February 11, 2008

Hitchens Against UK Sharia

More discussion of the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks from Christopher Hitchens here. Hitchens provides an extreme example of why the public interest should be taken into account when a court decides whether or not to enforce a "parallel" court that incorporates religious ideas into its decision matrix:

Picture the life of a young Urdu-speaking woman brought to Yorkshire from Pakistan to marry a man—quite possibly a close cousin—whom she has never met. He takes her dowry, beats her, and abuses the children he forces her to bear. She is not allowed to leave the house unless in the company of a male relative and unless she is submissively covered from head to toe. Suppose that she is able to contact one of the few support groups that now exist for the many women in Britain who share her plight. What she ought to be able to say is, "I need the police, and I need the law to be enforced." But what she will often be told is, "Your problem is better handled within the community." And those words, almost a death sentence, have now been endorsed and underwritten—and even advocated—by the country's official spiritual authority.
This young woman would not have "opted in" to the religious court, and even if she had, there is ample reason to believe that such an "opt-in" would have been neither knowing nor voluntary. This young woman would have come to Britain with little, if any, knowledge about the extent to which British law protects against against the sort of domestic violence described in the story; she would naturally assume that the law there would be similar to that of her home and believe herself to be without a remedy. She would have been confronted with a number of forms upon entering the UK, which she would have signed without really understanding what they were and likely without any functional knowledge of English.

More importantly, though, Hitchens' example illustrates exactly the sort of danger that I wrote about, and that others writing on the issue have written about. In a court's eager rush to approve and encourage extrajudicial resolution of disputes, courts should not turn a blind eye to gross injustices done in the name of following religious laws -- and then enforcing them as the equivalent of laws of general application.

Hitchens is also right to point out that while this sort of situation seems very unlikely to arise in a Christian or Jewish "court," a Muslim "court" would not engender the same kind of trust on the part of the general population -- would a Sharia "court" come to the aid of this young woman? I have my doubts. That's not to say that a general civil or criminal court would be much better, but at least those courts would take her side and, potentially and eventually, get law enforcement personnel involved on the ground before she really is killed. So if we aren't going to trust Muslims with these courts, that means that no religion can have such courts.

Mixing church and state is not a good idea. The idea of mixing not just the state but particularly the courts with religion produces a hybrid which becomes more offensive the more I consider it.

No comments: