The story last week about the conviction of Syed Mustafa Zaidi who was found guilty of child cruelty for forcing two boys to beat themselves with a bladed whip during a Shia Muslim ceremony raises a few questions.
Zaidi made the boys, aged 13 and 15, self-flagellate – or ‘flog’ as the newspapers preferred – themselves on their backs with a five-bladed implement called a zanjeer zani. Following the flagellation, both boys needed hospital treatment for cuts sustained during the Shia ceremony commemorating the death of a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Whilst both the boys admitted that they had wanted to beat themselves, they stated that they did not want to under duress nor using blades.
As the Times newspaper reported it:
The court was told that despite attending a meeting two days before the ashura ceremony at which elders made it clear that boys were not permitted to flog themselves, Zaidi was determined to make them participate.
At the service at a community centre in Levenshulme, Manchester, Zaidi began flogging himself. The elders asked him to stop because they were concerned that he was harming himself. Instead, he washed his blood from the ceremonial whip and handed it to the 15-year-old boy.
The 13-year-old told the court that Zaidi urged them both: “Start doing it, start doing it.” Despite their protests that it would hurt and saying, “We don’t want to do it”, Zaidi removed one boy’s shirt and forced him to flog himself.
The younger boy said the other “swung it once or twice and said, ‘I don’t want to do it any more’.”
He said that Zaidi pulled and pushed him as he tried to take his shirt off and said: “Keep doing it. This is a sad moment. Look, he’s not doing it.”
Both boys said that they had flogged themselves with a zanjeer zani regarded as suitable for children from the age of 6 in Pakistan, but had never used the adult whip.
The jury was shown a 20-minute film of the ceremony featuring Zaidi flagellating himself until his back was bloody and cut. The ritual marks the death of Husayn, grandson of Muhammad and a central figure in the Shia faith. He was killed at the Battle of Karbala alongside 72 members of his family about 1,400 years ago. Performing the matam — self-flagellation — is believed to bring out feelings of grief at their deaths.
Zaidi, a warehouse supervisor from Eccles, Lancashire, denied that his actions had been wrong, saying: “This is a part of our religion.”
He said the 15-year-old boy had performed a “perfect matam” and that it was not a “stitching matam” because he did not sustain heavy cuts. “It was an emotional time and the children were happy, they asked for it. No one forced anyone.”
He said that if he had known it was illegal he would not have persuaded the children to take part.
After the verdict, Carol Jackson, a lawyer with the Greater Manchester Crown Prosecution Service, said: “The CPS wishes to make it clear that this prosecution was not an attack upon the practices or ceremonies of Shia Muslims.
“Indeed, the prosecution relied as part of its evidence upon the president of the local Shia community centre.”
Despite Zaidi’s insistence that “This is a part of our religion” it is clearly not a part of what British society at large would accept as being ‘part of our society’. Without wanting to sound like the BNP – subsequently reinforcing the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomies and never the twain shall meet – the incident does raise a question about how far British society can or maybe even ‘tolerates’ certain religious – and indeed cultural – practices to continue particularly when they go against the ‘norms’ of society? Obviously in this case, the practice went to the extremes and so was able to be successfully prosecuted as a criminal offence. But what about when practices are not criminal but still go against what might be seen to be the norm?
(NB: I use the terms ‘tolerates’ and norms’ reluctantly due to the loaded nature of their typical usage)
This of course does not only apply to Islam or Muslims and so is far from being Islamo-specific. Indeed, just a few years ago a series of ‘exposes’ about the exorcism of young children in African-led churches made the news. As Antoine Lokongo, the editor of a Congolese newsletter, Congo Panorama, told the BBC, exorcisms in themselves are not a bad thing and are a part of Congolese culture and identity:
“This is part of our identity, part of our culture but it’s being exploited for economic reasons.”
He added however that he felt that the the growing violence in exorcisms was due to western influence despite failing to offer any evidence as to why or indeed how.
As well as such practices as exorcisms and self-flagellation that clearly encrouch upon criminality, what about male circumcision (male genital mutilation if the language of male and female ‘circumcision’ is to be equalised) and halal/ kosher ritual slaughter of animals neither of which are criminal offences but which polls over the years have shown that a significant percentage of the population are not necessarily in agreement with?And what about the wearing of the niqab?
One question that comes out of this is whether we need to have societal ‘boundaries’ or whether the demarcation between the criminal and non is enough?
If of course ‘boundaries’ are to be drawn, how do we begin to do this and ultimately, who oversees this process? The Government, judges, regulatory bodies, or maybe just the majority view?
Can we therefore accept those such as Zaidi or Lokongo and their affirmations that these are part of ‘our culture’ or ‘our religion’ are making a valid point and that because of this, such practices and actions should be deemed acceptable? Who in such instances therefore is best placed to decide: insiders or outsiders?
None of these questions are readily answerable, nor indeed are the ‘solutions’ particularly easy or obvious.
One final question that this particular story raises is the extent to which the actions of the CPS were informed by the need to ‘do something’ about Muslims. For a number of years, critics of the Government, the Police, the CPS and indeed almost any other public institution have aired the view that Muslims are somewhat protected or are in some way, pandered to.
Because of this, it might be that the reporting of the story – big headlines focusing on ‘Muslims’, sub-headings and text focusing on ‘Shia Muslims’ – goes some way to placate these critics by targeting a minority group within Britain’s Muslim communities that the majority would have little sympathy for. In this way, the message emerges that Muslims are being addressed by the authorities but without the possibility of upsetting or angering the wider ‘Muslim community’ per se.
Good PR by the CPS with a ringing endorsement from the Mail, Express et al?
Good for better community relations and the required clarity of thinking that is nowadays required?