Monday, January 30, 2012

Shafia verdict a finding of legal guilt; not moral, ethnic or religious judgment

The recent guilty verdicts on all counts in the Shafia trial sends a strong message to cultures that either endorse or accommodate “honour killing” – "it may be acceptable in your home country, but it’s not acceptable here in Canada." However, it’s important, at this time of national celebration that “justice has been done,” to pause, just a tick, and consider the implications of recognizing that courts are interested in law, not morals.

[My thoughts are rather hastily tossed together here, so if you read anything that's factually incorrect, or otherwise off the mark, feel free to comment.]

The Shafia family were convicted because the evidence proves what they did was against the law Now, some may run with this snippet and say “Ought Thoughts says honour killings are not wrong”, but that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that the court of law is not concerned with what’s right or wrong, it is concerned with what’s against the law or not, and the two are not the same. In other words, the courts are enforcing law, not morality.

In other cultures, or sub-cultures within other cultures, honour killing may indeed be honourable, moral. And we, as a society, recognize all kinds of scenarios where killing is accepted, and even deemed honourable. We honour our war heroes, and put medals on soldiers who set records for “confirmed kills”, whether snipers or fighter pilots. We recognize police officers who are, sadly, forced to execute a death sentence before a conviction, or even a trial, when a hostage negotiation breaks down. We would exonerate a police officer who, in the process of a high speed chase, causes an accident in which an innocent bystander is killed (provided whatever rules that apply to a high speed chase were observed).

Canadian laws accommodate all of these, and we don’t make moral judgments of them because the law has established these actions as "understandably okay". But, the law is only talking about law.

Canadian law does not accept “honour killing” as it is interpreted by the cultural communities that bring their ideas from their home countries. The culture clash at play here is that these communities are acting on cultural norms that may exist - whether legally or illegally – where they come from, it may not be “wrong.”

Killing as a protector of culture

Are there western sub-cultures that utilize killing as a way to protect the system? Organized crime follows codes – cross them and what happens is not mysterious. From the Mafia to motorcycle gangs to inner-city street gangsters, there are rules of the street that are well-known, and a “morality” develops within these criminal sub-cultures that inform what is “right and wrong” in a very different way than wider society would.

Sub-cultural interpretations of "right" vs. "wrong"

A simple point of departure between wider society and sub-culture is the issue of “speaking up.” 

After a homicide, police often ask members of the community to come forward and share information they may have that could lead to identifying and/or apprehending a suspect. In the wider society, the “right thing to do” is to talk. 

In the sub-culture of organized crime, however, keeping your mouth shut garners respect, and those who shut up and do their time are honoured when they get out. Those who break “omerta” and talk are called names - “stoolie, snitch, rat”, and in all likelihood, eventually “whacked.” 

Appeals to some higher morality are moot. The courts are concerned about the lowest common denominator upon which all people – especially in a country of diversity – agree to hold, as the glue that holds the nation together as one.

Local priority

A few weeks ago, a court in Iran handed down a guilty verdict on journalist Saeed Malekpour, and the sentence is death. They are a sovereign nation with their own laws and, in the context of their notions of law (which do indeed reflect a religion of state, and hence a moral posture), and insofar as they feel this law protects their national culture, a death sentence is just fine. Naturally, we disagree, just as they might disagree with decisions we make. The global appeal to Iran to rescind the sentence has thus far not moved Iran to do so.

What they do in their sovereign nation is their business. What we do in ours, is ours; and we are not going to allow some other country to dictate to us what we should have done in the Shafia case any more than Iran is going to allow us to dictate to them what to do in that case.

Separating issues

Iran is a country. While its political leaders are clerics who presume to represent an interpretation of Islam (a religion with adherents around the globe), local leaders in the Islamic community are denouncing any implication that this case was about Muslim expression. In a CBC article

"Samira Kanji, president of the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto, warned on Monday against "focusing unduly" on the purported honour-killing motive, saying that "honour or not, it's a murder and it's going to be treated as murder" by the courts. 

"She also called the murders a breach of religious ethics, and took issue with the judge who presided over the trial for saying the verdict sends a clear message about "Canadian values." 

"I don't think the value of life is uniquely Canadian or uniquely Western — I think it's a universal value," Kanji said. "To that extent, his putting it in those terms was problematic."

And this is why it seemed appropriate to make clear the distinction between morality and law, so that we're judging the legal actions and not the morals behind the motives, whatever they may be.

This tragedy, and the verdict that followed, should not fan any flames of anti-Muslim sentiment; these were the heinous actions of a few individuals who did not act in representation of any religious or ethnic community. 

Yes, there are tenets of Muslim belief and culture that are difficult to understand; and a growing tension between them and interpretations of a free society as evidenced by burqa bans, turban talks and similar discussions. And these conversations must continue, as Canada's landscape changes.

Canadian cultural outlook

By 2017, visible minorities will make up 53% of the population of Canada’s three biggest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver); immigration accounts for an ever-increasing share of population growth. 

As the face of Canada changes, a healthy, open dialog about culture and diversity is going to be increasingly important, to avoid generalization and stigmatization due to lack of understanding.

Criminal minds

In returning a verdict of guilt, this family (what's left of them) are now convicted criminals. The sentence is handed down for a number of reasons which may miss several of the the objectives:
  • prevention - they likely would not have any more family to repeat such acts against;
  • rehabilitation - criminals get out of jail all the time, only to return to the life they never really left. Defiant, they will not accept the verdict as applicable to them, and will never change their views
  • deterrent - other groups and individuals who wish to embrace some interpretation of "honour killing" may not be deterred by this sentence. They may try harder to get away with it, while society tries harder to anticipate and reduce the likelihood of similar crimes being committed.
The verdict does, however, bring awareness (the attention to this trial was international in scope); increase dialog and discourse, and forge new relationships as people from diverse backgrounds come together to understand the circumstances and wider implications.

Bottom line

We believe that our laws are based on good human rights values, and we believe these values are shared amongst the wider global community. We hope that people, in coming to Canada, will either bring shared values of human rights with them, or be willing to re-evaluate their worldviews and let go of those ideas that may not meet the values of human rights as we understand them, and represent them in our laws. Clearly, the Shafia family was unable to do this, resulting in conflict and, ultimately, tragedy.

Western ideals that might help prevent future similar tragedies include freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We can get together and foster open dialog about these issues, share ideas and forge a common understanding of the concepts of human rights we embrace as a society, and want to share across all the diverse cultures of the people and families who will call Canada "home.

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