Sexual abuse of young boys and girls in Pakistan's madrassas (Islamic schools) continues to be both pervasive and suppressed, according to the latest "Cruel Numbers" annual report by Sahil, a child-protection NGO operating in four of the country's main provinces.
A recent Associated Press (AP) probe provided accounts of the rampant pedophilia, allowed to go unchecked due to a combination of factors, among them the fact that most of the victims are from poor and vulnerable families. Those who do try to complain are often bribed or threatened into silence. As a result, the head of Sahil said, the 359 cases reported by the media over the past decade are "barely the tip of the iceberg."
A mere fraction of sexual-abuse allegations has reached the court adjudication stage, and only a handful of the perpetrators in those cases have been indicted; very few have been convicted. Islamic judicial officials, and even civil court judges, usually urge those accused of sexual abuse to offer "blood money" to the victim or the family in exchange for withdrawing the complaint and "forgiving" the perpetrator.
In addition, well-connected violators reach out to community leaders, particularly in rural areas, and persuade them to pressure parents of victims into keeping silent by accusing them of bringing shame to their villages or warning them that they will be subject to counter-charges of blasphemy.
The AP report further found links between some of the tens of thousands madrassas in Pakistan (22,000 registered ones and thousands more unregistered ones operating out of garages, abandoned storefronts and private homes) and terrorist networks. One mullah-instructor in Karachi accused of sexual abuse, for example, arrived in civil court surrounded by several members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba (Guards of the Prophet's Companions), a Sunni Islamic terrorist group with Pakistani government connections. The group's intimidating presence was enough to lead to the dismissal of the case.
The "infestation" of sexual and physical abuse in Pakistan's madrassas is made easier by the very nature of their fundamentalist Sunni curricula, which corresponds to and influences Pakistani society as a whole. Most of the country's madrassas espouse the Deobandi School of Sunni Islam, the Pakistani mirror image of Saudi Wahhabism. Many are financially supported by Saudi grants; some are even staffed by Saudi instructors.
Students at the Jamia Binoria Madrassa in Karachi. Picture is for illustrative purposes only. (Image source: United States Journalists Exchange/Flickr)
The permissive attitude toward pedophilia in madrassas is related to the primary status of the adult male in Pakistan, as in other radical Muslim-majority societies. The tendency to ignore it is magnified when religious officials are the ones committing the atrocities, as the behavior reflects badly not only on the perpetrators themselves, but has the potential to damage Islam's reputation.
It is thus imperative to provide support to those brave organizations and individuals who risk their lives and livelihoods to expose and eradicate the abuse and its apologists.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin was the Iran Desk Officer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He also served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.