Ignorance and poverty, not religion, lie behind abuse

Picture of a pink painted building with what looks like a metal double door guarded by two policemen. The name of the school, "Daru Imam Ahmad bun Hambal" with an Arabic inscription, is displayed above the door.
Daru Imam Ahmad Bun Hambal (sic), the school at the centre of this scandal

Yesterday the Mail Online website published a story about a “Qur’an school” in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, from which 300 boys and men were rescued last week having been held in chains in squalid conditions (the article is based on this Reuters piece which has more background). The school was named after Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, ironically as he was subject to torture himself for refusing to accept innovated beliefs the Abbasid rulers were trying to impose on the people at the time. The inmates had been sent to the school by their parents from other countries besides Nigeria, including Mali and Burkina Faso and alleged that as well as being chained up and whipped, they had been subject to sexual abuse by their captors, who claimed that only those who had attempted to run away were chained. A western Muslim scholar posted a link to a Reddit discussion of the story which had a few digs at Islam itself or religion in general, and someone else commented on the same thread that “Muslims lack a sense of justice”. This is unfair, and inaccurate.

Institutions like this exist in a lot of African countries. In 2015, a British TV presenter called Sophie Morgan made a documentary about the treatment of disabled children in Ghana, which she had heard was possibly the worst place in the world to be disabled (see earlier entry). What she found was that in many rural areas there were “prayer camps” run by cranks operating under the guise of religion (Islam and Christianity as well as local religions) keeping inmates chained to the furniture and “fetish priests” feeding disabled children poisoned alcohol and then chucking them in rivers. Parents would sometimes shun proper rehabilitation facilities, some of them run by western charities, in favour of these prayer camps because they had been taught to believe that prayer would cure their relatives. Politicians were aware of the problem, but blamed it on people not following the law rather than the government not enforcing it.

In many of the countries of the world, the mentally ill are treated abominably, locked up and chained up rather than treated, often because their illness is blamed on spirit possession rather than physical illness or trauma. In Africa and Asia the use of physical restraints such as chains is often widespread and unconcealed; in many western countries with their sophisticated, scientific mental healthcare system, drugs are the restraint of choice and the environment is prettier and makes more use of technology such as surveillance cameras and electronic locks (though it often does not allow patients to use their own mobile phones or anything with Internet access), but it is just as much a prison as those makeshift camps in Nigeria or anywhere else, and reports of cruelty and abuse, of soulless regimes, of needless blanket restrictions on people’s activities and what possessions they can have with them, make headlines every week or so. In the US there is a well-documented network of private “boot camps” which hold children with parental consent but against their will and without access to any legal redress, supposedly because they were “out of control”, and anyone tempted to condemn “barbaric Muslims” for similar places in (as has been reported) Somalia should take this into account.

In much of Africa and Asia, education and healthcare are not free and are often beyond the reach of people who are not very rich unless they can access charitable schools or clinics, which leaves ignorance and superstitious beliefs unchallenged and the field open to abusive cranks and witch-doctor types to exploit vulnerable and desperate people. Many of the countries are burdened with debt, or their wealth is held in foreign banks. Yes, corruption is often a problem, even in ostensibly democratic countries like Ghana and Nigeria. These are not the product of religion; these are political and social problems. Bigots will, of course, take one look at a story about abuse at any Muslim school and go to their preferred forum and spout nonsense, but Muslims who have no links to the country where this happened, who have no influence there, have no reason to apologise for every abuse that goes on everywhere in the name of Islam.

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