The punishment is almost medieval in its cruelty. Victims are forced to crouch down and hold their ears with their arms threaded under their legs. Beatings are often administered at the same time.
This brutal practice has its own name: the Hen, so called because those forced into the excruciatingly painful squatting position are said to resemble a chicken.
It is the kind of shockingly degrading treatment you might expect to feature in an expose of torture techniques, like say, the use of waterboarding (simulated drowning) on terrorism suspects. You’d be wrong, though.
In fact, the Hen is used to discipline children, many under the age of ten, at British madrassas, the after-school Islamic religious classes invariably attached to mosques.
We have been told of one little girl who was forced to stay crouched and contorted in front of her class for an hour.
‘It’s a particularly unpleasant and painful punishment,’ said Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, a founder of the Muslim Institute think-tank, and one of the few Muslim voices in the country to speak out about the abuse of youngsters at madrassas.
The harrowing stories now emerging from such establishments are all too familiar to detectives in Lancashire, where there are 15 madrassas in Accrington alone. They have received at least 37 separate allegations against local Islamic teachers or hafizes, ‘holy men’ who have memorised the Koran by heart.
Among them is a girl who says she was hit and kicked in the leg and face, causing bruising. The victim’s age? Just six.
Then there’s the eight-year-old boy who was punched in the back several times for making a mistake in his studies, or the boy, also eight, who had his head pulled back by the hair for not praying loud enough, or the nine-year-old forced into the ‘Hen position’ before being punched on the back and slapped in the face for not learning his Koranic lines and talking in class.
These are just some of the incidents which have recently been investigated. Yet, so far, not one of the perpetrators has been brought to justice or even reprimanded. Nor are they likely to be. Why? Well, at least some parents, it appears, were pressurised into withdrawing complaints by their own community where the clerical hierarchy are afforded great deference.
Indeed, more than 400 such allegations of physical abuse have been made to local authorities in the UK over the past three years, but there have been only two successful prosecutions.
It’s a shameful indictment of the modern British justice system and one has to wonder if political correctness means the authorities are reluctant to vigorously investigate such crimes for fear of being labelled racist.
The true scale of the scandal is unknown. Many families, it is suspected, are reluctant even to report the ill-treatment of their sons or daughters for fear of upsetting their fellow Muslims. Such fears are more than justified. In some cases, parents have been intimidated and threatened for going to the police.
So the brutal treatment meted out to Muslim children continues; in silence.
The plight of many students inside Britain’s madrassas–and the implications for wider society–was highlighted by the respected File On 4 programme on Radio 4 this week, and follows a Dispatches investigation on Channel 4 in February, which not only captured beatings on hidden cameras, but also pupils being taught hatred for the British way of life, which they were told is influenced by Satan.
Anyone with ‘less than a fistful of beard’ must be avoided ‘the same way you stay away from a serpent or a snake’, some children were instructed. Non-Muslims were referred to as the ‘infidel’.
In other words, religious apartheid and social segregation is being taught to a growing number of Muslim youngsters in our towns and cities; an agenda, it seems, increasingly being reinforced by beatings and brutality.
So how much influence do madrassas hold over impressionable young Muslims? The statistics are compelling.
There are now believed to be around 3,500 madrassas in Britain although such is the demand for them that new ones are springing up all the time, not only in mosques but also in living rooms, garages, and even in abandoned pubs. Some have only a handful of pupils; others several hundred. Overall, up to 250,000 children, aged between four and 14, attend madrassas, all dutifully attired in Islamic dress; girls in headscarves, boys in skull caps.
In a typical daily scene, students hunch over wooden benches, rocking backwards and forwards as they learn the Koran by rote in Arabic, as a man with a long, dark beard dressed in traditional shalwar kameez–tunic and trousers–sits at the head of the class or paces up and down.
These institutions have been compared to Sunday school for Christians.
The comparison is misplaced. By definition, Sunday school takes place only once a week. The majority of madrassas hold classes every evening, six days a week. Lessons last for about two hours. They represent, in effect, a parallel, but largely unregulated education system. Madrassas, unlike state or private schools, are not subject to Ofsted inspections.
Teachers who take pupils for less then 12.5 hours a week are deemed to have the status of being ‘in loco parentis’ which allows them to smack those in their charge under the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’.
It is a loophole that has done little to dispel the impression that some madrassas, at least, are a law unto themselves as the latest raft of allegations above would seem to suggest.
