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Turning a blind eye: when people remain silent to abuse in the name of religion, tradition, and culture

The thought that people in the 21st Century are silent about abuse appears to be an absurd notion. There has been a significant development in how public opinion is increasing the awareness of the role of abuses that occur behind closed doors, and the responsibility of safeguarding to protect the most vulnerable. Case studies of Daniel Pelka, Baby P, and even the institutional abuses at Winterbourne View Hospital are significant signal crimes, having provided public opinion with the chance to progress its understanding of abuse behind closed doors, being able to question concerning behaviours and beliefs, and for this to be reflected within legislation; with abusers even being sentenced and imprisoned.

Abuses behind closed doors

I raise the progression made on abuses that occur behind closed doors; there is still far to go, however, institutional abuses that occur literally in front of these doors are still an issue in society today.

The power imbalance of the state and police department in recognising their responsibility for the murder of George Floyd is one of many examples of this; the image of the local authority leaning on his neck, with him pleading for his mother and his life, is an image that can never be forgotten. The issues of institutional racism can be traced back decades, with the MacPherson Report highlighting these issues following the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, but how far has society come to know about crimes committed within the family and community, to preserve the honour of religion, culture, and tradition? Deciding to leave one’s religious faith, has the potential to cause disruptions to the ideological framework of the family and community.

This decision appears to increase the level of threat the family and community may feel towards the individual as a result, with an increased likelihood of creating an environment of abuse to foster physical and psychological abuse. Being able to challenge such abuse, which occurs under the veil of religion, tradition, and culture, appears to be difficult. This might be due to how this type of abuse is maintained under collusion and coercive control within the family and community – with maintaining izzat (honour) being deemed the highest priority, instead of maintaining the dignity of the human being. His article aims to reflect upon the notion that apostatic-abuse occurs both in private and public worldwide due to the influences of power involved with this issue.

The definition of “apostate”

An apostate is a term used to describe people who once identified as religious, or with faith, or belief in God, or gods, and now identifies as non-religious. The transition of apostasy is difficult for the individual for a number of reasons, and the example of the Lion King is usually apt in explaining this issue (spoilers follow):

The moment where Mufasa dies, Simba (Mufasa’s son) is blamed for this and is shunned to leave the family home by his uncle Scar, and Scar further directs his hyena-followers to kill Simba. Simba evades the attack and travels across the desert alone and isolated for a considerable amount of time, where he eventually collapses.

The journey of Simba during this moment is similar to the journey of the apostate. The thought that a person can have a different opinion to that of the household can be divisive. For example, public opinion was ideologically divided in the United Kingdom over the recent decision to either remain in or leave the European Union. Having ideological differences on this topic, ruptured the cohesion within society, where family members even stopped talking to each other based on the ideological decision made. These political and ideological differences were used as a rationale by the murderer who sided with leaving the European Union, of Labour MP Jo Cox who sided with remaining in the European Union.

Apostates and their families

Sadly, the act of apostasy, where family members have ideological differences, can cause a similar threat reaction by families and communities towards their family member. When family members are strongly dedicated to the conviction of their ideology, faith, and/or scripture, the assertion of shunning the individual, using violence, and even threatening and causing death can be viable options to maintain the honour of their family home and community, is saddening. This conviction further facilitates an abusive environment to develop within the family and community, with family members silently accepting the abuse as a consequence for holding ideological differences. The reaction of the family members increases the likelihood of the person being isolated and shunned, which further creates an environment suitable for abuse to occur, and in similarity to Simba’s journey, this increases the likelihood of the apostate being left to survive on their own without support from the family that once supported them. The differences in thought and ideology create the dynamic of the family belonging to the in-group, and the apostate being identified in the out-group. This also appears to dehumanise the apostate, labelling them as a traitor to the values held dear by the family and community, thus perceiving abuse as an appropriate and acceptable punishment. The power held against the individual by the family and community increases the likelihood of secrecy and silence towards the harm that may be caused.

