Muslim children are being beaten and abused regularly by teachers at some British madrassas – Islamic evening classes – an investigation by The Times has found.
Students have been slapped, punched and had their ears twisted, according to an unpublished report by an imam based on interviews with victims in the north of England. One was “picked up by one leg and spun around” while another said a madrassa teacher was “kicking in my head – like a football”, says the report which was compiled by Irfan Chishti, a former government adviser on Islamic affairs.
Almost 1,600 madrassas operate in Britain, teaching Arabic and the Koran on weekday evenings to about 200,000 children aged from four to their mid-teens.
While there is no hard evidence to indicate how many are involved in the physical abuse of children, The Times has uncovered a disturbing pattern in one town – Rochdale – through interviews with mainstream school teachers, Muslim parents and the children themselves.
One woman told The Times that her niece Hiba, 7, was slapped across the face so hard by her madrassa teacher that her ear was cut. It later became inflamed and she had to have emergency medical treatment.
When the teacher refused to apologise, Hiba##s aunt, Jamila, insisted that her niece should be moved to another madrassa. “I have absolutely no respect for religious teachers who behave like this,” she said.
Another girl described how, at the age of 12, she was hit by her madrassa teacher whenever she mispronounced a word or forgot a verse of the Koran.
When Imam Chishti, a religious education teacher who also runs the Light of Islam Academy in Rochdale, decided to carry out his own investigation into the problem he was shocked by how even the victims had grown to accept the abuse. “They all joked about it,” he said. “There##s a culture that accepts it.”
Imam Chishti said that part of the problem was that some madrassa teachers were ignorant of British law. Corporal punishment was banned in state schools in 1986 and in all schools in 1998. Under current law teachers acting in loco parentis may use only “reasonable punishment” such as a smack, providing it does not cause any marks or bruising.
But the abuse discovered by The Times investigation goes far beyond what could be termed “reasonable force”. One particularly brutal form of punishment practised in some madrassas is known as the Hen, in which the victim is forced to hold his ears while squatting with his arms fed through his legs.
The magnitude of the problem in Rochdale has led primary school head teachers to break the silence surrounding the problem. Several disclosed that they had asked social services to investigate complaints of physical abuse in madrassas made by pupils but that the victims## parents refused to press charges against the perpetrators either because they felt that physical abuse was normal practice or they feared being ostracised by their community.
Tina Wheatley, deputy head of Heybrook Primary School, said: “If a child comes in with an injury of any sort and it##s non-accidental, then schools will refer it to parents, then also to child protection.”
But she said that social workers were often faced by parents who refused to take action against the abusers. “When child protection turns up at the parents## [home], parents don##t want to take it any further. There are a lot of head teachers in this area who have spoken to the authorities. It##s so sensitive,” she said.
Sandra Hartley, head teacher at Brimrod County Primary School in Rochdale, where 93 per cent of pupils are Muslim, said that she feared that some Muslim parents regarded physical beatings as normal because they had been subjected to the same treatment when they were children.
“You know, it##s very much accepted that children are experiencing that type of coercion, unfair treatment and sometimes physical abuse,” she said. “Parents knowing that this is happening and not wanting to move their child from that type of extra-curricular activity is very much the pattern that we have here.”
The Times has also learnt that Rochdale police and social services have met local Muslim leaders six times this year to discuss child protection issues after investigations prompted by claims of physical abuse at madrassas.
Terry Piggott, the executive director of Rochdale Borough Council, admitted that it was difficult for the authorities to take action.
“Because of the rapid turnover of volunteer teachers at madrassas – and the fact that many are part-time – it makes it difficult to regulate and monitor the people who are working with local young people,” he said in a statement.
The problem is not confined to Rochdale. Ann Cryer, Labour MP for the Yorkshire constituency of Keighley which has a large Muslim population, said that mainstream teachers had complained to her about the punishment their students faced at madrassas. She added her voice to those from Muslim community calling for madrassas to be brought within the regulatory framework.“I think we should have some sort of review at a very high level as to how madrassas are being [run] … they seem to be a law unto themselves,” she said.
Madrassas and similar religious classes are not subject to any regulation nor are their teachers required to be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau. Many madrassas are not even known to the authorities because they are run on an ad hoc basis by people in their own living rooms. Even those attached to a mosque which is registered with the Charities Commission are not monitored.
Ms Cryer called for the authorities to be given powers to perform “spot checks” on madrassas and shut down any in which children are being abused.“As the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities grow so do the number of madrassas and therefore the risk to children increases every year,” she said.
The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (Minab) – a government approved organisation established in 2006 – has set up a minimum standard for mosques which includes guidelines to safeguard child welfare. However, membership is purely voluntary and Minab has yet to recruit a single mosque.
A spokesman for the board, Yousif Al-Khoei, admitted that some mosques were run by teachers who may be abusing children.
“There is of course a minority of madrassas which have a village mindset who may be practising it but you have to look at it from both angles,” he said. “No community is perfect.”
The Minister for Community Cohesion, Sadiq Khan, urged his fellow Muslims to turn in those responsible for violence against children.
“We need to have religious leaders saying in clear and religious messages that it##s unacceptable and that there##s no place in Islam for child abuse. It##s pure village culture mentality,” he said. “Everybody should expose this. The neighbours who know about it should expose it, the teachers [at mainstream schools] should expose it. We need a culture which says that whistleblowing on these things is a badge of pride not a badge of shame.”
He added: “We are hiding behind the defence of cultural sensitivities and our children are not being protected.”
The Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “We##re crystal clear that all organisations, including faith-based, must abide by children protection and safeguarding laws.
“Any actions that go beyond reasonable punishment are absolutely unacceptable and must be dealt with the courts. We urge anyone who is aware of such incidents to report them to the police and relevant authorities.”