Last week, a report about the treatment of children in madrassas located in Bradford (a town in England) was released. Entitled Children Do Matter and being issued after a twelve-month period of research and consultation, the report was jointly produced by groups including the Bradford Council for Mosques, Bradford Safeguarding Children Board, National Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and West Yorkshire Police.
Bradford and the West Yorkshire area in general has one of the highest Muslim populations in the UK. The 2001 census showed that 16.08% of the population identified as Muslim. To meet this demand, there are a large number of madrassas, some of which operate less reputably than others.
There are some exemplary instances of good self-regulated practice. A 2011 IPPR report drew attention to this, citing the example of the Crown Hills madrasa in Leicester. There, staff members were supported with high levels of quality training and were fully background checked. The madrasa was also noted for its good community ties and the banning of corporal punishment. Ominously, that report also detailed that a significant minority of madrassas have poor teaching standards, use corporal punishment, and do not conduct background checks on staff.
The problem in this area is that there is absolutely no regulation surrounding the operation or standards of madrassas. There is also an element of perceived cultural secrecy surrounding exactly what goes on at these schools. This may simply come from cultural ignorance, but it’s still a problem. The notion of Christian Sunday School is well know to British culture, madrassas less so. The report touches on this point briefly, citing the wider cultural perception of Muslims as an insular community:
There is an apparent level of secrecy surrounding the running of Masajid and Madaaris due to negative representations of Muslims and Islam in the media. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong or sinister about them but this level of ‘closeness’ does give rise to suspicion and hinders wider community engagement.
This perceived secrecy has not been helped by a series of cases to reach the courts which have revealed instances of both physical and sexual abuse occurring behind closed doors in these places. This is not just an Islamic problem; all branches of Christianity are all too routinely caught up in similar scandals, as are Jewish religious schools. Even supposed secular institutions are not immune to these scandals.
What makes it different in this instance is the complete lack of any regulation. Astonishingly, there’s a law that bans the use of physical discipline, but a loophole allows madrassas to employ such techniques. Indeed, the event that triggered the report was the case of religious teacher Sabir Hussain who, in 2011, was sentenced to ten weeks in prison for assaulting pupils at the Markazi Jamia Mosque in Lawkholme, Keighley. It took undercover footage to bring the abuse to light.
To improve standards, the report lists six key conclusions:
- Religious schools must stipulate the need for Criminal Records Bureau (background) checks.
- There should be a register of all teachers and others at the schools.
- Parents should be more involved.
- Learning should be structured.
- Women should have greater involvement in the schools.
- There should be openness to counter prejudiced ideas of secrecy within the schools.
Mohammed Rafiq Sehgal, the senior vice-president of the Bradford Council for Mosques and the chairman of its safeguarding working group, welcomed the report and its findings:
The report is an uncompromising and honest account. I hope that messages and suggestion contained in the report will be taken seriously and acted upon by those concerned.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, is less convinced:
Reports like this are all very well and I’m sure full of good intentions, but the Muslim community cannot be permitted to go its own way and remain unregulated in areas where others are forced to act within the law. It is not good enough that these ‘schools’ are allowed to be so secretive and that there is no legal framework in which they must operate. Children are entitled to better than that. It is their safety and their welfare that must come first, not the desire of community leaders to simply indoctrinate them.