Abuses against apostates

The concern currently relates to how society appears to struggle with challenging ideas and beliefs, with origins based in religion, tradition, and culture. Regardless of its origin, however, abuse cannot be tolerated. Abuse is usually about a structural and personal power imbalance. The abuser uses that power as leverage to get the individual to do things, they do not want to do. One can appreciate that abuse of any kind, such as physical, psychological, neglect, and domestic violence, are all means to impede on the life of an individual. The cause for concern grows immensely when family members engage in acts of abuse against their own, and in cases within familial communities where the notion of abuse is hidden. Case studies from the past, such as Victoria Climbie, Shafilea Ahmed, and Surjit and Sarbjit Athwal, provide a rare insight into the damaging consequences of abuse within the family home. Some of the conditions that are similar between these case studies are that families maintained secrecy and a sense of order within the home to ensure the abuse remained hidden. The interesting similarity in these cases is how religion, culture, and/or tradition are used to rationalise the abuse – to maintain the notion of izzat; honour, within the family and community. This consequently creates an environment where the notion of honour is prioritised higher than the notion of humanity. Indeed, abuse cannot be tolerated, and for society to not tolerate such abuse, society needs to become comfortable with Maajid Nawaz’s notion that, “no idea is above scrutiny, and no person is below dignity”. What this means is that we can only challenge this type of abuse by becoming more comfortable with calling-out concerning behaviours and beliefs, regardless of their origin, and by adhering to the view of maintaining the dignity of humanity at all costs. Through this perspective, we can limit the number of vulnerable people that may be victims of such abuse, by not being silent to the abuses occurring behind closed doors.

Two key findings of the study

My recent publication, Apostates as a Hidden Population of Abuse Victims (Parekh & Egan, 2020), was the first research study to identify the worldwide abuses that apostates face within religious households. Two significant issues were found whilst completing the research.

Differences between ex-Muslims and ex-Christians

First, Muslim apostates were more likely than Christian apostates to face abuses in the form of assault (being shoved, pushed), serious assault (being hit, physically hurt, threats of death or injury), and psychological abuse (coercive control, stress, fear). The offenders in cases of apostatic-abuse are usually family members and members of their local community, who are acting under the guise of protecting, preserving and honouring their religion, tradition, and culture. Despite the lower number of people identifying as Muslim apostates in the study, they were significantly more likely to face this level of abuse, which questions the volatility towards apostates within some Muslim households across the world, and raises the wider question of how apostates may be perceived within Islam. The religious scriptures within Islam do not favour the apostate well, how else would a marginalised group cope with people who defect? Sadly, this has been integrated within the legislature of twelve nation-states, where the act of apostasy is still punishable by death, and in seven states where this act is punishable with a prison sentence (Humanists International, 2019; Humanists International, 2020). This shows a link between the way in which the religious scriptures are interpreted, actualised, and how religious sanctions are integrated within the criminal justice systems too. The power held by the state to kill its citizens is a concerning criminological issue; one that I would assert the state should not have, however, what appears to also be concerning is that the notion of human intrigue, inquisition, and intuition, are punishable. How can human beings flourish, if the very nature of being human is open to punishment? The recent case of Mubarak Bala in Nigeria is a testament to the concerns of this study. Enacting blasphemy laws appears to be positively supported as a way of preserving religious, traditional, and cultural values and practices, and by doing so, are perceived as favourable within the religious community. Bala’s post which critiqued Islam on social media was interpreted as insulting to Islam within Nigeria. As such, the full force of the religiously informed criminal justice system has been unhinged in its approach to deny Bala of his basic human rights. But, the power held by such traditionalistic interpretations of Islam, raises considerable concerns for people within a nation-state that may think differently. Cultural rules and values, under the guise of “honour,” are systematically embedded by families and communities to prevent individualisation and the demise of traditional cultural norms held by the parental migrant generation, which causes people to live fearfully within an Orwellian dystopia, enforced by the Sword of Damocles.

Apostates are less likely to report abuse to the police

Second, victims were less likely to inform the local authority of the abuses they were facing. Does this beg the question as to why victims are not reporting their abuse to the police? There are several reasons why victims struggle to report their abuse,  and a selection of the reasons are highlighted here. Firstly, does the police truly understand the extent of apostatic-abuse? Secondly, will the police understand the religious, cultural, and traditional significance of this act of abuse? Thirdly, what are the ramifications for the victim within their family and community if they disclose this abuse, and will this cause further retribution? Fourthly, if the victim is under the age of adulthood, will the police take their claim seriously? Fifthly, does the religious community have a sense of power and influence within society that, can be used against the apostate? Sixthly, if the victim is to report the abuse, will they be shunned from the family? Seventhly, can the victim report the abuse, if by identifying as an apostate, they are likely to be punished instead? The study was able to capture the voices of the victims, and the reasons why they struggled to inform the local authority. What becomes concerning is that, despite being abused, victims are still left powerless. The psychological impact of having one’s family member taking part in abuse for having a difference of perspective is open to severely damaging the victim’s perspective of how the world functions, and if law enforcement remains silent too, then this further increases the levels of helplessness felt by the victim. When victims are left in a state of helplessness, this questions the legitimacy of the state in being able to protect its citizens from harm. The rationale of religion, culture, and tradition appear to be sufficient in extending punishment onto the apostate, and for family members, the community, and even police forces to further their assertion that the apostate might deserve the punishment they receive. How dangerous is it then, for a religious person to question deeply held religious views? This is a pertinent issue that fails to be raised – an apostate was once religious. Hence, if a religious person begins to doubt the teachings of their faith, and this is deemed as insulting, then how do religious people remain safe under such draconian infrastructure? If a religious person starts questioning their faith, and this becomes the catalyst for abuse within the home due to notions of dishonour, then how likely is that religious person to continue questioning their beliefs, or raise alarm to the way they are being treated; especially if they are aware that the local authority is less likely to support them? The responsibility for reporting the abuse should not be solely on the shoulders of the abused. The poignant issue here is to highlight the social structures that are involved to inhibit the victim from being aware that they have the power to report the crimes being committed against them.

