Sex and the Madrasa

By Irfan Khawaja
Dec. 17, 2004

They say that “sex sells,” but I guess there’s an exception to every rule, and evidently child rape in Pakistani madrasas is one of the exceptions.

On December 10, the BBC reported a bombshell story about pedophilia in Pakistani madrasas that (to my knowledge) has gotten almost no coverage in the mainstream US media--not even a promissory note to the effect that "we'll look into it." I passed the story along to a small handful of American journalists, but only one (Charles Freund of Reason magazine) expressed any interest in it.

I didn’t see anything in any of the major American papers, either—or on the major networks or CNN. (I first heard the story on a BBC segment of National Public Radio.) An extensive Lexis-Nexis search netted two references to Pakistani madrasa stories between December 10 and 16, both unrelated to this one (and both equally lame). Google turned up nothing in the US but recycled versions of the BBC story posted on special-interest websites. The Pakistani reaction was more diligent, but oddly muted; the best coverage I read was a Dec. 11 piece in The Daily Times of Lahore, but otherwise, coverage in the English-language press has been relatively perfunctory.

A bit more persistence on Lexis-Nexis turned up a solitary but astonishing dispatch from the United Press International, dated Dec. 10:

Despite at least 500 complaints of child sex abuse at Pakistani Muslim schools  this year there has yet to be one successful prosecution.

Aamer Liaquat Hussain, a minister in the nation's religious affairs department, is facing death threats and denunciations from Islamic clerics for his insistence that Pakistan confront the sex abuse at its "madrassas," the BBC reported Friday.

There are about 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan.

This year's 500 complaints compares with last year's 2,000, Hussain said, but still  no one has been convicted in any of those 500 cases.

He praised the Federation of Madrassas for its willingness to investigate the problem, which he said was besmirching Islam's good name.

 Hussain also rejected demands from some Islamic politicians that he apologize for discussing the situation, saying he himself experienced attempted abuse at a school when he was 8.

Since none of this was considered newsworthy in the US, no one here has bothered to pursue any of the obvious questions about this item:

  1. Why hasn’t there been a successful prosecution of the 500 cases brought forward this year?

  2. Who exactly is making the death threats and denunciations against Aamer Liaquat Hussain? What are they saying, and what has the response been?

  3.  What became of the 2,000 complaints made last year?

  4. Do the complaints cluster among the 10,000 madrasas in any interesting ways?

  5. What is the Federation of Madrasas doing to “investigate the problem,” and what sort of progress is it making?

  6. Where do the major Pakistani parties stand on the issue? Have Benazir Bhuttoor Nawaz Sharif been asked to comment?

  7. What exactly happened to Mr. Hussain in his childhood madrasa? Was it an isolated incident or a commonplace?

It may be a pipe dream to expect American journalists to pursue questions like these, but that fact by itself leads naturally to an eighth question: Why should the supposedly richest, freest, wisest and most objective press in the world—usually eager for a scoop on any scandal, however inane—have missed a story of this caliber, and be so indifferent to it?

A caveat: I admit that it is politically convenient for the Musharraf government to be breaking this news at this time, so there is a possibility that Mr. Hussain is exaggerating parts of it. And, of course, since there have been no successful prosecutions so far, we can't immediately infer from "accused" to "guilty." Fair enough.

But that caveat only goes so far. There are obvious reasons why Muslim clerics, even if guilty, might not successfully be prosecuted for sex crimes, so the usual mantra about "innocent until proven guilty" needs a bit of qualification in this case. For one thing, the same fundamentalist parties that are denouncing Mr. Hussain control some of the regions with the densest concentrations of madrasas. For another, as recent gang rape cases in Pakistan show, when it comes to the prosecution of sex crimes, Pakistan’s law-enforcement and judicial systems are, to put it mildly, acquittal-prone. At any rate, I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Hussain would publicly have brought up his own victimization if there wasn’t some truth to the charges.

So let’s put it this way: there is at least "probable cause" to believe that something sexually untoward is going on in those madrasas. If probable cause can justify a warrant for search or arrest, it can surely justify a bit of journalistic curiosity. So take the remainder of what I say not as a categorical accusation of guilt, but as an exploration of the implications if the charges turn out to be true.

If they are true, the madrasa story is to Pakistan (and by extension to the Muslim world) what the analogous story was to the Catholic Church a few years ago—or for that matter what Abu Ghraib has been for the US occupation of Iraq. Both of the latter scandals have permanently scarred the institutions responsible for producing them. The consequences of inflicting the same sorts of damage on the Pakistani madrasacracy are incalculable—incalculably good, that is.

The charges also give some perspective to Islamic fundamentalists’ tedious habit of sermonizing at us about the supposed sexual dysfunctionality of “the West” and the superior moral virtue of “the Islamic East.” The Asia Times columnist Spengler has recently produced an amusing quasi-parody of such a sermon in which he rails at the sexual depravity of “the West,” and which he jokingly claims to have gotten directly from Osama bin Laden.

