21 Oct 2010

Sexual abuse and Islam - a Bosnian case by Hajrudin Somun*

Today's Zaman - Turkey March 26, 2009

OP-ED by Hajrudin Somun*

"Bosnian imam convicted of pedophilia" -- this was the news that spread amongst a shocked public in Bosnia and the Balkans last month.

A Bosnian court found a local Islamic cleric guilty of sexually abusing an underage girl and sentenced him to 18 months in prison. It was the first such case involving a religious figure in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent times.

I would not comment on the event if it had not happened in Bosnia, if an Islamic cleric had not been involved or if a young schoolgirl had not been the victim. I would not comment on it particularly if the girl did not belong to a Muslim family from a remote and poor mountain village, Gluha Bukovica, a name that is already symbolic, meaning "deaf beech village."

First, it is not pleasant to even hear about the sexual abuse of children. Sexual abuse occurs in all ethnic, social and religious communities. Religious figures are not spared from this deviation of human nature. It is a problem amongst Christian clergy, particularly in America. Church officials have publicly admitted that some 6,000 Catholic priests in the US have sexually molested minors over the past few decades. Sexual abuse allegations against rabbis have been an issue in the American Orthodox Jewish community. Pope Benedict XVI, visiting the US last year, denounced sexual abuse by clergy, proclaiming, "Every person responsible must be brought to justice."

In Muslim communities the issue of justice is being widely debated. What justice or legal system should be applied? Contemporary civil law or traditional Islamic law? Sexual abuse is just one of many issues of dispute in this regard in most countries where religion has not been separated from the state.

There is, however, another thing I was struck by in this particular Bosnian case, something that has struck me regarding similar situations while living in or visiting predominantly Muslim countries: the general attitude toward women and their position in Muslim society. The young Bosnian journalist Belma Becirbasic puts it in an even wider scope, stating, "The monotheistic dogma has placed women at the very core of the divine destruction of the world -- the principle of womanhood as the personification of weakness that disturbs the integrity and holiness of the religious superior, as well as manhood."

While awaiting the outcome of his appeal, the accused Bosnian imam has become more of a subject of attention and care than the abused girl. The roles have been switched: The girl's story has become a subject of suspicion and the imam himself has become almost a victim of her testimony. From one side, this was achieved by the mild reaction of the Bosnian Islamic community's leaders. They did say they would suspend the imam if his appeal was refused by the court, but they refused to denounce him decisively despite the undoubtedly incriminating testimony against him.

On the other side, conservative rural believers, scared they could be embarrassed collectively, decided to blame the girl and defend the imam. Encouraged by such an approach, the imam declared, "With God as my witness, I did not commit this crime." A scene, more ironic and derisive than touching, appeared in the media: small headscarved girls, all crying, surrounding the imam, also in tears. The aim of their fathers was clear: to accuse the victim and "save the honor" of the village's other families and of the imam himself. The poor family of the abused girl that had enough courage to file charges against the imam, however, has already been isolated and will probably seek refuge in another place. Otherwise, their daughter will be ostracized and likely unable to establish her own family if they stay in Gluha Bukovica.

This is happening in a country ruled by civil law, however imperfect, and not in a Muslim community where relations between men and women are regulated by Shariah. It is generally recognized that the primary victims of human rights violations in predominantly Muslim countries are women and children and that almost all such violations involve sexuality. There are many examples of this that are widely used and misused in the midst of growing Islamophobia in the West.

Honor killings, for example, are given special status in the legal codes of Jordan, Morocco, Syria and many other Muslim countries. Jordan's Queen Rania is spreading an image of Jordan as a modern society around the world and declaring that women in her country have "transformed their lives and those of their families in the past decade." The Jordanian parliament, however, has twice failed to abolish Article 340 of the country's penal code, which states, "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds or injures one of them is exempted from any penalty."

Women in Muslim countries

And what can be said about the "rights of women" guaranteed by Shariah in countries less developed than Jordan? What about the slave trade, targeting girls between the ages of 13 and 17, which remains "one of the most profitable activities" in the Persian Gulf? Or the stoning and caning of women, which is still included in the Iranian penal code? It was even disgusting to hear, in April last year, how an 8-year-old girl in Yemen had to ask for a divorce in court and sue her father, who forced her to marry a 30-year-old man. She said the man "used to do bad things" to her and beat her when she tried to escape. It was great progress that the girl succeeded in finding justice, however bitter it may have been. It is not known what happened to the girl later, but she was placed temporarily with Dar al-Rahama, an NGO that cares for children.

While serving as Bosnia's ambassador to Malaysia, I followed the issue of the Law of Criminal Punishment, popularly called the hudud law, over which Malays have been divided for years. According to that law, effective in the federal Malaysian state of Terengganu, which is ruled by a conservative Islamist party, if a woman accuses a man of rape she must bring four witnesses to the court and all of them must be upstanding male Muslims and older than 18. They have to be unanimous that they saw penetration. If the victim does not prove her allegation, she can be punished. Apart from imprisonment, hudud also contains punishments such as stoning, caning and amputation of arms and legs, practices carried out widely in Saudi Arabia. I have heard many views opposing such laws. Then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed once said, "By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered justice." Renowned Asian scholar Chandra Muzaffar argued that such laws "cannot claim to have helped preserve the quintessence of Islamic civilization." Others simply acknowledge that it is ridiculous that a raped victim has to seek out for four men as witnesses of such an act. If they are good Muslims, why were they watching it? What were they doing there? And why can't four good female Muslims be witnesses?

These two poles that divide Malaysia -- certainly the Muslim majority country that, after Turkey, has made the biggest progress in all fields -- also divide the entire Muslim world, not just along ideological lines, but also along political, social and cultural lines. Are these poles moving further and further away from each other? Those who put emphasis on the formal side of Islam and its values want things that were regarded as acceptable just 1,000 years ago to be considered just today as well, without taking into account all the developments humanity has made in the field of human rights, gender equality and knowledge. I could be charged with apostasy, irtihad, by them, but I remain convinced that there will be no great progress in the so-called Islamic world without a major reinterpretation -- if not a reform -- of Islamic jurisprudence. And the first thing that should be reinterpreted is the relationship between women and men.

Although it is hard to imagine it in the present circumstances, perhaps Iranians could lead such a historical move. Aside from being the inheritors of one of oldest civilizations, in their language they do not distinguish between "he" and "she."

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer on the history of diplomacy at the Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.

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