Sexual abuse of children is on the rise in North America and as the list of victims grow, so does the number of communities forced to deal with it. Unfortunately, Canada's Muslim community, estimated at 600,000, has had to learn about the devastating effects of such abuse the hard
According to the U. S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey released in August 1995, sexual assault is one
of the fastest growing crimes in America today, even as it is still one of the least reported. About 61% of female sexual assault victims are under 18 years of age. Teens 16 to 19 were three-and-half times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. The U.S. Justice Department also reports that a one in two rape victim is under age 18; one in six is under 12.
The arrest last week of a residential Islamic school principal has brought this issue to the forefront. The principal of the institute, a widely respected mufti, is charged with eight counts of sexual assault, exploitation and interference involving four former and current male students. The alleged victims now range in age from 10 to 21. The charges arise from incidents - both at the school and at the principal's residence -- alleged to have taken place from 1992 to 2000.
The school, situated on a secluded 15-acre campus, houses 130 live-in students from around North America enrolled in grades 2 to 12. They are taught to memorize the Quran, Arabic and Urdu languages as well as Islamic law and jurisprudence.
The 40-year-old father of four was formally charged and arrested on Wednesday, April 4th. The name of the accused and the institution is not reported here to ensure that the reputation of both are not tarnished in the event he is found not guilty of these heinous charges. Unfortunately, there is a tendency on the part of many of us to let our anger and disgust overpower our sense of fairness. We should stop fueling the rumor mills and insist on the presumption of innocence. Let's give the benefit of doubt and not forget that a good reputation is hard to build but easy to break. As an unknown author once wrote "Child abuse brings out the best in us (the desire to protect our children) and the worst in us (the lynch mob)." We must strike a balance between these two instincts of our humanity, as hard as this may prove.
Allegations about such incidents had been circulating for some time both within the school and community. It seems like nobody on staff or in the community took them seriously. But since the arrest and the ensuing investigation, the case has gripped the community. Many are left asking how such a thing could happen in our community. Indeed, the first reaction is one of disbelief and denial.
As usual, there are those who blame the media for even reporting the story. Of course, it is evidence of anti-Muslim conspiracy to some. On the contrary, the reports have been quite fair for the most part. No different when a priest, teacher or anyone else in authority breaches their trust. Most certainly, the media will and should report about the story given its human-interest value. It is unfortunate that Islam and Muslims will get bad press in this particular situation given that the institution's stated mandate is to produce religious leaders - "muftis" and "alims" - to serve the North American community.
The media issue aside, the real issue to be focused on is that of sexual abuse. At one time, many of us dismissed the problem of child abuse as being restricted to priests and Christian schools. It did not happen in our community, at least that's what we hoped. Unfortunately, our community is no longer immune to most of the ills plaguing wider society.
Many are left asking how such a thing could happen in our community. Indeed, the first reaction is one of disbelief and denial.
But if we consider the sobering fact that 89% of child sexual assault cases involve persons known to the child, such as a caretaker or family acquaintance (Diana Russell Survey, 1978, Child Lures, Ltd), then we would do more to safeguard our own children.
Just a few years ago, another teacher at an Islamic boys school training huffaz (memorizers of the Quran) was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting boys under his care. The matter is still pending before the courts. Moreover, there are numerous other instances of abuse of both children and adults in Islamic institutions even beyond schools. I am personally aware of a number of such cases involving mosques and other community institutions. In fact, one need only look at the court dockets of major North American cities to see the number of Muslims (at least by name) charged with incest, sexual assault and other related charges.
Interestingly, to my surprise, while discussing this most recent story, a number of people have come out reluctantly and spoken of their own experiences while going through madrassas (Islamic schools) and even in their own families.
I could go on and on with a grocery list of incidents. I'm sure most people have some direct experience or know of someone who has undergone the degrading experience. Suffice it to say that the problem may be close to reaching crisis levels if it has not already. Keeping quiet about it does not make it non-existent, and denying it has only made it worse.
The perception that our children are safe among our own people is just that--a perception. However uncomfortable this thought might be, the reality is far from this. This incident is a wake up call for us to take the issue of sexual abuse of children seriously. The first step is to accept that our community must begin to deal with this growing problem.
We must then move beyond just reacting to these situations. Islamic institutions must work to develop and establish mechanisms and
procedures to help its members, employees, students, teachers and parents understand and discuss sexual harassment, how to prevent it as well as how to deal with its occurrence and aftermath. Too many children are being scarred and nothing is being done to help those victimized by predators. We would come a long way if we simply acknowledged the increasing frequency of such incidents in our midst.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto-based lawyer and columnist for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (www.washinton-report.org)
and Meantime Magazine (India). He is also a Board Member of the Islamic Social Services Association of North America (http://www.issaservices.com).