Joke or not, such sermons ought to provoke the rejoinder that dar al Islam is not exactly the abode of virginal chastity that the fundamentalists would have us believe that it is. With gang rape in Punjab (cf. the Mukhtaran Bibi case), mass rape in Darfur, female genital mutilation across parts of Muslim Africa, and honor killings of girls in various Arab countries, it would appear to be time for our holier-than-thou sermonizers to introspect a bit and focus on some of their own sexual hang-ups. Add polygamy to the rap sheet, plus the weird Muslim obsession with burqa, chador and hijab; add the yet-weirder cult of the 72 post-mortem virgins, throw in stoning as a punishment for adultery, and then consider burial-alive as a punishment for homosexuality. XXX- rated Qur’anic literacy lessons seem pretty much par for the course in this context. In short, put it all together, and the sexual depravities of “the West” begin to look tame by comparison with what the Muslim world has to offer in the way of polymorphous perverse sexuality.

Pause with me a bit for a digression, albeit a pertinent one. I wonder if you’re as tired as I am of Muslim apologists rhapsodizing about the joys of life under Islamic theocracy, of which life in the madrasa is supposed to be a microcosm. Hearken for instance to the words of Brother Amir Butler, a self-avowed Australian-Muslim theocrat, and Executive Director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee. In a recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Butler tells us (from the safety of Sydney, naturally) that theocracy rather than secularism is the right prescription for Muslim countries:

While the Islamic world may be undergoing its dark ages now, history shows that its experience under religious rule has been the antithesis of European experience:  the periods of theocratic Muslim rule, such as in Cordoba or Baghdad, were also      periods of social, technological and scientific advancement and achievement.

Many foundations of modern society owe themselves to Islamic contributions, such as the invention of algebra, the establishment of the hospital, lighted cities, and the preservation of Greek and Roman texts. It is ironic that the Muslim world contributed significantly to the development of the culture that would in a few short centuries come to colonise it, in part because of the Muslim world’s abandonment of its faith. (“Muslim reformists threaten the faith,” Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 17, 2004).

Oh, the sad, familiar tale: Islam makes; the world takes. But doesn’t Butler’s argument cut both ways? The operative explanatory principle here is that Islam gets all the credit for whatever happens under Islamic rule. In that case, why wouldn’t Islam constitute the perfect explanation of pedophilia in Pakistan’s madrasas? Surely Pakistan’s madrasas are more distinctively Islamic a milieu than the supposedly “theocratic” regimes of Cordoba or Baghdad. If Islam reigns in the madrasas, and produces pedophilia, why can’t we infer that Islam is what produces pedophilia?

I doubt Brother Butler would be happy with that inference. But if he wants to acquit Islam of the depredations of Islamic madrasas, he’s hardly entitled to assert blankly that Islam must necessarily get the credit for such secular achievements as the invention of algebra, hospitals, lighted cities and the preservation of pagan texts. If Islam doesn’t explain the crimes of assiduously Islamic institutions, why assume that it explains the secular achievements of nominally Islamic regimes? Either Islam explains everything under Islamic rule, in which case it explains the atrocities that take place there; or it explains selected things, in which case we need a non-arbitrary principle to determine what it explains and what it doesn’t. But “non-arbitrary principles” are not the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from our armchair theocrats, who have an agenda essentially dependent on the arbitrary, and essentially hostile to principles. 

While we’re on the subject of theocracy, I can’t resist taking a peep at what Islamic theocrats have specifically had to say about sex. One of my favorite passages on the topic comes from Sayyid Qutb’s famous 1964 book, Milestones. In Chapter 7 of the book—modestly entitled “Islam is the Real Civilization”—Qutb rails on and on against Western sexual depravity, and then offers his own view of the straight path:

The line of human progress goes upward from animal desires toward higher values. To control the animal desires, a progressive society lays down the foundation of a family system in which human desires and satisfaction, as well as providing for the future generation to be brought up in such a manner that it will continue the human civilization, in which human characteristics flower to their full bloom. Obviously, a society which intends to control the animal  characteristics, while providing full opportunities for the development and perfect of human characteristics, requires strong safeguards for the peace and stability of the family, so that it may perform its basic task free from the influences of impulsive passions. On the other hand, if in a society immoral teachings and poisonous suggestions are rampant and sexual activity is considered outside of the sphere of morality, then in that society the humanity of man can hardly find a    place to develop. (Milestones, p. 99 of the Kazi edition, Lahore).

