Thursday, February 11, 2010
Uh, Wait ...
The mini-brouhaha about Cherie Booth Blair, wife of Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, has a distinct air of disconnect from facts.
First the story:
Mrs Blair was hearing the case at the Inner London Crown Court on 23 January. The court heard how Mr Miah, who described himself as a devout Muslim, had punched Mohammed Furcan in the face following an argument with over who was first in a queue at a bank.This has triggered a thundering reply by A.C. Grayling (along with no little consternation in the "neo-atheist" blogosphere):
CCTV captured Mr Miah punching Mr Furcan in the face before running out the bank. When Mr Furcan followed him to demand why he had been hit, Mr Miah lashed out again knocking Mr Furcan to the pavement and breaking his jaw.
In court Mr Miah pleaded guilty to assault occasioning actual bodily harm. At sentencing, Mrs Blair appeared to take into account Mr Miah's religious convictions as a partial reason for imposing a more lenient sentence.
"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," she said. "You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour."
Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said Mrs Blair comment's appeared to show a "discriminatory and unjust" favouritism towards religious people and a presumption that people with faith are more entitled to leniency because they should have a stronger moral code than non-religious people.
"We feel it's wrong that someone so high profile as Mrs Blair, and she is very high profile as a Catholic, should make such remarks in court," he said. "The man was incredibly violent and broke someone's jaw for no apparent reason. She said that he would have got a six month sentence but was suspending it because he was a religious man and would know he was doing wrong, which we feel implies that a non-religious person wouldn't know it was wrong."
He added: "We strongly feel that this kind of consideration should not play any part in sentencing. The idea that someone who is religious gets a lighter sentence is outrageous. The indications are that people are losing their religion very fast in this country, so it would disadvantage many people if they were treated more harshly in court than people who go to church."
It is instructive to note that when Cherie Blair gave Mr Shamso Miah an expressly lenient sentence (suspending a six month jail term for two years) despite his having assaulted another man and broken his jaw, she stated not once but twice – thus, made a point of emphasizing – her reason: the fact that he is 'a religious person.'Certainly, if Ms. Blair treats religious people before her for sentencing differently than non-religious people, that is unacceptable. There's only one problem. Nowhere, that I can find, is there any discussion of what Ms. Blair has sentenced non-religious people charged with this crime to or even what the typical sentence for this crime is in Britain for a first offender, such as Mr. Miah, in a case involving a personal dispute. In short, there is no reason to believe that there was, in fact, unusual "leniency" exhibited to Mr. Miah or that non-religious people are treated more harshly by Ms. Blair. A two year suspension of a six month sentence (which means that if he violates the law within the next two years he can be sent to jail for six months with little additional proceedings) sounds about like the standard sentence in the US.
If, in fact, there was nothing especially lenient about the sentence, then Ms. Blair's statement becomes nothing more than a lecture, along the lines of what might be said to a child: "you're 16 years old now and should know better." Indeed, wouldn't it be a true statement if we made the substitution: "You are a humanist and you know this is not acceptable behaviour"?
Ms. Blair's comment was certainly impolitic and thoughtless. But for a community that so prides itself on reason and evidence, it is hardly becoming to go off so halfcocked.
And yet despite the paucity of factual content in the press report, Shamso Miah's soul would appear to be an open book. More than one story describes him as a "devout" Muslim, as though that were something a stringer posting a wire report were likely to ascertain, and according to the Daily Mail he is a "violent thug," which characterization I'm sure has nothing to do with the funny spelling of his name.
And then Andrew Brown gets pilloried by Coyne as a "waffling accomodationist" for writing that (1) religion is insufficiently fine-grained a criterion for determining character, (2)that judges need to take a broad range of social factors into consideration, and (3) that perhaps we should look and see if there is any pertinent data on the topic. In short, for not taking the knee-jerk line that Cherie Blair must be biased against secularists because, well nevermind why.
It's almost as though the facts are of no consequence at all.
If we should hold anyone to a higher standard, though, perhaps it should be Grayling, a prominent and highly lauded public philosopher, whose logic and sophistication on matters that don't intersect with his anti-theist animus can be very keen. There's nothing in Blair's brief comments about religious sensibilities being socially ameliorative that appeals to "divine command," nor is there any zero-sum "corollary" to them that non-believers should thereby "receive less lenient sentences."
