with anyone, said Sabookh Syed, a journalist and researcher, who is at the forefront of reporting on child abuse stories concering clerics.
“The clerics twist an Islamic concept to justify this silence. They say you are supposed to cover up other people’s mistakes and if you do that Allah will similarly whitewash your sins.”
Over a period spanning 15 years, Syed has investigated multiple instances of abuse in seminaries. He said there’s a deliberate attempt at the top leadership to cover up child molestation and abuse.
“If things go really out of control at a madrassah, do you know what they ask teachers to do? They ask them to fast twice a week. They think fasting helps reduce sexual appetite. If the abuse continues then they ask all the teachers and students to fast!”
One factor that is usually not considered is also that studies have repeatedly shown that rape is not always sexually motivated, but about power, control and violence.
Child abuse workers such as Rana Asif said that it’s routine that a teacher or caretaker found to be involved is fired. However, the matter is hushed up and the accused cleric is never prosecuted.
“Even though such abuse is a non-compoundable offence, parents of the kids end up compromising with the mosque or seminary administration. That’s why the conviction rate is so low.”
The boy who was sodomised by Aziz ur Rehman recorded the video of the act more than a year ago. He had reportedly informed his parents and the seminary administration but was asked not to talk about it. He has been in hiding ever since the video was leaked on Twitter on June 14.
“I personally know of 2 cases where a child was molested inside a seminary. In both cases the kids were forced by the parents to go back to the same seminary. Some parents don’t even recognise child sexual assault as something that’s improper. They say ‘hota he sab ke saath, koi baat nahi’ (it is not a big deal, everyone has to go through it),” said Dr Enam, the pediatrician.
Even in the case of the senior cleric, Aziz ur Rehman, police officers fear that the family of the boy might end up forgiving the cleric.
“This cleric was really confident that he could have negotiated some sort of a deal with the family of the student if he wasn’t arrested and had a bit more time,” Shoaib Khurram Janbaz, a senior police officer who is part of the investigation, told TRT World.
“He even sent a delegation of local elders and clerics (known locally as a jirga) to the student’s parents to request that he be forgiven.”
It’s common in parts of Pakistan’s rural areas to reach out-of-court settlements at the behest of influential people in a village or a town.
“We are trying our best to make a strong case. But if the victim reaches a compromise then there’s a possibility that Aziz ur Rehman will walk free,” said Janbaz.
A state of disbelief
Madrassahs in Pakistan are charity-run boarding houses, which offer free meals, lodging and education to some of the poorest children who would otherwise end up on the streets.
“Parents think they are sending their kids to a better place. I don’t think any other class of citizens is respected more than the religious scholars in our society,” said Syed, the journalist.
The grinding schedule of theological and religious lectures turns even weak and shy students into fearsome debaters — at least on matters of religion.
“So when a seminary student goes back to his village and eloquently presents his views and confidently drives forward a narrative, his poor parents and people around him are in awe. Parents are even more thankful to the institution,” said Syed.
Pakistani religious institutions and leaders extend their influence around the world. Scholars such as Maulana Abul A’la Maudidi have left a deep imprint on the Muslim Brotherhood. Missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat’s Maulana Tariq Jameel has millions of followers globally.
This along with a belief that clerics are doing God’s work leave people in a state of disbelief when sexual scandals come to light, said Syed.
“These clerics can be very learned men. But being very smart and knowledgeable doesn’t absolve you from a crime. What we see is that top scholars are not ready to publicly condemn what has happened in this case.”
Aziz ur Rehman is also a senior leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Pakistan’s largest religious political party headed by influential cleric Maulana Fazal ur Rehman (no relation with Aziz). Aziz ur Rehman’s affiliation with the party was suspended, only after his arrest.
Fazal and other religious leaders are facing criticism for not issuing any statements condemning the cleric or willing to accept that abuse occurs in some of the seminaries. Instead, religious scholars see the entire episode as another attempt by the secular class to lobby against them.
“People like Aziz ur Rehman must be given a harsher punishment than any other criminal because they represent Islamic schools,” said Maulana Zahid Qasmi, a leading scholar of the Deobandi sect, who is also a member of the board that oversees religious schools in the country.
“At the same time, I’d add that this case must be treated as an individual’s act and should not be used to malign madrassahs or Islam,” he told TRT World.
In 2019, Pakistan was roiled by a series of assaults on children in a city called Kasur. Public pressure forced the government to adopt the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Act — a law against child abuse named after a young girl who was brutally raped and killed.
While laws have been passed and multiple state-run bodies have been setup to counter child abuse, lack of enforcement and resources have not helped in reducing the cases of abuse, child rights activists said.
It’s all the more complicated when authorities have to deal with madrassahs.
“The state institutions, which deal with child protection policies, hardly have any reach when it comes to religious schools,” said Afshan Tehseen, Chairperson of National Commission of Rights of Child, a federal body.
This is concerning because “the isolated environment of religious schools makes children even more vulnerable to abuse,” she told TRT World.
Some activists such as Dr Enam and Rana Asif have tried to organise seminars in seminaries on educating kids about abuse and how to avoid it. They are advocating for child protection committees and dedicated officials for hearing complaints in schools and seminaries.
“But many of the madrassahs won’t even let us come near their gate,” said Dr Enam.