Thank God for the National Secular Society
It has been widely reported that Cherie Booth (ie Blair) QC, sitting as a judge in the case of one Shamso Miah, has chosen to suspend his six-month prison sentence because he was ‘a religious man’.
He had been convicted of breaking a man's jaw with two punches after a dispute in a bank queue in East Ham, London. There was no doubt he was the aggressor, because CCTV footage established this clearly. And he had, in any case, pleaded guilty.
The 25-year-old had gone to the bank straight from a local mosque. Mr Miah produced testimony to the effect that he was ‘a devout Muslim’.
And so Judge Booth did not send him to prison.
There has been some intelligent comment upon this matter, in particular from the incisive Jack of Kent and the magisterial Heresiarch. Cranmer recommends that you read both, for one believes the National Secular Society have a valid complaint that Ms Booth is discriminating against the unreligious, and the other thinks the whole matter has been blown out of all proportion. Cranmer will not repeat their arguments here, but will turn instead to a rather particular matter.
Judge Booth said:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before... You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
It has been observed that the Taliban are ‘religious’, and so undoubtedly are Al Qaida; as are the IRA and the UVF. Not to mention (for religious impartiality) the RSS, Sri Ram Sena, Lashkar e Toyba and Babbar Khalsa International. There is no shortage in the world of ‘religious’ people who seek to do rather more harm than break a jaw.
One could take issue with Ms Booth’s determination of ‘the fact’ that Mr Miah was devout in his faith, for it strikes His Grace that punching a man twice in the face and breaking his jaw is rather more persuasive of ‘the fact’ that Mr Miah may not be quite so devout.
Unless, of course, that religion condones the use of violence.
Is Ms Booth saying that attending a mosque is evidence that one is ‘religious’?
Perhaps it is; outwardly.
But, as a Christian, she ought to know better than to judge by the outward appearance.
And Cranmer has to wonder if Ms Booth, a devout Roman Catholic, would have been quite so lenient if the accused had beaten his wife, or if we were not dealing here with a Muslim but a loyal and faithful member of the Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Ravenhill Road, Belfast, who had broken the jaw of one of her co-religionists. For there, you see, they are all liars and bigots.
But Cranmer wishes to be rather more specific in this inquiry, for the word ‘religious’ is used by Ms Booth as a distinctly non-specific adjective denoting conscientious devotion or scrupulous piety.
Why did she choose the generic and not the patricular?
What would have been the reaction had Ms Booth said:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a Muslim...”
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a Roman Catholic...”?
Of course, the latter would have caused her immense difficulties due to an apparent bias towards a co-religionist.
But this is, in fact, precisely what Ms Booth is actually saying.
The NSS have a valid complaint insofar as no judge is likely ever to articulate: “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are an Atheist.”
The inference is that those who profess a religious faith have a heightened awareness of morality, of the difference between right and wrong, which is plainly nonsense.
And so Cranmer exhorts Terry Sanderson, the president of the NSS, to pursue this complaint.
Not least because Judge Booth was not compelled to refer to the faith of the defendant at all, and may not have done so if she had privately known him to be her co-religionist.
We cannot entertain the possibility that a Muslim judge might be more lenient towards a Muslim defendant, or a Roman Catholic judge might attribute to an accused co-religionist a higher moral awareness which might mitigate the severity of the judgement.
After all, since 1998, judges have been required to disclose whether or not they are Freemasons, in order to dispel allegations that they were treating fellow Masons differently from the un-enlightened.
But this was deemed ‘oppressive’, and challenged in the European Court of Human Rights.
And so Justice Secretary Jack Straw relented.
Yet is it not manifestly obvious that membership of a secret society or religious affiliation might raise suspicions of impartiality and objectivity in the administration of justice?
And might not undisclosed membership of the National Secular Society incline a judge or journalist to believe that Shamso Miah was delusional in his devoutness, or at least hypocritical, and so worthy of a more severe sentence?