Call me cynical but I don't expect any of the master logicians at the Clear Thinking Oasis to call foul on Grayling's gaps in reasoning anytime soon.
Unfortunately opinion is highly polarised about her in the UK. Certainly some of her (non-judicial) activities have been reported and commented upon when other less newsworthy individuals might have escaped public notice.
I've read that Marie Antoinette may never have said 'Let them eat cake' - but the opprobrium stuck. Perhaps Cherie is the modern Marie?
Even if Cherie Booth merely mis-spoke herself, I could argue that the NSS were correct to make a fuss - if only to prevent a gradual drift towards such comments and opinions becoming more acceptable in the future.
Oh, I agree. It was, as I said, impolitic and thoughtless at the least. But the reaction should not be as impolitic and thoughtless, not to mention fact-free.
Actually, there was one commenter, jiffy, who (gasp!) actually looked at the sentencing guidelines that Judge Blair had to consult, and he/she found that the sentence was probably well within the guidelines, and not even particularly lenient. It is dismaying, though, how many of the commenters kept being obtuse about this point. Funny how this comes from a "clear-thinking oasis." Then again, I've found that those who are less than modest about how smart or rational they are tend not to live up to their self-hype.
"Ignorance of the law is no defense." Of course, the law has also been called an ass.
Josh, the practice of leniency is partially a practical one. The system can't afford to treat every offender as though she or he were a hardened criminal. Some people really do see two roads open before them after an incident like this, and choose the straight and narrow, and practical jurisprudence must take this into account.
I would stress that none of us knows enough to do more than speculate, but if we extrapolate from the way leniency on the ground of "good character" is commonly handled, this instance probably doesn't have as much to do with knowing right from wrong as much as assessing the risk of Miah's danger to society. His being "religious" very likely means that he has sufficient ties to the community to keep him law-abiding. Even if Booth's/Blair's judgment is wrong on this, it doesn't make her discriminatory.
This particular fuss contains a totally unsubstantiated claim in it, based on little more than vapor and fantasy: "This is a very worrying case of discrimination that appears to show that religious people get different treatment in Cherie Blair’s court."
If it had said instead that "we hope Ms. Blair will clarify her stance on what constitutes good character," that would be one thing. But look how many people are lining up now to throw rotten fruit at her for something there is *no* evidence for (and considerable logic against).
I couldn't bear to actually check my prediction, knowing that if someone did deign to dissent he or she would probably be torn to pieces. Even Pharyngula is more temperate than that place.
Press accounts in England are notoriously sexed-up, but (if accurate) as an ex-catholic I saw immediately what that phrase meant.
It's a classic example of a mom imposing catholic guilt. She gave him the standard sentence and, in answer to the idea that he thought of himself as a religious man, stuck the knife in and gave it a twist. Substitute "religious" with "humble" or "sinning" and you get the idea.
She didn't use religion as an excuse to be lenient, she used religion as an extra club to influence his future behavior - arguably a worse action in the eyes of a Dawkins.
Heh! I think you're right. Where's the righteous anger at the abuse of Mr. Miah, instead of the unevidence abuse of secularists?
But two things are clear from talking to lawyers. The first is that the sentence was not in the least bit lenient: if anything it was slightly above the recommendations for such an offence, taking into account the lack of premeditation and other relevant factors. The second is that judges give these pep talks all the time when sentencing, and there was nothing unusual in her arguments at all.
Finally, as a practising journalist myself, I take for granted that that quote was wrenched out of context. There is no possible reason for a reporter (who has never been identified) to cover such a trivial case except that it's Cherie Booth, and she is so widely hated that anything she says may be twisted and used against her.
If you're still lurking, I checked out the comments at richardawkins.com. They were much less echo-chambery than I might have feared. But in particular Jiffy's comments (which he followed up on extensively) were invaluable in the context they provide. It appears (as Andrew Brown mentions here) that the sentence was not notably lenient. (The guidelines would not have admitted much more stringent punishment). The mention of religion was probably in the way of a summation of mitigation arguments provided by Miah's lawyer. That is, she wasn't summarizing her own reasoning, but the arguments of the defendant, who didn't seem to perceptibly benefit from them. Anyway, thanks for the link.