The passage is a sort of zoological equivalent of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our biological capacities, it tells us, are mere animal drives that ought to be “controlled” by force, i.e., throttled, suffocated, and repressed. Applied to nutrition, I suppose this has the salutary effect of making a virtue out of Egypt’s perennial inability to feed its population. Applied to sexuality, it turns out to be a crude revival of the moral psychology of the Platonic dialogues (e.g., the Republic and Phaedrus, so beloved of Islamic fundamentalists), according to which our bodily and sexual nature is a wanton animal running wild in our otherwise pure and immaterial psyche. Taken literally, the doctrine seems to imply that procreation aside, it doesn’t much matter whether you have sex with a person or with an animal; sex is but a dreary anatomical operation no matter who’s doing it to whom.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that exponents of this view of sexuality should end up imposing their “anatomical operations” on children. If you believe that your sexuality is the doing of a wild, alien animal that resides inside of you, your sexuality isn’t really yours; it’s an alien phenomenon that runs by its own inexplicable urges and impulses, operating wholly beyond your ken. But sometimes, alas, the beast within must be placated, and why should there be any shame in doing so? Its needs aren’t yours; it wallows in the muck, while your immortal soul soars to the heavens. Since “its” needs are a purely animal function unrelated to romantic love, naturally the sexual choices you’re left with will be the decidedly unromantic ones.

Take romantic love entirely out of the sexual equation, and you take reciprocity out of the sexual act. Take reciprocity entirely out, and you subtract both equality and consent. Take consent out, and you’re left with rape or bestiality. Combine rape with bestiality—and dress them both in the garb of pedagogy—and you have pedophilia. Combine pedophilia with misology, misogyny, neurosis, and political power, and you have the Deobandi/Wahhabi madrasa system of Pakistan. The ulema of Pakistan may not have advanced the cause of human knowledge by a single centimeter, but let’s give them credit: they have doctorates in the algebra of human exploitation.

Descending (or rather, ascending) from the ulema to plain persons—and specifically to ordinary Pakistanis—one is left at last with a few questions. Since the fall of 2001, we’ve seen and heard Pakistanis repeatedly taking to the streets to protest what they like to call “American interference in Pakistan’s affairs” and President Musharraf’s “poodle-like subservience to George Bush.” Two days after the revelations about the madrasas, the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (i.e., the fundamentalist party coalition) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz faction (i.e., the center-right party) took to the streets of Lahore to protest…what? Why, the catastrophic moral horror of General Musharraf’s wearing his military uniform in public. 

I admit that there is something problematic about American policy vis-à-vis Pakistan; that the Pakistani military has gotten out of control under Musharraf; that terrorism has become an excuse for the PML-Q’s authoritarianism; and that Musharraf’s military dictatorship cannot last forever.

But admitting all of that, isn’t a sense of priorities in order? Suppose that these madrasa charges turn out to be entirely true. What then is the greater threat to the well-being of Pakistan—the military’s admittedly underhanded political machinations, or the thousands of sub-literate sexual predators educating the children? Who has literally “infiltrated” and “invaded” Pakistan: the American Central Intelligence Agency—or the Pakistani Federation of Madrasas? And which phenomenon deserves louder condemnation in the streets of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi—the excesses of the government’s war against Islamic fundamentalism, or those of the fundamentalists’ war against the people of Pakistan? 

I’m optimistic enough to think that Pakistanis will eventually come to the right answers to these questions (even if they take their sweet time doing it). There is a healthy reservoir of contempt for the madrasacracy in Pakistan, as there has always been, and it is long since time to unleash that contempt at its proper object. But there is no point in complaining about “foreign interference in Pakistan’s affairs” when those “affairs” are being run, in effect, by a bunch of child rapists and their sympathizers, claiming the sanction to violate children in the name of God and the authority to anathematize those who merely inquire into the matter. Sweep them away and you have at last a country capable of staking its claims as an equal among other nations. But not until then.

There is a hero in this dismal story, and it is Aamer Liaquat Hussain, now on the receiving end of blind abuse, death threats, and defamation. A recent Pew Research Center survey asserts, depressingly, that 65% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of Osama bin Laden. That explains a lot, and also tells us that Mr. Hussain has his work cut out for him. But it stands to reason that the remaining 35% ought to stand by him--and stand by the unsung activists described in the Dec. 11 Daily Times piece hyperlinked above. Part of standing by someone is supporting him; part is emulating him. If as many people would turn up at Lahore’s Minaret of Pakistan (Minaar-e-Pakistan) in support of Hussain as showed up in defiance of Musharraf, they would discharge both tasks at once. Repeated a few times, that would send a message that would reverberate through all 10,000 of the madrasas of Pakistan: “Beware of what you do. Take from us what belongs to us—violate what is most intimately ours—and we will resist you to the death.”

That last phrase is ambiguous, I suppose, about whose death is intended. Well, the ulema interpret texts for a living, don’t they? Let them puzzle that one out for themselves.

My apologies to linguistic pedants who insist on the plural “madaris,” but just as we refer in English to “Muslims” and not “muslimun,” we legitimately refer to “madrasas” and not “madaris.”

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Rutgers-Camden, and Executive Director of ISIS.