One of the biggest in Lancashire is based at the Raza Jamia Masjid mosque, just off the main road that cuts through Accrington, and consists of several terraced houses converted into one large building.
There are separate entrances for the dozens of male and female pupils. The madrassa has a written policy urging staff to put the welfare of children above all else and there is a strict ‘no hitting’ rule.
Earlier this year, however, that rule was flagrantly broken.
‘The mosque teacher came and hit us all with a stick,’ an 11-year-old pupil told File On 4. ‘He hit me on the back. I felt angry because he hit me. He is not allowed to touch anyone in the mosque.’
The ‘stick’, it transpired, wielded by Ibrahim Yusuf, 52, himself a father of eight, who had taught at the madrassa for nearly 12 years, was a 2ft long section of a plastic overflow pipe.
‘How would you feel to be in that situation–to be hit and abused?,’ said the victim’s older sister. ‘As a child you don’t know what to do. We are living in the 21st century. Things like this are not supposed to be happening.’
In all, four boys, including a youngster with learning difficulties, were hit with the pipe during the incident for misbehaving. Details of the beatings emerged at their primary school the following day when the boys spoke about what had happened in front of teachers.
The teachers contacted children’s services, who in turn called the police. ‘It was serious,’ said Det Sgt Julie Cross, because a stick [sic] was used. It is not acceptable for teachers within a madrassa to be relying on implements to control the classroom.’
Yusuf claimed he didn’t usually have a ‘stick’ but had it that day for teaching purposes, as a ‘pointer.’ Nevertheless, he was charged with four counts of assault.
Shortly afterwards, the mother of the boy who spoke to File On 4 says she was approached by another mother at her home, who told her to drop the allegations. The parents of two of the other boys later informed the police they no longer wanted to press charges and would not be part of the case.
The case, however, did come before magistrates in August because CCTV footage inside the madrassa confirmed the boys’ accounts. Yusuf pleaded guilty and was given a 12-month community order. He is now teaching again at the madrassa.
Answering the door of his semi-detached home in Blackburn this week, Yusuf said: ‘The matter has been dealt with and I have nothing else to say. I am teaching there and everyone is more than happy for me to be there.’
‘It is wrong that he has come back,’ says his 11-year-old victim. ‘They should have kicked him out of the mosque. I don’t go to the mosque any more.’
What seems to be beyond dispute is that abuse at Britain’s madrassas has gone largely unreported for many years. ‘I have been told about this abuse by ex-teachers who have witnessed it as well as families who have suffered it,’ said Dr Siddiqui.
‘The most common acts of violence involve holding a child’s hair and banging his or her head against a wall. Punching them in their heads and bodies is common as well as making them adopt the Hen position.’
In 2006, Dr Siddiqui, then leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain–a forum set up back in the Nineties to lobby and campaign on issues affecting Muslims–accused local imams of not taking their duty to protect children seriously.
His concerns were spelled out in a damning 35-page publication, Child Protection In Faith-Based Environments.
‘The Muslim community,’ he wrote, ‘is at present in a state of denial–denial of the fact that child abuse takes place in places of worship including mosques and madrassas and families. It is a taboo subject.
‘There is very little discussion taking place in the community on the subject at any level. Hence, when such a crime is committed, the victim knows no one to turn to and the abusers are answerable to no one.’
If many in the Muslim community, even parents, are prepared to turn a blind a eye, what chance of preventing children at madrassas being fed a hardline, intolerant version of Islam which may have profoundly dangerous consequences to Britain as a whole?
A recent Government report concluded that over the past decade, Al Qaeda followers have used Britain’s madrassas to radicalise young Muslims.
Indeed, a Home Office-funded project, set up in 2007, to try to spot future terrorists, has identified more than 300 children who are ‘vulnerable’ to Islamic radicalisation. The figure comprises an astonishing 55 under-12s, and another 290 aged up to 16.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Academic and theologian Dr Taj Hargey runs an Islamic school in Oxford where children are taught in mixed-sex classes. Pupils are told to respect other faiths, ask questions about their religion and recite the Koran in English as well as Arabic. He says he set up the madrassa because of the claims Muslim families had made to him about beatings at other establishments.
‘What an outdated, archaic concept,’ he says, ‘and if we inflict violence on our children, we will sow the seeds of violence in them.’