IT happened every Friday. According to the statement recorded when the complaint was lodged with the police, Mufti Azizur Rehman, who is accused of sexually assaulting a madressah student, did it every Friday. The victim had gained admission in the Jamia Manzoor-ul Islamia in 2013 when he was a child. A few years ago, when he was sitting for exams, Mufti Rehman accused the victim and his friend of cheating. This led to the victim being banned for three years from taking exams at any madressah in the Wafaqul Madaris.
Facing this difficult situation because of which he was not able to take his exams and graduate, he begged Mufti Rehman to allow him to take his exams but was told by the latter that he would consider doing so only if he would ‘make the mufti happy’. This, the victim learned, was a euphemism for letting the mufti sexually assault him. The assaults continued for years. According to the victim, the mufti had recently also begun to blackmail him. When he complained to a madressah administrator, he was not believed. It was only when the video surfaced, clearly showing the mufti assaulting his teenage victim that action was finally taken and the mufti was told to leave on June 3.
Yet even while the administration had seen clear evidence of the sexual assault, no FIR was registered. That did not happen until June 17 after the video was leaked on social media and went viral with stunned viewers calling for action against the perpetrator. For his part, the mufti himself issued a video statement in which he swore on the Holy Quran that he did not commit the acts. According to him, he had been drugged with some substance and then made to commit the deed. But that was exposed as a mistruth in another video where he is reportedly seen talking on his mobile phone in the same room and fully in control of his faculties.
Child sexual abusers are present in many places but clerical sexual abuse is of a particularly egregious character.
Even though all of this material was available on June 17, 2021, when the video became public, the police did not arrest the mufti and his sons who had taken part in blackmailing the victim by threatening to kill him and his family. When questioned, Arif Rana, a spokesperson for the Lahore Police, said that the mufti had somehow “escaped”. It was likely because of the outcry following the reporting of the incident in the media that they finally located the mufti and his sons and all three were arrested and taken into police custody. Since then, the police say that the mufti has confessed to assaulting the student.
There are Mufti Rehmans everywhere in Pakistan and their continued existence is owed in no small part to the denialism regarding the issue among the general population. A saddening number of people, for instance, will not read an article like this simply because it has to do with clerical abuse. The consequence, as was noted in a 2017 exploration by the Associated Press of clerical abuse, is that there are hundreds of such cases in madressahs. Boys from poor families, like the victim in this particular case, are largely left under the supervision of men like the mufti. There are no checks and no accountability. The paedophiles victimise the youngest and ‘groom’ them for the abuse and it continues, as it did in this victim’s case.
For every case that is reported, there are likely thousands that are, under an efficient mechanism of cover-ups, never reported at all. As the AP investigative report says, such crimes are rarely prosecuted and police are often bribed not to pursue their investigation into the abuse perpetrated by the clerics. Some do not even register FIRs. The crimes take place but the law-enforcement system completely and shamefully fails the victims.
Paedophiles and sexual abusers are present in many professions but clerical sexual abuse is of a particularly egregious character. This is because while all sexual abuse is terribly traumatic, these people use their power as religious and spiritual leaders to make their victims obey them. It’s not just their power as adults that is at play but also their power as religious leaders whose purpose is to guide people towards the right path. In this sense, such abuse involves not only the desecration of the person but also the desecration of faith itself.
Keeping silent about this particular sort of child abuse is also tantamount to desecrating religious and moral principles. The paedophiles and sexual abusers will continue committing their nefarious deeds but it is incumbent on every single Muslim to stand up and call out clerical abuse.
One immediate step that absolutely must be taken is the installation of CCTV cameras in all madressahs. This will provide victims a means to prove their allegations and just as importantly it will help protect the faith from men who claim to spread Islam but instead are spreading the most depraved kind of abuse one can imagine.
Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Mufti Rehman chose to abuse his victim on Fridays, the holiest day of the week in the Islamic calendar. All of this must be stopped immediately and the only way to impose accountability on such monstrous clerics is to demand that Prime Minister Imran Khan and parliamentarians in the national and provincial legislatures pass laws that require all the thousands of madressahs registered with the government to immediately instal CCTV cameras in places where children and clerics interact, as well as to crack down on the huge numbers of unregistered madressahs. The fear of God has not deterred these men from abusing our children, perhaps the fear of CCTV cameras will force them to leave our children alone.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2021