A British Muslim woman was sentenced to life in prison this week for killing her son accidentally in the course of beating him. Sara Ege was forcing him to learn the Quran by rote when the death occurred. I find it hard to summon the contempt for the mother warranted by her action. I was administered corporal punishment too when a stripling, and it was never done out of malice. It was applied out of a sincere belief that mastering the contents of the Quran would save one’s neverdying soul from hell. The cruelties of dogmatic Islam are beyond defence, but the people are anything but. There is no shortage of parental love in such homes, and, as the presiding judge remarked, in this family’s too.
Scores of young people are belted for insufficient piety without sustaining fatal injuries, and some that I have known express gratitude in their mature years for what they regard as the ennobling properties of rigid discipline. This case appears to be a freak accident, and will appal even the most unyielding fundamentalist for the heavy implement used in the striking: a wooden pestle.
I cherish some hope that elements in the Muslim community will be jolted by the tragedy into abandoning this coercive method of religious instruction.
The culture of physical admonishment runs deep. Some madrassas make it a requirement of enrolment to sign away parental rights protecting children from abuse. I chanced to attend a couple such groves of learning in my adolescence. One was an afterschool operation located in Tooting, South London, that had little if any lickings. It was a fee-paying academy that was professionally run and taught the national curriculum. The sole occasion I witnessed violence there was when the headteacher planted a good slap on my face, though of a much diminished power than he could have mustered, after discovering that I had scrawled expletives on my exercise book cursing my female teacher (sorry Miss!). A rare event, I suspect, commensurate with a rare miscreant.
I was booted out for this sin, to my lasting joy, as I resented being kept away from my evening television viewing.
The other madrassa in which I observed corporal punishment was a less grandiose affair, my local Stockwell mosque, where light drubbings were common from a man I believe was a volunteer whose method of punishment took the novel form of slipping a pen between the culprit’s fingers and pressing down on them till he yelped with pain. It was more akin to a torture device than any scourging I ever saw. My strong suspicion is that a lot of these classes are staffed by unemployed young men whose only credentials are the length of their beard. To their credit however, these fatwa mills never inflicted the severe punishment one was liable to catch at home. The want of intimacy between pupil and teacher inhibited the sadism encouraged by familiarity.
The foregoing aside, I have no trace of lingering bitterness. I cast my glance back on my theological education with a good deal of amusement and, to my surprise, affection. It gives the man who passes through it a peek into the workings of the religious psyche that no book learning can supply. Later, past the years of my teenage rebellion, when the age of reflection and intellectual pretension gripped me harder than a python, I would discover a renewed interest in Islam that carried me further afield than the placid strain asserted by these benign authorities. I record it only to suggest that duress wins only fleeting obedience, and that Muslim parents would do well to heed the dangers of applying force to what is, at bottom, a purely dialectic affair.
With this in mind, I see no compelling reason for handing the bereft Sara Ege a custodial sentence. The loss of her child is punishment enough.
Update in response to comments: It dawns on me that showing leniency to the mother on account of her accidental homicide would be too great a concession to injustice. Whilst she ought to do jail time certainly, I think more needs to be done to address the underlying causes than simply a stretch in the pokey. The culture of impunity which thrives in some madrassas ought to be tackled. The woman was a product of this environment and the punitive conditions still remain. Close the legal loopholes on physical punishment in private religious schools that normalise the subculture of smacking and conscript the support of Muslim leaders in anti-violence schemes. Without a multipronged effort to address the affliction, locking up a single individual will do precious little to avert a similar tragedy.