Religious Extremism and Sexual Assault

Religious Extremism and Sexual Assault

Al Qabas, Kuwait, November 3

One of my female relatives recently started volunteering at a nonprofit operating a support line for women – teenage girls, mothers, wives – who experienced sexual assault. The stories she shared with me were jarring. The stories are particularly horrible when they happen in closed religious societies that hide such crimes under the veil of religion. The Haredi community, often described as the “Jewish Taliban,” is characterized by being mysterious and secretive in its rituals and practices. The Lev Tahor or “Immaculate Heart” sect is one of the most radical of these groups, and its leaders have previously been arrested for assault-related charges. The most recent arrest took place in a Mexican town, where the group established a home base. Several of the sect’s leaders, including Israelis from Canada and America, were arrested. A few days ago, an Israeli court sentenced the leader of a sect, charged with polygamy and assault, to 30 years in prison, and convicted him of sexual charges related to his wives and daughters, in addition to the charge of claiming divinity. Lev Tahor is far from the only sect where such crimes take place. Sexual assault occurs even in places where women are forced to wear black cloaks that cover their entire bodies. I have also heard and read about sexual crimes committed against children and minors in some Christian churches, mostly Catholic ones. Most of these crimes have been documented through lawsuits and criminal prosecutions in several European and American courts. Many of these crimes were covered up by the Vatican and even former popes. Churches paid hundreds of millions of dollars in financial compensation to victims after years of silencing and suffering. In Kuwait, authorities recently charged a religious teacher with sexual assaults on several school students. Many of the teacher’s acts were documented through surveillance cameras. This is not the first crime of its kind; many preceded it and, sadly, it will not be the last. Of course, sexual assault can take place even in the most open, secular, and liberal societies. But there is something about extremist religious sects that provides for a dangerous environment in which these crimes can unfold. The ability to detect, investigate, or talk about these issues in such societies is very limited. Furthermore, when senior clergy members are suspected of such acts, the sect and its institutions often work to cover up the crime to deflect the attention and scrutiny of authorities. A good example of this is the reports of the Audit Bureau, which are overflowing with violations of religious bodies and ministries. Yet no one wants to open this can of worms and investigate the reports. Ahmad al-Sarraf (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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