The sentencing of Syed Mustafa Zaidi, who was found guilty on two counts of child cruelty for forcing two teenage boys to beat themselves with a bladed whip during a Shia Muslim ceremony, raises a number of key equalities issues. Despite being found guilty, Zaidi denied throughout the trial that his actions had been wrong. Instead – and as I have addressed previously on this site – he protested that, “This is a part of our religion”.

Despite Zaidi’s insistence, the legal process has categorically shown that what Zaidi required of the two boys was illegal. Consequently, it will be extremely difficult for any religious group to advocate or enforce those practices that go beyond the law. This is nothing new however and should not be seen as a decision against a particular faith or religion or indeed against religion per se. For some years now, British law has insisted that Rastafarians are not legally permitted to smoke cannabis despite it being recognised as a ‘sacrament’ or ‘part’ of the religion. As a result, prosecutions against Rastafarians have ensued. However, given the shift over the past decade towards a more human rights based approach to equalities in this country, one judge has suggested that Rastafarians challenge this as it may contravene the right to practice one’s religion as enshrined in both British and European law.

In terms of individual and community rights, things have been changing for the past few years with various pieces of human rights-based legislation seeking to protect different groups and communities. Most significantly, the introduction of the Equality Act 2006 and the creation of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had the greatest impact. This shift has not necessarily been an easy one and the future progression of such an approach could be fraught with pitfalls. For faith communities, some may encounter particularly difficult obstacles, particularly where the rights of a faith group – or merely some from within it – appear to contest, contend or be contrary to the rights of others. None the least where rights are afforded to those that are understood to be ‘sinful’ or participating in practices or actions that go against theological interpretations. Given that some may see this as going against ‘God’s will’ and by default the fundamentals of their religious belief, how do some of those from within faith groups negotiate a solution that upholds matters of moral and ethical conscience at the same time as endorsing ‘sinful’ activities that contravene religious beliefs? As with the Zaidi case, just because something is a ‘part of our religion’ cannot be upheld as the sole determining factor as to whether that thing is right or wrong, legal or illegal.

The key to overcoming this must begin by identifying and making clear the distinction between upholding and respecting the inalienable human rights of everyone without differentiation, and agreeing with or even endorsing those activities, practices and also conflicting beliefs that might be contrary to collective and individual consciences that have the potential to contravene certain interpretations of faith. So for instance, the practice of self-flagellation is now being addressed via a code of conduct for adults that the Manchester Shia community has begun to draw up in conjunction with the local Police force. As one Shia community leader put it:

“We can and will work to a code of practice so that the children don’t get hurt, the law isn’t broken, and the people who do want to take part don’t get prosecuted…But we are not above the law and we never will be.”

Beyond this case, there is the need for us as a society to find the vocabulary and space to negotiate how we decide whose rights take precedence and how we go about ensuring that these are adequately protected. As a society, we need to consider which freedoms need to be prioritised as well as those that need to be informed by public debates that reflect the issues and challenges that we face today, even where this makes some of us feel uncomfortable. Here human rights-based models and the principles underpinning them, including the role of ‘proportionality’, can be useful in helping us make balanced decisions about whether the rights of an individual or group can be protected without adversely affecting the rights of society as a whole or vice versa. Where decisions go against certain groups or communities – faith or otherwise – then at least a robust model has been employed through which these decisions have been addressed and subsequently responded to.

The transition to a human rights-based approach to tackling equalities must from the outset be seen to be a positive development, one that will provide a much fuller and comprehensive framework of protection for all in society. As the Zaidi case proves, carte blanche approaches to determining what we can and cannot do in a multicultural society clearly do not work. They offer no stability or foundation.

Accepting this is not necessarily the easy option but has to be the realistic one. To make the transition as painless as possible, it is vital that all those that are engaged with equalities issues – especially those from within the various faith communities as well as those not normally engaged in policy and the thinking behind them – are engaged in dialogue and begin to address the issues honestly and openly. Through asking the most difficult of questions today, so the pitfalls and obstacles of tomorrow and the processes of pitting one against the other will be minimised and possibly even sidestepped. This is what has to be a part of our society and our collective thinking.

(This post is an amended version of a short piece that I wrote for brap – it is does not represent the views of the organisation in any way whatsoever)

Creative Commons License

This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.

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