Saturday, 19 December 2009

Matters of Honour

Munir Hussain, controversially sentenced this week to thirty months in prison, is a devout Muslim. It would be crass in the extreme to suggest that his religious background had anything to do with the explemplary revenge he exacted upon his burglar, who as a result of a sustained and savage beating is now brain damaged for life. Nor would it be proper to draw parallels with another example of a Muslim man taking the law into his own hands, the case of "honour" murderer Mehmet Goren.

It is true that the victims of both men had roused in them an insatiable and uncontrollable anger: Walid Salem, the intruder, by tying up Munir Hussain and his family and threatening them with knives, 15 year old Tulay Goren by sleeping with a man twice her age to her father's quite reasonable disapproval. In both cases the honour of the man of the house might be said to have been impugned by the violation of his traditional property rights. But there is clearly a distinction to be drawn between a defenceless girl of fifteen - the man's own flesh and blood, moreover - and a career criminal who, though he may have been defenceless at the time Hussain and his younger brother beat him to a bloody pulp, had been far from defenceless a short time earlier. And the two convicted men themselves could not have been more different: Hussain was described as a pillar of the local community, whereas Goren was a compulsive gambler with apparent criminal connections.

Nevertheless, some of the language that was used surrounding both trials is instructive. In the case of Munir Hussain, we are told that he felt "that he let down his wife, Shaheen Begum, sons Awais, 21, Samad, 15, and 18-year-old daughter Arooj, by failing to defend them against Salem and his gang." Both he and his brother were described as "family men at the heart of the community". In the Goren case, the dishonouring conduct of the murdered girl was said to have stained not merely her father but her entire family. Charges were brought not just against Mehmet but against his far more respectable elder brother Ali, who was alleged to have chaired a family "council" at which Tulay was sentenced to death. He was acquitted - largely because the police were unable to find much evidence against him beyond the concept of "honour" itself.

The issue I wish to raise here isn't to do with the workings of honour-codes in traditional Asian communities, which in any case may vary. It is more to do with the way the cases were reported. Mehmet Goren's attachment to traditional values was seen, in the press, as a matter for condemnation. Detective Chief Inspector Gerry Campbell spoke of "a mindless medieval-style cruelty that has no place in a modern civilised society," and coverage has focused on the campaign to obliterate the custom. The traditional family, hierarchical and male-dominated, is generally seen as the source of the problem. Jagdeesh Singh, a Sikh whose sister was murdered by her in-laws after seeking a divorce, tells the Independent that there is a "very obstinate power structure which oppresses women and young people" and complains that "so-called community leaders, the influential religious groups and the local language newspapers remain deafeningly silent when these killings happen."

The message is clear: there was a clash of cultures - Tulay Westernised and modern, wanting to act like a normal British teenager, against her brutish father who mentally has never left the Kurdish village in which he imbibed the atavistic honour codes which impelled him to murder. While his personal culpability is never questioned, his own violent temperament is viewed in the context of "traditional" Kurdish (and by extension Asian, by extension Muslim) ways of life. It is that mindset that, in the name of progress, human rights, and no doubt Mr Brown's British Values, must be stamped out. It is taken for granted that the legal system that tried Mehmet Goren for murder is morally superior in its insistence that all - even wayward daughters who fall foul of traditional and deeply-held norms of behaviour - deserve equal protection and equal respect.

Now look at the very different coverage of Munir Hussain's crime of violence. Here, the overwhelming note is one of support, not merely for his predicament but, to an extent, for his actions. He was defending his family; he was, moreover (like Tony Martin, the trigger-happy Norfolk farmer) reacting against a trespasser. An Englishman's home, after all, is supposed to be his castle. The (excellent) Conservative MP Patrick Mercer argued that the case was "not only a grotesque inversion of morality, but also sends out the depressing message that home owners have no right to guard their own loved ones and property." Simon Heffer was typically blunt:

Our system of justice should be ashamed of itself for treating these decent men in this way, and for not taking into account the inevitable imbalance of Mr Hussain's emotions at the time of the incident. The judge said it was his "public duty" to imprison them. Well, he should feel no duty towards me in that regard and nor, I imagine, towards millions of other Britons, whose only regret will be that the other raiders weren't given a good hiding.

It also explodes what little faith one has in the jury system, which is clearly in desperate need of reform if this one could not even glimpse certain eternal verities about criminals and their victims.... Such injustice is not rare. The authorities seem to love to punish people who are no threat to society.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Deborah Orr in the Guardian took a similar line:

I also believe that it is more important to resist jailing people unless they are a danger to others. If they have shown themselves only to be a danger to others when those others have robbed them, threatened them, humiliated them, frightened them, brandished weapons at them and subjected them also to the horror of seeing their wife and children treated in the same way, then those are circumstances that should be considered as highly mitigating.

The coverage highlights the ways in which Munir Hussain is a paragon of traditional Asian values. We are told that the attack on his home occurred when the family had just returned from mosque, and that he is a successful businessman and a former chairman of the Wycombe Race Equality Council. Why are these facts relevant? Partly of course to show up the contrast with his attacker/victim, Walid Salem, who, though presumably belonging to the same "community", is a repeat offender with more than 50 previous convictions. But partly also to set him up as a representative of ordinary decent folk who are assailed daily by the topsy-turvy attitudes of the liberal establishment, with its human rights obsession and "out-of-touch" criminal-loving judiciary. Not to mention the police who persistently let the public down by failing to catch serious criminals, presumably because they're too busy questioning photographers, but positively relish persecuting law-abiding citizens who try to fight back.

I'm not, by the way, necessarily disagreeing with this stereotype, which does seem to have more than a grain of truth in it. It is striking, nevertheless, the extent to which Hussain's supporters in the press downplay the extreme nature of the assault on Salem, which went far beyond "reasonable force" and was, in fact, a punishment beating. Salem was left so incapacitated that he was unfit to stand trial - which meant, of course, that the court came in for extra criticism for its "leniancy" towards the "true criminal".

If the messages left beneath articles or on message-boards or the discussions in radio phone-ins are at all representative, this attitude is widely shared among the general public. Such discussions show the veneer of liberalism, of civilised restraint, to be very thin. There's a palpable impatience with the criminal justice system, with its checks and balances, allied to a deeply-held belief that anyone invading someone's home "has it coming" and deserves what they get, up to and including death. At a deeper level, there's an easy assimilation of justice to retribution, where disproportionate retaliation is both a natural response and a salutary deterrent. People - this is my sense, at least - not only put themselves in Hussain's position and understand why he acted as he did, they applaud it, they hope that they would have had the wherewithal to do the same thing. They can even imagine enjoying whacking Salem with the cricket bat.

I certainly can.

This, of course, is why it is important that the law does not make too many excuses for retributive violence - which, often enough, is its own reward. Because the penalty for burglary in this country is not permanent brain injury, and because the law is there to protect the guilty from the innocent and the innocent from themselves. For what would a society look like which sanctioned do-it-yourself retributive justice? We don't have to imagine, for such societies exist.

In most of them, the law, in its abstraction, is less powerful than custom. There's a strong tradition of community cohesion, of informal justice, of family honour. They are intensely patriarchal. Needless to say, most of them have a terrible record for "honour" killing.