What is safeguarding? It is working to ensure that children and adults, particularly the vulnerable, are able to live their lives in safety, free from abuse, harm and neglect. If Islam is an active path in which we move towards a state of safety and health, then safeguarding ought to be a primary concern of believers everywhere.
It is true that many of us are men of contradictions, and that we all have a propensity to slip and err. Nevertheless, if we recognise despicable traits within, our job is to do battle with them and struggle to suppress them. To engage in jihad an-nafs, as the ancients called it.
“As for he who feared the meeting with his Lord and restrained himself from his base desires, then indeed, Paradise will be his refuge.” — Quran 79:40-1
Such a battle is no mean feat; it is a never-ending struggle. Where our base desires are concerned, we must perpetually be on guard, and be prepared to take the long road, never ceasing in our mission to reform. Easier said that done, to be sure, but such is the journey we are on.
On the path to safety, first we safeguard ourselves so that we may then safeguard others. If a man fears what his heart contains, he must do whatever he can to remove himself from situations which might allow what his heart contains to become actions in the material world.
A man addicted to lying must strive to always tell the truth. A preacher who cannot trust himself around women must forsake preaching to vast audiences. A teacher who cannot help flirting online must abandon social media. Whatever his base desire, he must go on the counterattack, removing every avenue that may lead to its realisation.
Safeguarding, even in secular spaces, recognises human nature and attempts to counterbalance dangers by putting checks in place. Adults attempting to work with children are forced to have a criminal records check, and those with a history of inappropriate contact with children are barred completely. In the adult sphere, in situations involving alleged domestic violence, assault, harassment, stalking or sexual assault, an individual might be given a restraining order. Once again, the aim is to prevent repeat offending and minimise harm.
Given Islam’s longstanding concern with removing harm, we would hope that Muslims and Muslim institutions would be the first to embrace the notion of safeguarding. Where there have been accusations of impropriety, steps to safeguard others ought to be taken until a thorough investigation has established that there is no cause for concern. It is not sufficient to say that we believe or trust in an individual accused of wrongdoing — for none of us knows what is hidden — rather precautions must be taken, however seemingly great or well-respected the accused.
What we often encounter instead is that rather than working to minimise harm, individuals and institutions close rank to protect themselves. There are vested interests at stake, so instead of working to build a better environment for all, they work to defend the status quo, enabling abuse or harm to go on, unchallenged, for years and years. The protection of the vulnerable does not come into it.
But as we have established previously, Islam starts from the outside and goes inward. First you become a Muslim, then you must struggle to become a Mumin. The first sign of a Mumin is that when you see something harmful, you remove it. That is why it is paramount that Muslims and Muslim institutions take the notion of safeguarding seriously.