Scars on the backs of the young

Muslim children as young as six are still being allowed to beat themselves with knives on the end of

It was supposed to be a routine doctor's appointment. Mrs Abbas* wanted someone at a hospital in north London to take a look at the rash under her son's arms. But when the doctor asked 14-year-old Firoz to take off his shirt, he noticed something far more worrying. Criss-crossed on Firoz's back were more than 50 lacerations. The doctor asked for an explanation. Mrs Abbas said that Firoz had inflicted the wounds himself during a religious ceremony; there was nothing to worry about. The doctor called in the child protection agency.

Through interviewing the family, a joint police and social services investigation team found that Firoz had made the lacerations by whipping himself with a zanjeer - a long chain with a set of curved knives attached at the end - as part of a flagellation ritual at the Idara-e-Jaaferiya mosque in Tooting, an area of Wandsworth, south London. The ritual, known as "zanjeer zani" or "zanjeer matam", was part of the Shia Muslim festival of Ashura, marked at the mosque every year.

The investigation team also discovered that Firoz's scars had built up over eight years. He had started using a zanjeer when he was seven. His brothers Hanif and Ijaz, who were 12 and nine at the time of the investigation in 2003, had also participated in the ceremony; they, too, had dozens of knife scars on their backs.

At the Abbas family home, officers found video footage that the family had shot during the ceremony in 2002. Spaced well apart in a circle and beating themselves with zanjeers were the two eldest sons, Firoz and Hanif. But they were not the only children involved: the film showed sons from other families flagellating with the same instrument. According to a report by the Crown Prosecution Service (which was asked by the investigation team to give formal advice), the youngest child at that particular ceremony was just six years old.

While children inflicted "considerable blows" on themselves, adult relatives interfered only to stop the older males causing themselves "excessive injury" having "reached a state of frenzy". Mr Abbas was shown participating alongside his sons. As the CPS report puts it, he gestured support and did not intervene: "The apparent image is that of the younger boys trying to emulate the men."

This was not a one-off incident in a single area; it is a national issue. In the past few years, there have been similar cases in Bradford and Blackburn, also involving teenagers and children as young as ten. The commemorative festival of Ashura is central to the identity of Shia Muslims.

For ten days, Shias recall the suffering of Imam Ali Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, and his 72 followers. Most of those ten days are taken up with prayer and lamentations at public gatherings. At the end of the main sermon, however, the cleric shouts "matam Hussein", at which point the gathered Shias often turn the spirit of commemoration into a physical act. The matam ceremony usually consists of just a soft beating of the chest, but in some countries (most notably Pakistan, India, Lebanon and Iraq) males also use knives and blades to draw blood.

The ritual of flagellation with zanjeers is contentious within the Shia world. According to one of the UK's most prominent Shia religious organisations, the Khoei Foundation, the matam ceremony is "neither obligatory nor recommended . . . it is merely permissible". In other words, it is not mandated by religious authority. In its advice to the investigative team, the foundation ruled that children under the age of 18 should not practise matam with a zanjeer. Those who refused to accept that advice would risk tarnishing the reputation of Britain's Shia community - or, to quote the foundation: "When the use of zanjeer by children who are below the age of consent is illegal, the Muslim community has to make it clear that it is an obligation on parents to prevent children from participating, otherwise they themselves will face the legal consequences that may arise."

Sayyed Nadeem Kazmi, an academic with the foundation, acknowledges that it is not an easy issue to tackle. "It is very difficult to criticise this particular ritual because it is part of devotion and culture," he says. "If anything, the parents feel obliged to let their children do it. It's very hard to tell your child not to be religious. You should be telling them to be more religious. What better spirituality than believing in Hussein?"

According to the CPS report, Mr and Mrs Abbas expressed these very sentiments when they were interviewed by the police, six months after the doctor reported the scars on their son's back. Mrs Abbas said she would not subject her children to harm, but the practice was a religious right. She would not discourage her children if they wanted to participate, even if it was against the law. It is, in fact, against the law, and yet there was no prosecution.

Letting children self-flagellate with knives on the ends of chains is an offence under Section 1(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 - one of wilful neglect in a manner likely to cause a child unnecessary suffering or injury. The opinion of the CPS was that it was possible to prosecute. The photographic and video evidence would help to show that the parents were neglectful. However, there were also problems. If the children did not want to give evidence against their parents, the authorities would have to rely on third-party evidence alone such as the medical report and the photographic and video evidence. That wasn't all. The CPS did not consider it in the public interest to prosecute. "The parents had co-operated fully," it said, "and in fact it was their co-operation which [had] then helped to stamp out this practice among children at the Tooting mosque."

