The shameful silence: abuse and repression between tradition and lack of education


Muslims in the UK, as in another countries both in the geographical west or east, have to reflect carefully on the issue of child abuse within their heterogeneous communities as well as religious organisations, instead of wrapping themselves in a cloak of embarrassment, silence, and unacceptable complicity reinforced by the shared idea that, as in an interview one person told me, ‘these things do not happen in our community and do not happen among Muslims’. In reality they happen as often as in other communities, regardless of ethnic and religious background.  

Recently a young woman told, in a media report, of a nightmare of abuse perpetuated by her father and the lack of assistance she received from both the imam (who actually asked her to passively accept the paternal abuse) and also, and more worryingly, the local authorities. There are some cultural,  emotional and social constraints within religious communities that sometimes may cause sexual and violent abuse against children and women to remain hidden or not be reported even by the victims themselves.

Muslims are not the only ones affected, of course, and we know very well of the cases that have involved the Catholic church as well as other religious (and non-religious) denominations. Of course, the culprits have justified their behaviour in various ways, including even ‘religious’ practice and obligations. Indeed, any serious discussion of this sensitive topic needs to clear the misleading conception that it is the religion which induces, or even requires, the abusive behaviour. This is essential for two reasons: if the religion is wrongly blamed, the believers, in this case the Muslims, would feel the need to protect the religion through denying what in reality sometimes happens in religious places, which were supposed to be a ‘sancta sanctorum’ for victims of any form of abuse. 

Hence, statements such as ‘Muslims commit rape and abuse that are inspired by Islam’ or ‘Jews abuse children because this is authorised by the Talmud’ are not only seriously misleading allegations, but they also prevent the religious community from openly discussing the issues they face. Surely, we can find in the Talmud, Hadiths or any other religious texts semiotic elements that individuals may use to demonstrate their viewpoint (or justify their actions). 

Take for example the claim often put forward by anti-Semitic advocates that ‘Judaism supports child abuse’. This horrible allegation is often supported by reporting that for the Talmud, the hymen of a child is not considered to be the same as the hymen of an adult woman and so penetration of a little girl is no more significant than ‘putting a finger in a eye’. Of course, similiar to much discourse and rhetoric against Islam and Muslims, this is based on the decontextualization and falsification of theological debates for anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim reasons.

Hence, if you wish to understand the complexity of such a Talmudic sentence, you need to look at the academic discourse, instead of being deceived by populist arguments. With just a little investigation, it can be discovered that the Talmud, and in particular Judaism, on all levels, today does not allow abuse against any human being and the Talmud intended the above assertion as part of a legal code of measurement and punishment, which is very complex and cannot be trivialised.  

Similarly to the case of Judaism, we can find many ridiculous statements about Islam (or Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other creed) and how it allegedly supports immoral practices and hence should be ‘stopped’. As I have often argued, a religion does not exist without a mind interpreting it. It is the person that ‘makes’ Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and so on, as per his or her own character: there is thus nothing that cannot be justified through any form of holy or un-holy scripture. 

Yet today Muslims in Europe, and particularly in the UK (with few exceptions) tend to be very silent and distant from a debate that is very much needed, since the cases revealed to date (see here and here) are statistically too few when compared with the average existing in any community. Interestingly enough, in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt, the debate, though not without obstacles, appears to have begun.

The main element should be a reconsideration of what is tradition and an evaluation of the good it contains, and what  is a ‘tradition’ which has actually lost, in globalised society, social control functions it may have once served, leaving in its wake many holes that can be exploited. This is the case, for example, among South Asian families and communities, with ‘respect’, shame, and honour. The shift in dynamics from the village to the city have changed the rules of the game and how they operate, often transforming these concepts into monsters of oppression instead of social control mechanisms. In certain cases, the family do not even realise that the ‘traditional’ way of understanding ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ can be exploited, helping the victimisation of one’s own children

The imams today cannot be merely spiritual advisors or, even worse, only able to recite the required prayers.  Rather they need support and the necessary education to fulfill the roles they are needed to. It is important that the community becomes more in charge of the dynamics existing within mosques. At the same time, the Muslim community needs to reinforce the links with the wider society and local authorities. When needed, the authorities cannot dismiss issues as only ‘community related’ or avoid intervention – rather, prevention through education is the best way to proceed. Also more social anthropological research is needed as far as the Muslim communities and societies and the perception and awareness concerning child abuse. 

There is a need for closing the increasingly wide generational gap which we can witness between the first generation of Muslim migrants living in the west and their children and grand-children. For a long time, education, aimed towards a misguided assimilation, aimed only at the younger generations. The mistakes of this policy are more than evident today. 

A strict collaboration is needed. However, it should be one coming not from the leadership or the usual assortment of Muslim intellectuals, but rather from the bottom up. For this reason, education is the only way to change attitudes and redirect tradition toward a more contemporary approach to life.

Muslim communities should learn to lead the discussion on controversial topics, instead of acting defensively. Religion, as I have said, does not exist in itself, and as many other cultural-social elements, it can be positive or negative. Yet people can make the difference if silence is broken. It is time that the Muslim communities discuss and manage their problems, recognise when and where they exist, and address them instead of hiding behind useless defensive attitudes of silence and fear.

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