Promising News (We Hope) from Britain

Is the tide of reflexive silencing and appeasement about to turn?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Britain is a basket case. In many jurisdictions, the police appear to be less interested in solving murders than in intimidating – and even arresting – law-abiding citizens who have criticized Islam on Twitter. Meanwhile new Pakistani “grooming gangs” are still being uncovered, and the numbers – the number of non-Muslim girls who turn out to have been raped, the number of men who have raped them, and the number of years this has been going on without anyone doing anything about it – are staggering. Yet given the scale and horror of these crimes, the public reaction to them has been bafflingly muted. One observer recently commented that if the British had any cojones, the grooming-gang scandals would have sent them out into the streets en masse, demanding the arrest and incarceration of every politician, journalist, social worker, and police officer who knew about the gangs for years and did nothing.

Yes, the Brits voted for Brexit. But they continue to let their media get away with using the word “Asians” to obscure the specifically Islamic roots of honor killings, forced marriages and the rape of infidels. Yes, supporters of Tommy Robinson, who played a key role in bringing the grooming gangs to light, have turned out in large numbers to cheer him on more than one occasion, but when he ran for a seat in the European Parliament he was trounced, suggesting that his popularity is not as widespread as one might have hoped. Indeed, for “respectable” figures in Britain, Robinson remains an untouchable: MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg may be estimable in certain ways, but not a single member of the House of Commons has ever dared publicly to praise Robinson, and only one of the 794 members of the House of Lords – that would be Lord Pearson – has stood up for him. I keep running across, and being initially impressed by, British YouTubers who present themselves as bold, outspoken enemies of political correctness, only to see them go out of their way, at the first opportunity, to distance themselves from Robinson, whom they reflexively smear as a racist and Islamophobe.

So the significance of two cheering – and, frankly, surprising – recent decisions by British courts should not be blown out of proportion. Still, they are victories in an era of defeat. Whether they are major or minor victories remains to be seen.

First, there is the case of Nasreen Akhter and Mohammed Shabaz Khan (pictured above), who were wed by an imam in a “nikah” ceremony in London in 1998. As is apparently the case with the majority of Muslim marriages in the UK, there was no civil ceremony and no marriage certificate. Nonetheless, after the couple separated and the wife filed for a civil divorce in 2016, Mr. Justice David Williams of Britain’s High Court obligingly decided, as an official case summary put it, to take a “more flexible view of  marriage as a process rather than a single ceremony” and to rule, consequently, that the Akhter-Khan union had been a legitimate marriage, albeit one “entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of a marriage,” and that the court therefore had the power to dissolve it.

That was in 2018. On February 14 of this year, however, Sir Terence Etherton, Lady Justice Eleanor King, and Lord Justice Andrew Moylan of the Court of Appeal reversed that decision, and stated that the couple had not been married “under the provisions of English law,” and that a secular court was therefore in no position to grant a divorce. The reversal was criticized by Pragna Patel of the Southall Black Sisters, a non-profit organization that, quite admirably, helps “empower” women “to escape Domestic Violence, Forced Marriage, Honour Based Violence, FGM Rape.” Patel told the BBC that the Court of Appeal’s ruling “will force Muslim and other women to turn to Sharia 'courts' that already cause significant harm to women and children for remedies because they are now locked out of the civil justice system.”

Patel’s response is understandable. But the Court of Appeal – whose ruling can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which is the end of the line – was right. To let the High Court ruling stand would be to legitimize sharia law and sharia courts in the UK. Under sharia law, after all, men can take up to four wives. Does the UK really want to recognize polygamy? To be sure, many Muslim men living in Europe do have multiple wives, only one of which may be married to him under secular law; in many instances, one wife lives in Europe, while the others live back in the old country, where he visits them from time to time like an emir dropping in on his harem. European governments know that this sort of thing is going on, and have thus far failed to address it in a responsible way. (The Netherlands, while technically prohibiting polygamy, allows Muslim men and their wives to enter into a “cohabitation” agreement that amounts to legal recognition of these relationships.)

Yes, Nasreen Akhter, the wife who filed for divorce, is understandably shattered by the Court of Appeal’s ruling because it means that under sharia law she is still married. There is an obvious solution to that problem: consider yourself subject to British law. Akhter wanted the British justice system to make things easy for her – she wanted it to accept the legitimacy of sharia law, so that she would not be compelled to decide which she wanted more: to be divorced or to remain a Muslim in good standing. That is not a good enough reason for Britain to accept the authority of religious courts.

