There have been a couple of disturbing signs lately that the United Kingdom no longer aspires to have one law for all, that instead UK Muslims are entitled to preferential treatment. Both signs take the form of extending special privileges to Muslim women in judicial proceedings.
The result may be to disadvantage non-Muslims vis-à-vis Muslims, while simultaneously institutionalizing the sexism of Sharia law against Muslim women.
Raping Muslims More Serious Than Raping Non-Muslims
The United Kingdom has chosen to allow rape of an “Asian” girl to be sanctioned more severely than a similar crime committed against a white girl.
As noted previously, British authorities frequently use “Asian” as a synonym for “Muslim,” as in a government report of sex-grooming in Rotherham. The report describes perpetrators of this scandal as “Asian” and sometimes “Pakistani,” but it is clear that many of the perpetrators are Muslim because the response refers to training packages for Muslim community leaders.
Authorities ignored the situation for 16 years, partly because of their contempt for the victims – underage “white” girls – and partly out of fear that they would be branded as “racist” (read, “Islamophobic”) for prosecuting the perpetrators.
On September 10, 2015, an appeals court agreed with a sentencing judge’s decision to impose a longer sentence on Jamal Muhammed Raheem Ul Nasir for sexually assaulting two underage “Asian” girls (at least one of whom was under age 13) because his victims allegedly suffered more than white girls would.
A little perspective. Studies of how the death penalty is applied in the United States have suggested that it is imposed in a racially biased manner, based on the race of the victim (as distinct from bias based on race of perpetrator); crimes against white people are more likely to result in the death penalty than crimes against black people. When slavery was legal in the United States, murder of a white person was legally sanctioned more severely than murder of a black person. The heavier penalty was a way of treating the crime against a white person as inherently more serious than a similar crime against a black person. There was a logic behind it.
White people had more rights than black people under the law and were an elevated caste. Let us assume that the Nasir court’s motives are sincere and its intentions benign. One could certainly argue that the victims are at least potentially in danger of suffering more. Their families may murder them for the “crime” of “dishonouring” the family by having been raped (see here, here, here, here, and here).
Nevertheless, penalizing rape of a Muslim girl more severely than rape of a non-Muslim girl simply institutionalizes racism/religious discrimination and Sharia law (or at least, Sharia law as some Muslims – such as those affiliated with ISIS – understand it), and perhaps also the sexism that condones “honour” crimes. Another way of looking at the decision is that it resurrects feudal law, in which different estates had different legal rights at duties. It makes Muslim victims a higher estate whose members have greater worth than non-Muslims.
It also gives rapists a perverse incentive that, if they’re going to rape somebody, it’s better to rape a non-Muslim, because its potential consequences would be less severe. It accepts the same rationale used by the Rotherham perpetrators in selecting their victims. One would have hoped UK authorities would have been more sensitive to accepting this mindset and slighting the Rotherham victims barely a year after the government’s report on that scandal was released.
Right to Face Muslim Accuser and Evaluate Evidence
In the name of cultural sensitivity, Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, said last April that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a veil in court, even when testifying.
The issue came up two years ago in the trial of a niqab-wearing Muslim woman accused of witness intimidation. Judge Peter Murphy ruled that the defendant must remove her veil when testifying, but could wear it at other times. He explained, “The ability of the jury to see the defendant for the purposes of evaluating her evidence is crucial… The right to give evidence involves a corresponding duty to submit that evidence to the scrutiny of the jury.”
If Lord Neuberger has his way, the jury’s right to evaluate a witness’s demeanour will not apply when the witness is a veiled Muslim woman. Jurors will see only what she chooses to show them.
Even more disturbing is the prospect that a veiled witness may testify against a third party. A criminal defendant’s right to confront witnesses against him or her, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, grew out of British law. It was a safeguard that arose from abuses like the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was condemned in part on the evidence of alleged co-conspirator Lord Cobham. Raleigh demanded the opportunity to confront and cross-examine Cobham. His demand was rejected and he was condemned and sentenced to death (although the king spared his life). Now, defendants may have the right to confront in name but not reality, as the accuser (if a Muslim woman) may be masked.
This radical departure has faced opposition from prominent quarters. Baroness Hale, the UK’s senior female judge, and Prime Minister David Cameron have both opposed the measure on the grounds that fact-finders must be able to see a witness’s face.
In form, both of the above changes give, or would give, an elevated legal status to Muslim women. Sex crimes against them have been sanctioned with extra severity and, if the President of the UK Supreme Court has his way, they will be able to give evidence for themselves or against someone else without exposing themselves to the scrutiny a jury and criminal defendant have in any other context. Arguably, these exceptions are motivated, and may contribute to, subjugation of women as the property of their families (here, here, and here). The net effect is still to enshrine a version of Islamic mores in British law and to elevate Muslims over non-Muslims.
Johanna Markind is Associate Counsellor for the Middle East Forum