Detective Superintendent Chris Bourlet, who was responsible for the Abbas case as deputy head of the Metropolitan Police's Child Protection Command, explains why his unit chose to work with the community. "The last thing [we] wanted to do was to police mosques and people's homes. It's impracticable, and you don't want to do that anyway," he says. "What we want is the community to take on this issue themselves. We can help support them. But the last thing we want to be doing is policing faiths, because it's just not our role. Our role is to protect children."

The approach seems to have worked. Two years on, a letter addressed to the management of the Tooting mosque is proudly pinned to the mosque noticeboard. It reads: "I am very pleased that the Ashura ceremony last weekend was so well conducted. Please thank your colleagues for ensuring that once again it was a complete success." It is signed by G K Jones, chief executive of Wandsworth Borough Council.

Alamdar Hussain, a member of the mosque's management committee, describes how warnings have been issued leading up to and during Ashura, and how the hall has been cleared of all minors when the adults take part in the zanjeer ceremony. "Two years ago, we got the message that this was the law of the land, and we called all of those people involved," he says. He explains that, despite this being a matter of faith, the law comes first. "If you drive, you drive according to the law of the land . . . law is law."

How certain can Bourlet be that communities won't again put faith and culture before the law without his knowing? "It's the same with any issue," he says. "Occasionally people may make a choice that they wish to disobey the law, but we will deal with that, as appropriate, according to each individual case. And that's the right thing." He also gives an example of the good relationship that his team has built up with the Tooting mosque. "There was one adolescent who refused to not take part; the mosque told us about him, and we were able to visit him and discuss the issues with him."

There are no official figures showing how many Shia Muslims live in the UK. The Khoei Foundation estimates that they number roughly 320,000 people - about 21 per cent of the total Muslim population - who are settled in all the major conurbations. It seems that child protection agencies across the country favour working with communities on the issue of zanjeer rather than prosecuting them. Sergeant John Rigby, on the minorities team at Lancashire Constabulary, has been aware of the issue in the Blackburn area for at least six years, and some cases involving young teenagers have been reported to him. One of Lancashire's solutions has been to get the Shia community to carry out a professional risk assessment of the Ashura ceremony, and he believes this is more effective than taking people to court.

"Years ago, agencies were not aware of the ceremony," he says. "The Shia community had to understand that it is a child protection issue and [they] have taken on board some basic principles. We don't want to send it underground. It is always going to be sensitive, but we can't use that as an excuse to cover up the issue."

However, not all agencies are giving out the same child protection message. West Yorkshire Police refused to talk about a case that occurred in Bradford during the Ashura ceremony this year, except to confirm that an incident involving a ten-year-old boy was reported on 21 February. An employee of West Yorkshire Police who does not wish to be named said it was decided, at the end of the investigation, that the boy was old enough to decide whether to flagellate or not. The decision reveals a discrepancy at the national level: while a child would find it very hard to participate in zanjeer matam in London, he could travel to Bradford and do it there instead.

The ritual of zanjeer matam happens once a year, and what occurs is child neglect rather than direct abuse. None the less it raises many troubling questions. If a local authority manages to stop children participating one year, how can it ensure that they don't just start again the year after that? Secular authorities are up against the belief that self-flagellation earns greater virtue in the eyes of God. Will letting Muslim communities police themselves solve the problem or merely cover it up - or, worse, drive it underground?

Another question that arises is what the authorities would do if such a ritual were carried out by, say, British pagans. It is hard to imagine that it would be dealt with in the same way. Surely a crime is a crime. Should the law make exceptions for certain types of belief?

The issue of zanjeer matam also challenges the notion that, over time, minority communities will automatically take on the value system of the majority. The use of zanjeers has been going on among Shias for hundreds of years, but until very recently no one seemed to think the ritual would be practised in Britain by second- and third-generation children. Yet it is, and as openly in this country as in India, Pakistan or Iraq. On the one hand, it perhaps shows how cut off some communities are from the mainstream. On the other hand, it maybe proves yet again that faith, culture and tradition - those foundation stones of society - are never easily shifted.

* The name of the family has been changed for its protection