A new wave of shock has just hit Malaysia. Four Malaysian siblings residing in Sweden were separated from their parents after the parents were arrested by Swedish authorities for allegedly hitting their son for not performing his daily prayers. The reported story in the news was not very clear though; the boy was said to have been found ‘a bit down’ at school.
A concerned teacher approached him and he told her what allegedly happened. Alarmed at the possibility of abuse, the teacher reported the case to the school counselor who then contacted the Swedish police. The four kids were removed from school in one day and their parents, arrested. At the moment the children have been put under the care of a non-Muslim foster family and have expressed deep anguish and frustration over the difficulties they are facing in a new environment to which they cannot adjust.
This phenomenon is first and foremost not very familiar to Malaysian society as Malaysia is not a country with obsession about children’s rights, foster care system and forceful separation of children from their family members, especially parents. Sweden however has adopted a totally different model pertaining to such issues.
It follows a strict set of regulations in ‘child abuse’ matters, has a very intricate foster care system and holds the reputation of being the first country in the world to have banned all forms of corporal (physical) punishment of children in 1979.
There seem to be loopholes in the supposed justice for the children and penalty against the parents. It is understood, no matter how difficult, that when someone has decided to reside in a foreign country then he or she will have to abide by the local law. But there remain some unanswered questions like why have the accused parents been initially denied access to a lawyer as reported?
Why did the Swedish authority or social services refuse to let the children’s relatives, who have flown thousands of kilometers from Malaysia out of grave concern, see them?
Isn’t it against human rights, that the poor parents were arrested and kept in detention before an official charge was made?
Why does the Swedish law state that even if parents accused of child abuse are found not guilty, it does not mean they will be reunited with their children, as they will have to appeal before the court?
Suppose the children were really in danger of mistreatment, why hasn’t the authority taken into consideration their cultural and religious association before simply giving them away to just any foster family?
For a nation which is deemed advanced in its so-called welfare system, what happened to the four innocent Malaysian kids was surely a blow to its human rights records. In fact, many western and Swedish experts have repeatedly criticized the way Swedish social services deal with suspected troubled families and implement the foster care system.
Some even raised a genuine concern that the whole system is being commercialized and manipulated to serve the commercial greed of a certain vested interests. Foster homes and orphanages receive a large amount of financial aid by the government and some people who run these institutions were said to have become millionaires. Foster parents similarly get huge financial rewards as for offering supposed ‘care’ to the ‘abused’ children.
Studies revealed that close to fifty percent of children in foster care institutions come from migrant families. This has created deep suspicion among critics; that these children and their parents are being victimized by a system and manipulated by those with business interests.
Foster care is no safe haven. There have been many reports of physical and sexual abuse in foster homes and families. Statistics have shown that growing up in foster homes or families are not always better than staying with biological parents despite the family crises, depending on the type and extent.
Children coming from foster institutions are reported to more likely suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and stunted milestones. They have a higher tendency to commit suicide and are more vulnerable to neglect, assault and exploitation.
While it is true that child abuse is unacceptable and should be treated as a grave crime, the debate now should focus on the methods of handling this dilemma, the need to draw a clear demarcating line between light spanking for the purpose of disciplining and pure abuse, and perhaps the necessity to revisit the concept of corporal punishment all over again.
In the case of the Malaysian couple who were arrested and had their four children separated from them before investigations were complete, the slogan ‘for the best interests of children’ often quoted by the social services in Sweden seems completely meaningless.
How can a sudden separation from biological parents and giving them away to a complete stranger with different cultural and religious background, in a foreign country, serve any of the children’s interests? These will obviously only shock the innocent kids and subject them to an extreme anxiety of separation and other forms of mental torture. The least that could have been done was consulting the Malaysian embassy or any representatives of the Muslim organizations.
Now the tough question: Is the couple even guilty for disciplining their 12-year-old child by way of hitting the hand for not performing his prayers? The western gentry may frown upon such practice while Muslim society finds it completely sensible. Unless this barrier of differences in terms of values, ideologies and beliefs are properly and clearly explained, never shall the twain meet. In Islam, there is a famous Prophetic hadith which says: “Teach your children to perform salah (daily prayers) at the age of seven and chastise them (lightly) at the age of ten (for refusal to do so).”
This hadith conveys several important messages. First, it emphasizes the importance of prayers which is one of the five pillars of Islam so much so that every parent is supposed to educate his child about praying at the age of seven. When a child reaches ten, light hitting is allowed as the last resort to discipline him and make him realize that prayer is something not to be taken lightly.
What many people fail to comprehend though, is the description of ‘hitting’ meant by the Prophet. Here, hitting is not violent beating or abusing as trumpeted by the ignorant and Islamophobes.
Light hitting referred by the hadith has many strict criteria as defined by scholars and experts such as the type and size of the tool that should be used, the intensity of the force, the part of body allowed to be spanked and the part to be avoided, and the circumstance in which hitting can take place.
It is crucial however, to highlight here that the Prophet himself had never hit or spanked any child his whole life even though Islam deems it permissible. He was reported to have always used gentle words with children and treated them with utmost care and compassion.
In Chapter 29 verse 45 of the Qur’an God Almighty says: ‘Verily, the prayer (salah) prevents one from shameful and evil deeds.’ This revelation has been one of the most fundamental purposes or final objectives of ritual prayer. It is to discipline the believers and mold their characters so that they become cultured human beings who possess strong values and are able to refrain themselves from committing misdeeds no matter how tempting they are.
If these noble objectives of prayer can be truly grasped, light hitting becomes a trivial issue let alone to be considered a violation of children’s rights.
Islam’s stance on corporal punishment is often seen as the last resort, after all other measures fail while the concept of love, compassion and good treatment for children remain as the primordial rules. In the midst of humans’ over-enthusiasm to promote justice and human rights, they are perhaps on the verge of losing balance between giving children their supposed rights and spoiling them.
The surrounding environment in which Muslim children live is another critical and sensitive area according to Islamic teachings. As children are highly observant and tend to imitate what they see, Islam highly encourages parents and families to ensure that children grow up in a healthy environment; one which does not constantly expose them to temptations , negative elements and deleterious cultural habits such as indecent clothing, sexual permissiveness, non-halal foods, and so forth.
What mostly frustrated the international Muslim community in the recent case of the four siblings was the fact that they were put under the custody of a non-Muslim Swedish family, presumably Christian or atheist. Respect for other beliefs and religions in Islam, does not mean condoning the possibility of Muslim children’s identity being eroded and their faith and values, jeopardized.
Physical welfare is irrefutably vital. However, in Islam life is seen from a deeper perspective. Life and success are beyond material and worldly comfort. Not only sufficient food, comfortable bedrooms and loving families matter to children, but more importantly faith in God, the values instilled and the knowledge of the hereafter are equally or more paramount.
This reality is easily understood only when the concept of a Supreme Being or Creator is appreciated. Societies which push the realm of God and religion behind, or into the mere narrow space of worship houses cannot perceive beyond the material world.
Definite banning of all kinds of corporal punishment on children might have some benefits from a certain perspective but unfortunately may not be the ultimate solution in educating and disciplining children as well as protecting their rights.
As for the Malaysian case, it should be made a priority that the four disturbed children are handed over to a Muslim family who shares their belief, culture and domestic atmosphere. Nevertheless, the more vital questions are whether their parents are even guilty in the first place, and what benchmark should be used to fairly judge them.
Penulis : Raudah Yunus