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Bloody Muslim Ashura Festival – Child Abuse

This is an article from the UK’s New Statesman from a year and a half ago, but it is fitting we should post it during this year’s Ashura festivities:

A Pakistani Shiite Muslim looks for an appropriate set of knives he will use on Ashura Day, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Friday, Feb. 18, 2005.

Scars on the backs of the young

Shiv Malik

06 June 2005

Muslim children as young as six are still being allowed to beat themselves with knives on the end of chains. It is illegal, yet the police are not keen to prosecute. Would other religions get away with it?

It was supposed to be a routine doctor’s appointment. Mrs Abbas wanted someone at a hospital in north London to take a look at the rash under her son’s arms. But when the doctor asked 14-year-old Firoz to take off his shirt, he noticed something far more worrying. Criss-crossed on Firoz’s back were more than 50 lacerations. The doctor asked for an explanation. Mrs Abbas said that Firoz had inflicted the wounds himself during a religious ceremony; there was nothing to worry about. The doctor called in the child protection agency.

Through interviewing the family, a joint police and social services investigation team found that Firoz had made the lacerations by whipping himself with a zanjeer – a long chain with a set of curved knives attached at the end – as part of a flagellation ritual at the Idara-e-Jaaferiya mosque in Tooting, an area of Wandsworth, south London. The ritual, known as "zanjeer zani" or "zanjeer matam", was part of the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura, marked at the mosque every year.

The investigation team also discovered that Firoz’s scars had built up over eight years. He had started using a zanjeer when he was seven. His brothers Hanif and Ijaz, who were 12 and nine at the time of the investigation in 2003, had also participated in the ceremony; they, too, had dozens of knife scars on their backs.

At the Abbas family home, officers found video footage that the family had shot during the ceremony in 2002. Spaced well apart in a circle and beating themselves with zanjeers were the two eldest sons, Firoz and Hanif. But they were not the only children involved: the film showed sons from other families flagellating with the same instrument. According to a report by the Crown Prosecution Service (which was asked by the investigation team to give formal advice), the youngest child at that particular ceremony was just six years old.

While children inflicted "considerable blows" on themselves, adult relatives interfered only to stop the older males causing themselves "excessive injury" having "reached a state of frenzy". Mr Abbas was shown participating alongside his sons. As the CPS report puts it, he gestured support and did not intervene: "The apparent image is that of the younger boys trying to emulate the men."

This was not a one-off incident in a single area; it is a national issue. In the past few years, there have been similar cases in Bradford and Blackburn, also involving teenagers and children as young as ten. The commemorative festival of Ashura is central to the identity of Shia Muslims…

The ritual of flagellation with zanjeers is contentious within the Shia world. According to one of the UK’s most prominent Shia religious organisations, the Khoei Foundation, the matam ceremony is "neither obligatory nor recommended . . . it is merely permissible". In other words, it is not mandated by religious authority. In its advice to the investigative team, the foundation ruled that children under the age of 18 should not practise matam with a zanjeer. Those who refused to accept that advice would risk tarnishing the reputation of Britain’s Shia community – or, to quote the foundation: "When the use of zanjeer by children who are below the age of consent is illegal, the Muslim community has to make it clear that it is an obligation on parents to prevent children from participating, otherwise they themselves will face the legal consequences that may arise." …

Letting children self-flagellate with knives on the ends of chains is an offence under Section 1(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 – one of wilful neglect in a manner likely to cause a child unnecessary suffering or injury. The opinion of the CPS was that it was possible to prosecute. The photographic and video evidence would help to show that the parents were neglectful. However, there were also problems. If the children did not want to give evidence against their parents, the authorities would have to rely on third-party evidence alone such as the medical report and the photographic and video evidence. That wasn’t all. The CPS did not consider it in the public interest to prosecute. "The parents had co-operated fully," it said, "and in fact it was their co-operation which [had] then helped to stamp out this practice among children at the Tooting mosque."

Detective Superintendent Chris Bourlet, who was responsible for the Abbas case as deputy head of the Metropolitan Police’s Child Protection Command, explains why his unit chose to work with the community. "The last thing [we] wanted to do was to police mosques and people’s homes. It’s impracticable, and you don’t want to do that anyway," he says. "What we want is the community to take on this issue themselves. We can help support them. But the last thing we want to be doing is policing faiths, because it’s just not our role. Our role is to protect children." …

"Years ago, agencies were not aware of the ceremony," he says. "The Shia community had to understand that it is a child protection issue and [they] have taken on board some basic principles. We don’t want to send it underground. It is always going to be sensitive, but we can’t use that as an excuse to cover up the issue."

However, not all agencies are giving out the same child protection message. West Yorkshire Police refused to talk about a case that occurred in Bradford during the Ashura ceremony this year, except to confirm that an incident involving a ten-year-old boy was reported on 21 February. An employee of West Yorkshire Police who does not wish to be named said it was decided, at the end of the investigation, that the boy was old enough to decide whether to flagellate or not. The decision reveals a discrepancy at the national level: while a child would find it very hard to participate in zanjeer matam in London, he could travel to Bradford and do it there instead…

Another question that arises is what the authorities would do if such a ritual were carried out by, say, British pagans. It is hard to imagine that it would be dealt with in the same way. Surely a crime is a crime. Should the law make exceptions for certain types of belief?

The issue of zanjeer matam also challenges the notion that, over time, minority communities will automatically take on the value system of the majority. The use of zanjeers has been going on among Shias for hundreds of years, but until very recently no one seemed to think the ritual would be practised in Britain by second – and third-generation children. Yet it is, and as openly in this country as in India, Pakistan or Iraq. On the one hand, it perhaps shows how cut off some communities are from the mainstream. On the other hand, it maybe proves yet again that faith, culture and tradition – those foundation stones of society – are never easily shifted.

The article asks a good question.

What other religion would be allowed to get away with this?

(Thanks to Papa Ray for the heads up.)

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, January 31st, 2007. Comments are currently closed.

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