How to contrast apostatic-abuse?

So, what do we do when dark things and hidden wrongdoings are concealed by social norms? Apostatic-abuse, by its nature, is usually hidden due to the stigma of dishonouring the family and the community, with members maintaining social norms to protect the moral fibre of its community. The consequences of which, can be truly abhorrent for the apostate, where they might have experienced physical and psychological abuse, to being shunned, excommunicated, to even having their life threatened by people who they believed loved them. When abuse can proliferate under secrecy, this increases the difficulties for local authorities to become aware that such victims exist. The example of how activists in the United Kingdom have worked with local authorities to raise awareness of the damaging effects of forced marriage and female genital mutilation to victims and asserting the need to criminalise abusers is a positive step towards legitimising the effect of these crimes towards victims (Council of Europe, 2017; Raptim, 2018). Following a similar model, internationally, would be advocated towards challenging and supporting victims of apostatic-abuse (Metropolitan Police, 2020; NPCC, 2018; Safe Lives, 2017). This model would act as a catalyst to provide training to organisations within criminal justice systems to support their comprehension of this hidden form of abuse. This may also facilitate conversations with members of parliament to further increase support for this abuse being represented within the legislation. This is not an issue within an isolated geographical location, but a worldwide phenomenon. As such, recognition of this form of abuse for organisations that work to support victims would be influential in gaining insight into the effects apostatic-abuse can cause. This form of action, awareness, and support being provided by agencies of criminal justice systems, may reduce the influence of power that abusers may have on victims, as a result of this crime becoming recognised.

Apostatic-abuse is a crime that is maintained through secrecy, social collusion, and coercive control, to maintain power and control over the individual that decides to think differently from their family and community. Sadly, in some nation-states, this perspective has also been criminalised with legislation even advocating for the death of the individual or imprisonment. This remains a crime that is either hidden within families and communities or is carried out by the state, through blasphemy laws, as a form of appeasing the masses to show the integration of religious law to criminal law. When human beings are restricted to how they can think about issues that are pertinent to them, increases the feelings of closure, censure, and control that are not psychologically healthy for the individual. This article, along with the published research, are the first steps to highlight these issues and starting the conversation of how we can help hidden victims around the world.

References

Council of Europe. (2017). Female Genital Mutilation and Forced Marriage. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://rm.coe.int/female-genital-mutilation-and-forced-marriage/16807baf8f.

Humanists International. (2019). The Freedom of Thought Report. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://fot.humanists.international/download-the-report/.

Humanists International. (2020). Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://humanists.international/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/3098_Humanists-International_Humanists-at-Risk-Action-Report_Amends-V2_LR.pdf.

Parekh, H., & Egan, V. (2020). Apostates as a hidden population of abuse victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, DOI: 10.1177/0886260519898428.

Metropolitan Police. (2020). Operation Limelight. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/860625/operation_limelight_instructions.pdf.

National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC). (2018). Honour Based Abuse, Forced Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation: a Policing Strategy for England, Wales & Northern Ireland – Eradicating Honour based Abuse, Force Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation Together. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://www.npcc.police.uk/Publication/Final%20NPCC%20HBA%20strategy%202015%202018December%202015.pdf

Raptim. (2018). 12 NGOs Fighting Against Female Genital Mutilation. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://www.raptim.org/fighting-against-female-genital-mutilation/.

Safe Lives (2017). Your Choice: ‘honour’-based violence, forced marriage and domestic abuse. Accessed on 1st August 2020: https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Spotlight%20on%20HBV%20and%20forced%20marriage-web.pdf.

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