Friday, 7 December 2007

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum *

Radio 4's Today programme this morning followed up a story in yesterday's Times, which reported that the daughter of a British imam is under police protection after receiving death threats for converting to Christianity. The woman has been hiding for 15 years but only recently placed under guard by the police after the most recent threats on her life from one of her brothers.

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain made a fair attempt at condemning this appalling situation. He pointed out that British Muslims are not exempt from UK laws forbidding murder and threatening behaviour, do not live under sharia law and that even in a country that practices sharia, it would be for courts rather than gangs of thugs to pass judgement (not a great deal of comfort, admittedly, but better than nothing).

presenter John Humphries tried, as he often does, to imply that this story reveals something particularly sinister within Islam, which is clearly not backed by the evidence. In minority communities across the country, where identification with strong religious beliefs in Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism are commonplace, where religion is what Marx called "the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress", similar cases occur with depressing regularity. Bounty hunters track down young men and mainly young women who refuse to enter into forced marriages, or have partners from outside their parents' faith, or who abandon their faith altogether. It's not that Islam is unique in this respect. All faiths have elements that are equally guilty and all are as bad as each other in failing to stop those resonsible. This includes Christianity - the Church of England may be as non-threatening as a children's teddy bear, but try asking those in hiding from sectarian gangs because of cross-denominational relationships in northern Ireland whether the Christian religion is as tolerant and peace-loving as it is often claimed to be.

What is most surprising about this story is perhaps its most obviously missing element. At a time when the police have committed to take a far more robust approach to tackling violence against women, why aren't all those responsible for hounding this young woman and threatening her life currently under arrested and facing trial and imprisonment?

* To such heights of evil are men driven by religion - Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

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