Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Respecting Diversity

In what is perhaps the most bizarre example of religious exceptionalism I've ever come across, Muslim sex offenders may be granted exemption from treatment programmes. On the grounds that discussing their crimes is against their faith. The prison service's Muslim adviser claims that this constitutes a "legitimate Islamic position".

One would have thought that committing sex crimes was also "against their faith". Or that protecting society from such offenders ought to trump an individual prisoner's right to peculiar religious scruples.

The Prison Service last night said it was seeking to ensure the programme was "sensitive to the diversity of religions within the prison context".

(Irrelevant style point: Within the prison context? Why not just "in prison"?)

There's a twist. Prisoners refusing to take part in the treatment and assessment process might expect to serve longer sentences, or not to be released at all. Without proper information about the danger they continue to pose to members of the public, it would be a foolhardy probation officer who agreed to let them out. So, at first sight, these prisoners would only be damaging their own chances of freedom by refusing to participate in rehabilitation programmes.

But we're talking about faith, right? And discrimination on a faith basis is illegal. "I think it is feasible there may be a judicial review so that Muslim sex offenders get a dispensation from the rules," Mark Leech, editor of the Prisons Handbook, is quoted as saying.

Do we release the untreated sex offender, so upholding the principle of religious diversity? But then that might leave the prison service vulnerable to legal action for negligence, if the released man re-offends. A delicious Catch 22.

This has nothing whatever to do with Islam, or with Muslim-bashing. If Christian, Jewish, Hindu or Rastafarian prisoners were demanding such special treatment it would be equally outrageous. That the issue is even being raised says a great deal about today's peculiar moral climate. As a society we have been busy re-defining religion, not as a personal philosophical orientation ("a private matter") or (as it once was) a social binding agent, but as a source of identity. Something which people are, in the same sense that they are men or women, black or white, gay or straight. And as everything these days appears to have formal legal consequences, a conviction (or asserted conviction) about the existence of a Supreme Being becomes a source of justiciable rights.

The other day, Ben Elton caused a small stir with his remarks that broadcasters in the UK were afraid of making jokes about Islam. But his concerns were wider. "I think it all starts with people nodding whenever anybody says, 'As a person of faith ...'," he said. And he's right. Religious believers are often convinced that there's some sort of secularist conspiracy against them, that "militant atheists" - at this point Richard Dawkins usually gets a name-check - are constantly striving to deprive them of their proper role. Yet this is strikingly at variance with reality. Officialdom and the media bend over backwards to make allowances for patently absurd religious arguments, doctrines and practices. The fact that a belief is, or appears to be, "deeply held" confers on it some spurious legitimacy. This genuflection before faith has consequences everywhere, from cardinals getting blanket media attention for ignorant and ridiculous sermons about science to schools and social services treading softly in questions of forced marriages and domestic abuse.

Those occupying positions of power in the police, the prison service, education, local authorities, central government and elsewhere may not themselves understand the psychology of religious believers. But they have been on sufficient courses to imbibe the automatic association between faith and identity, identity and rights. In such an atmosphere, the notion could very well be believed that some prisoners have religious objections to being treated for their offending behaviour, and that these religious objections, or the suggestion of them, deserve to be taken seriously. Rather than just ignored as the irrelevance they undoubtedly are.

3 comments:

Edwin said...

I saw this news item as well and don't get it at all. I think the prisoner who started this debate has seen Scum and taken note of the boy who becomes a veggie and a Muslim and claims his rights are being infringed in order to wind up the borstal boss!

ed

The Heresiarch said...

It's odd. What I find strangest is the idea that being unwilling to discuss your crimes in a therapeutic situation could be a "religious" scruple. At a pinch, one could imagine a cultural reluctance, especially in a macho, buttoned-up culture. But a point of faith? If it is indeed a religious principle, it doesn't sound a very healthy or admirable one. But if it's "faith" I suppose none of that matters.

silas said...

So if there was a "faith" where the actual sex offence was a faith article - say the ritualistic buggery of junior congregational singers, for example - would members of that faith be able to claim that they shouldn't be in prison at all?

I know this is an extreme point to make, but the essence is there. I am, as I'm sure you can imagine, outraged by this. I'm an atheist, I don't get any special discounts. Can I claim to be discriminated against? Is there a chance I could sue someone?

If you have broken the law of the land, regardless of the laws of your "faith", then you lose all protections normally given to those faiths, simple as that. Your "faith" may want to consider removing you from being one of its flock as well. But perhaps that is even more unlikely.