(Yes, there are Orthodox Jewish courts in Britain that rule on community disputes and matters of faith, but although there are good arguments against the acceptance of these courts, too, it is important to recognize that whereas devout Muslims want sharia law to apply to everyone – Muslim or not – Orthodox Jews have no such ambitions, so that it has never been reasonable to view their courts, which have existed in Britain for centuries, as challenges to the order and values of the wider society. Nor is there any evidence that these Jewish courts treat women with the kind of systematic – and often brutal – inequality that is enshrined in sharia law and that women experience on a daily basis in sharia courts.)

The other court decision, as it happens, was also handed down on February 14. In the High Court in London, Mr. Justice Julian Knowles issued a ruling on the case of Harry Miller, a Lincolnshire business owner, ex-policeman, and sometime college instructor who has told his story in several YouTube interviews. After posting thirty or so comments on Twitter to the effect that trans-women are not really women, he was contacted by a police officer who, not knowing anything about him but having received a complaint about his tweets, told him he was a “hateful bigot” whose company was “a dangerous place for trans people.” When Miller asked if he had committed a crime, the officer said no, but added, chillingly: “I need to check your thinking.”

The police, explained the officer, have to “take reports of hate very seriously.” When Miller protested that he did not hate anybody, the officer insisted that the matter at hand was indeed a “hate incident” and that it was imperative to “respect the victim.” When Miller pointed out that there wasn’t any victim, only a complainant, the cop replied that, on the contrary, the person who had reported his tweet was indeed classified as a victim. After more back-and-forth along these bemusing lines, the officer informed Miller that “sometimes in the womb a female brain accidentally grows the wrong body parts, and that’s what trans is.” He explained that he had learned this in a police course. After telling him, in effect, to go peddle his papers, Miller hung up.

Miller later discovered that the police had filed a “crime report” on him, although his “crime” was technically considered – I kid you not – a “crime non-crime.” In any event, the bottom line was that Miller now had a criminal record, which, needless to say, could adversely affect his personal and professional future. He was informed that police did not have to possess evidence of hate in order to designate someone as having been guilty of a hate crime, and that there was no way for him to appeal this designation. In a subsequent exchange, a police officer told Miller: “You can say trans-women aren’t women, but why would you want to?”  

Anyway, Miller ended up suing these officers’ boss, the Chief Constable of Humberside, as well as the College of Policing, which has taught British cops all of the rubbish they think they know about transsexuality and hate crimes, while failing to teach them anything at all about freedom of speech. Justice Knowles’s 65-page ruling on Miller’s case, released on February 14, was a splendid shot across the bow at the college’s PC teachings and at the Humberside honcho’s implementation thereof. Knowles began by quoting a famous line from George Orwell – “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – and went on to note that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects even such offensive acts as public cross-burnings by the Ku Klux Klan and the picketing of soldiers’ funerals by the Westboro Baptist Church.

“The freedom of speech afforded by the common law and Article 10 [of the European Convention of Human Rights] does not go so far as the First Amendment,” Knowles acknowledged. “But it is worth keeping that constitutional provision in mind because it underscores the vital importance of freedom of speech to a thriving democracy – a principle which James Madison recognised as long ago as 1789 when he drafted the First Amendment.” For this American, it was moving to see Knowles giving a tip of the hat to the First Amendment, which is so often derided by European enthusiasts for speech codes.

While rejecting some of Miller’s broader arguments in regard to the legitimacy of the “Hate Crime Operational Guidance” – an official document that tells police officers how to deal with potential hate crimes – Knowles agreed with everything Miller asserted about the implications of his own interactions with the police. Knowles conceded, the police had “interfered with [Miller’s] right to freedom of expression.” There had, moreover, not been “a shred of evidence that [Miller] was at risk of committing a criminal offense”; in addition, the lawyers for the defense had “impermissibly minimize[d]” the impact of the police actions against Miller, thereby reflecting a failure on their part to recognize “the value of free speech in a democracy.” Having begun his ruling with a quotation from Orwell, Knowles concluded by citing John Stuart Mill: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Stirring stuff. The question, of course, is whether these two Valentine’s Day rulings will make a real difference – whether, that is, they will be regarded as important precedents and thereby help effect a meaningful change in British society. First, will the Court of Appeal’s verdict on the legitimacy of Islamic marriages, which has been called a landmark decision, really reverse the increasing – and deeply worrying – mainstream acceptance of alternative systems of justice in the U.K.? Will the judgment in the Miller case lead British police to stop tormenting critics of Islam? We can only hope that the answers will be yes. But I fear that it will take more than a couple of court rulings, however commendable, to reverse the tide of reflexive silencing and appeasement that has engulfed the land of Magna Carta.  

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