Protection on the agenda

When a teacher told the MP Ann Cryer that some of his Muslim
students who attended a religious school each evening had alleged
they were being physically abused by the scholars there, she
considered doing nothing.

Over the years many similar allegations had been referred to her
concerning the same madrassa (religious school). But Cryer says her
attempts to stop the use of physical punishments always stalled
because parents were unwilling to lodge complaints, either denying
there was a problem, or providing innocuous explanations for their
child’s bruises.

“I was very concerned because it was not as if the children were
being punished for being naughty but because they made mistakes.
Most of them do not speak Arabic so they didn’t really understand
the Koran,” Cryer says. “Essentially they would memorise what they
were taught by rote. Many of the children are already disadvantaged
and have special needs. It seemed to me that they were being
punished for being slow learners.”

Eventually, accompanied by local social services and West Yorkshire
police child protection unit, Cryer approached Keighley Muslim
Association, which ran the madrassa. She took a list of the
injuries which the children were alleged to have suffered,
including weals caused by a metal implement and fist-shaped

The allegations were denied. A few weeks later, West Yorkshire
police received a letter from the association, saying that there
was confusion within the organisation as to what constituted
acceptable physical punishment.

Steps were then taken to advise the mosque over the issue. But, to
Cryer’s dismay, two months later the allegations of abuse started
again. Children claimed that they had been told “only Pakistani law
applied in the madrassa” and if they told anyone about what went on
within its walls they would be taken away from their family.

Cryer says: “I was appalled. Their reaction after speaking to the
police was not to stop the physical punishments but to develop a
siege mentality and put the fear of god into these kids.”

A spokesperson for the Keighley Muslim Association said last week:
“The allegations are untrue.” But he declined to comment

News of the case, which began as an incident involving a single
madrassa in a small northern town, has reached national notice,
resulting in a bitter debate between Cryer and Labour National
Executive Committee member Shahid Malik.

The pair have engaged in a war of words over a number of ethnically
sensitive issues in recent years. Cryer has argued that abuse in
madrassas may be a national problem, and suggested that, had the
problem affected white children in a Christian institution,
something would have been done. Malik has denounced her comments as
“irresponsible” and “extremely dangerous”.

Certainly no one can be sure if physical abuse in madrassas is a
widespread problem, but the case raises a number of concerns about
the protection of the thousands of Muslim children aged five to 15
who spend an average of two hours every weekday evening in them.
The teaching is done by scholars who are often chosen by the
community primarily on the basis of their knowledge of the Koran
and who may be unclear over British laws regarding the treatment of

Statutory agencies have little power to impose child protection
procedures in madrassas because they are “supplementary schools”
based within the voluntary sector. As such, neither education nor
social services departments have a statutory responsibility to
inspect them or check that those who work in them are suitable for
the job. Without this legal footing, agencies must rely on the
co-operation of madrassas to draw up child protection procedures.

Those councils which do try to promote child protection in the
sector find it no easy task, partly because there is no historical
relationship – and may be mutual distrust – between madrassas and
statutory agencies.

One local authority that has made some inroads is Kirklees, in West
Yorkshire, which has about 50 madrassas in which 8,000 children are
taught. It has employed a project officer, funded by Quality
Protects, to promote child protection as part of a year-long
project. It came about as a result of occasional referrals about
the use of physical punishment.

There are also signs that madrassas are starting to see the value
of robust child protection procedures. The Lancashire Council of
Mosques approached Blackburn with Darwen Council for help, again to
deal with occasional instances of physical punishment.

Stephen Sloss, deputy director of social services and chairperson
of the area child protection committee, describes the procedures,
which took 18 months to put together, as “ground breaking”. But he
emphasises that the procedures were not created because there is a
serious problem of abuse in madrassas. The recent election to
Darwen Council of a British National Party candidate has damaged
already strained race relations and Sloss worries that the issue
will be seized upon by those looking for anything to fuel their
hatred of minority groups. “The last thing we want is for some
people to say ‘oh look, the council has had to give them [Muslims]
a set of procedures because they beat their kids’.”

The reason the council is helping is not, he says, because abuse is
more of a problem in madrassas than it is in church schools, but
because, unlike the Church of England or Catholic Church, madrassas
and the mosques to which they are affiliated are not part of a
large organisation. Instead they are independent voluntary
organisations. This makes it difficult to effect change because
there is no top-down decision-making structure.

Sloss admits there were setbacks in the implementation of the
procedures, including a last-minute rewrite of the guidelines when
it was discovered that many of English phrases could not be
directly translated into Urdu and Gujarati.

The handbook, which offers guidance on staff management and
recruitment, has been distributed to many of the large madrassas in
the area. It advises seeking police checks and references for all
applicants, measures which should help reduce risk.

The council has also recommended appointing someone within each
madrassa to take responsibility for child protection, and work is
taking place within education and life-long learning to help
mosques develop good teaching practices.

This will be welcome news to many who say the problems with
madrassas go well beyond issues such as physical abuse and contend
that the time children spend in them limits opportunities for play
and homework, which may damage their social development and
educational prospects.

Sehdev Bismal, head of multicultural education at Wolverhampton
Council, says: “Our prime concern is that the work of the children
in school is not adversely affected. If they are attending classes
at the mosque, it could affect their ability to do homework.”

He adds that for many reasons Muslim children often lag behind
other religious groups academically and says “you cannot discount
the madrassas in that”.

Ultimately, madrassas have no legal responsibility to stick to such
safeguards or change their teaching methods. For those
organisations that do not put into place measures to protect
children voluntarily, Cryer suggests introducing some legal
compulsion for them to do so.

But she feels it should be a last resort and points to the progress
the Catholic church has made in this area. The church has endured a
number of high-profile abuse cases in recent years, and has set up
an office overseeing its national strategy for child protection.
There is no reason to suppose that the same changes will not be
made within the madrassas. After all, it was the Lancashire Council
of Mosques which sought help on the issue.

Its director, Dr Mahmood Chandia, says: “The development of new
procedures strengthens our protection of children and offers new
opportunities for shared learning through working together.” It
must be hoped that others will follow suit.

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