Centuries of civilisation thrown away

2008-02-16 00:00

In December 1931, George Orwell got himself arrested in the slums of east London in order to find out about conditions “inside,” and then he wrote an essay about the people he met while in detention. One of them was a buyer for a kosher butcher who had embezzled some of his boss’s money.

To Orwell’s surprise, the man told him that “his employer would probably get into trouble at the synagogue for prosecuting him.

It appears that the Jews have arbitration courts of their own, and a Jew is not supposed to prosecute another Jew, at least in a breach-of-trust case like this, without first submitting it to the arbitration court.”

You might think that such relics of the medieval ghetto, and of the rabbinical control that was part of ghetto life, had more or less disappeared in England in the 21st century. And you would largely be right.

There exists a “Beth Din,” or religious court, in the prosperous north London suburb of Finchley to which the ultra-Orthodox submit some of their more arcane disputes. (This little world is very amusingly described by Naomi Alderman in her lovely novel Disobedience.)

But to speak in general, Jews in Britain consider themselves, and are considered, to be answerable to the same laws as everybody else. Should I mention any of the numerous reasons why it would be extremely nerve-racking if this were not true?

But now the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has cited the Beth Din as one of his reasons for believing that sharia, or Islamic law, can and should become a part of what he called “plural jurisdiction” in Britain.

His reasoning, if one may call it that, is clear: Other faiths already have their own legal authorities, so why not the Muslims, too?

What could be more tolerant and diverse? This same argument has been used already, and will be used again, to demand that laws governing “blasphemy,” originally written to protect only Christians from being upset, should now, in a nondiscriminatory way, be amended to cover Muslims as well.

The alternative — don’t have any blasphemy laws and let religious people’s feelings be hurt, just as the feelings of the secular are regularly offended by religion — doesn’t occur to the archbishop and people who think like him.

A BBC interview with Williams had him saying that the opening to sharia would “help maintain social cohesion.” If that phrase is even intended to mean anything, it can only imply that a concession of this kind would lessen the propensity to violence among Muslims.

But such abjectness is not the only definition of social cohesion that we have. By a nice coincidence, a London think tank called the Centre for Social Cohesion issued a report just days before the leader of the world’s Anglicans and Episcopalians capitulated to Islamic demands.

Titled “Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK,” and written by James Brandon and Salam Hafez, it set out a shocking account of the rapid spread of theocratic crime.

The main headings were murder and beating of women, genital mutilation, forced marriage, and vigilante methods employed against those who complained.

It could well be — since we are becoming every day more familiar with the first three — that the fourth is the one that should concern us most.

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.

You might argue that I am describing an extreme case (though, alas, now not an uncommon one), but it is the principle of equality before the law that really counts.

And just look at how casually this sheep-faced English cleric throws away the work of centuries of civilization: In the midst of this dismal verbiage and euphemism, the plain statement — “There’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said” — still stands out like a diamond in a dunghill.

It stands out precisely because it is said simply, and because its essential grandeur is intelligible to everybody. Its principles ought to be just as intelligible and accessible to those who don’t yet speak English.

•Christopher Hitchens is an author and columnist for Vanity Fair.

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