Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Higher callings, base desires

The custodians of impossible morality turn into monstrous predators
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The Independent Online

The idea for this column comes today from a young man called Taher. He emails me often, asking for advice, commenting on what I have written and sometimes just to kick around thoughts. He is an American whose father hails from Pakistan and whose mum is Afghani, "one of those beautiful, green-eyed mountain people", he says. They divorced soon after moving to Ohio. His father told Taher it was his mother's fault, because too many people stared at her irresistible face, a face that aroused evil desires.

Taher, who is 24, wants to be a writer and is starting that long journey. His first novel is going to be about just such a woman, born too lovely and seen as witchy by conservative Afghani émigrés living in small-town America. And her son, abused by the local imam. It happened to Taher when he was 10.

Taher and I have been discussing the child sexual abuse within the Catholic church worldwide and complicit priests and popes. What paedophile priests have done to children – especially young boys, most of all vulnerable young boys – is horrifying. Far worse though is the cover-up, which appears to have been organised at the Vatican, at the HQ. The top brass ensured their reputation was kept clean. Suffocating silence was thrown over the dirty quilt.

The Catholic hierarchy seeks to monitor and completely control the sexual behaviour of their flocks – banning condoms, abortion, pleasure, damning those who refuse to obey. Millions of believers ignore the injunctions, but millions do not. That power is then abused, as we have seen. More is sure to tumble out in the weeks to come.

But Taher is interested in bigger questions: "Do you not think there are some similarities between 'true' Catholics and 'true' Muslims? Both have leaders who are obsessed with how dangerous sex is and both have really sick attitudes. If they could go easy and just accept sex is part of human life it would be better for them and the rest of us."

A number of Muslim bloggers have started up similar debates since the recent Catholic scandals broke. One asks: "Could it be that Muslims are more sexually repressed than members of other faiths? I guess it is a close call between us and Catholics." Several young Muslim women and men have also contacted me alleging sexual abuse by imams and mullahs.

These two world faiths have more rules, regulations, thought and behaviour police when it comes to carnal relations than any other. Catholicism casts human sensuality as Satanic, injects an overdose of guilt to kill pleasure and within its clergy imposes celibacy, a restriction that is clearly impossible for many men of that God. The custodians of impossible morality so turn into monstrous predators.

Strict Sunni and Shia Muslims also fear sexuality and try to contain it with ever increasing fervour. Young women must cover up completely; girls too are temptresses and so are made to wear scarves, cloaks and gloves. Young men must wait until marriage with a good Muslim woman before they can have sex. All else is haram – wicked, a sin. So consumed are some Muslims with this mission to tame the sexual drive that they live in a distorted universe, a swamp of imagined wickedness and some, like the Catholic priests, end up doing terrible things.

I have interviewed too many such Muslim men who find modern relationships between the sexes only corrupt and filthy. Abdullah, a prisoner who is doing time for raping his niece, tells me that veils cannot hide a woman's breasts and buttocks. He can see right through them which is why, in his view, women should not be in the public space, ever. He can't pray, he says, because provocative females have rotted his brain and heart.

The Catholic priests who raped children from their congregations would understand Abdullah's behaviour and excuses perfectly. Those who see sex as gross and immoral, perhaps more easily use sex as an instrument of violation. Other, less dramatic effects of sexual paranoia are just as worrying. Since the spread of Saudi religious fundamentalism, devout Muslims have been brainwashed into thinking Islam is mainly concerned about the avoidance of lust and the struggle to find high decorum. Their faith has got distorted and become fearful.

From west to east, millions have sex on their minds day and night and they cannot find the tranquillity for prayer and connection with God and spirituality. Theirs is one long torturous battle against the natural self. So too, I imagine, for the vast numbers of Catholic priests whose celibacy was a sham. Did they punish their victims for their own failures to connect with the divine?

Child abusers are found among people of all religions and none. Religious and cultural communities and ordinary neighbourhoods collectively hide abuse and abusers because that is preferable to the stench of a scandal. When the Sikh British playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti wrote a play about sexual violence in a temple, Sikh protesters stopped the performances. They didn't want to be reminded of what goes on in holy places. In my recent memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, I described how a widower in the 1960s touched up women when they bent over to find their shoes after prayers. They said the "dirty cockroach" had deflowered his own daughters. Nobody did anything. Instead, when he died they cleaned up his story and prayed for his soul. No bridegrooms were found for the "used" girls. In mosques and Islamic organisations, this still goes on and is veiled in utmost secrecy.

The abuse of young people in any religious setting is an intolerable betrayal of trust and divinity. But some religions seem more susceptible than others. Substantial numbers of Catholics and Wahabi Muslims are excessively fervent, seriously sanctimonious and phobic about the human body. Is it possible this lethal combination encourages illicit, forced sex with children? Should we be looking to save these souls before they wreck more bodies? I am only posing questions not casting aspersions. Not allowed. Blasphemy, they will cry. These enquiries will be buried under a pile of righteous outrage. Until the next time and the next.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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