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Novice imams must be vetted, Muslim leaders say

By Stefanie Marsh
The Times, London, 25 September 2004

CHILDREN who go to mosque schools are vulnerable to beatings and abuse by religious teachers who consider themselves above the law, leading Muslims have said.

Reformist Muslims are now calling for the creation of a regulatory body to vet and train prospective imams after a court case this week in which a Koranic teacher was convicted of beating an 11-year old pupil with a stick.

Opponents of the current system, which allows so-called “rookie clerics” to take up high-ranking positions in mosques or madrasahs without teaching qualifications or background checks, complain that many mosques are run “as if they are situated in the sub-continent”. Member of the congregation who make a complaint about an imam are ignored, ostracised or threatened, it is claimed.

Critics say that intractable traditionalism among community elders combined with the zealotry of foreign-born imams are to blame for a culture of secrecy in mosques, where crimes such as physical or sexual abuse are sometimes covered up and where dissent is not tolerated. Because the majority of imams practising in Britain’s 1,200 mosques come from abroad, it is often impossible to check whether they have a criminal record.
Victims of such crimes have said that they had been intimidated by their mosque’s council for having allegedly brought shame upon their community by going to the police.

One man, who discovered a young boy being sexually molested in a mosque, told how mosque officials ignored the complaint and tried to prevent him from notifying the police. Another man, who complained to the authorities when his son was beaten by an imam, and has subsequently installed security cameras in his house for fear of retribution, said: “It wouldn’t bother them to put a petrol bomb through my door.”

Victims are critical of mosques for not doing enough when serious crimes are reported or automatically taking the side of the imam in question.

One Muslim women, whose daughter was sexually assaulted by an imam in a mosque, was threatened with violence by members of the mosque council and spat at on the street for having helped to secure the man’s conviction.

Another victim, a 67-year old man with a heart condition, described how he was beaten to the ground by an imam in a mosque in London for having attempted to stop the preacher from hitting a boy. He had retracted a complaint to the police because he feared being attacked himself.
“Imams treat mosques like embassies where they have diplomatic immunity from the law,” he said. “At the moment anyone who can read some Arabic can be a priest.

“Only a minority are British-born, the rest are imported. They could be criminals. It’s time people realised these people need to be educated.”

Critics of the current system, where each mosque operates autonomously and is not answerable to any governing body, say that mosque council members often rely solely on word of mouth when recruiting imams, who are in desperately short supply in Britain.

Many British-born Muslims, especially women, feel that they want to be represented by imams who have grown up in Britain and understand British culture.

This summer the Government introduced legislation that will force foreign clerics arriving in the country to speak a good standard of English, but they will not be required to pass any other tests.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament, said that many imams, 85 per cent of whom are born abroad, have “an ambivalent relationship with the law” and are unaware that corporal punishment, which is practised in the sub-continent, is illegal in this country.

“Many mosque schools are simply run by untrained activists or not very educated elders of society,” he said.
“There are people who are simply not responsible in their treatment of children, and lapses are likely to happen.”




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