Question: Was the New York Times correct to dismiss application of Islamic law in a European courtroom as evidence of “a judicial misstep rather than evidence of a broader trend”? Women’s groups and counsel for Nishal and Fatima R. argue nein and per niente, respectively.
In fact, several high-profile cases suggest that European magistrates are no longer above passing “Islamic” judgments in ordinary cases. For this reason, claims Germany’s only minister of integration at the state level, the cases of Nishal and Fatima represent the “latest link[s], for the time being, in a chain of horrific rulings handed down by [European] courts.” Worst of all is the fact that these rulings were produced entirely in deference to “respect for traditions,” and required little or no coercion on the part of Islamist activists.
Nishal’s case was settled by Frankfurt family court judge Christa Datz-Winter, who refused to consider a husband’s threats and abuse as “unreasonable hardship,” and, for this reason, to fast-track divorce proceedings against him.
The reason? The fact that 26-year-old Nishal, an immigrant and naturalized German of eight years, is Muslim. For this—and for the reason that the couple hailed from a “Moroccan cultural environment in which it is not uncommon for a man to exert a right of corporal punishment over his wife”—the judge counseled with the Muslim holy book.
The Koran clearly supports “both the husband's right to use corporal punishment against a disobedient wife and the establishment of the husband's superiority over the wife,” she wrote. “This man beat her seriously from the beginning of their marriage,” said the woman’s attorney; “he called her and threatened to kill her.” True enough, ruled the judge; and recognizing clear and present danger to the woman, issued a restraining order against the man instead.
Reaction to the judge’s claim of “the Koran made me do it” was swift but by no means unanimous. Parliament member of Turkish origin Lale Akgün described the opinion as “worse than some backyard decision by an Islamist imam,” while New York Times, as noted, dismissed the case (citing unnamed “legal experts”) as a mere “judicial misstep.”
But this is by no means an isolated case. Which brings us to the most recent example of Islamic justice à l’europénne: the case of Fatima R. This young woman of Moroccan origin was locked indoors, bound to a chair, and “brutally beaten” by her parents and brother for her “frequentations with a male friend, and more generally, for her lifestyle, unsuited to their culture.”
Fatima’s father, mother, and brother were brought to trial in 2003, and condemned for “sequestration and abuse.” An appeals court reversed the conviction in September 2006, and dropped all charges against the family. And in August, a high court of appeals upheld the motion to acquit.
The appeals court did noted that Fatima suffered “verified” abuse, but found no evidence to suggest “anger or spite” on the part of her family. Instead, they recognized that Fatima’s ordeal was, like Nishal’s, a reflection of her parents’ faith—and, by this token, per il suo bene: “for her own good.” I disagree in the strongest terms.
The treatment these women received is appalling. Fatima’s case, like Nishal’s, represents a willful miscarriage of justice on the part of judges determined to “respect traditions” they have no business to consider. These rulings suggest the worst sort of racism against Muslims generally, and recognize a single category of person as deserving of extraordinary justice.
Souad Sbai, president of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy, branded the court’s decision “a disgrace.” “This is a decision worthy of an Arab nation subject to Sharia [Islamic] law,” she said. “In the name of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, the judges have applied two sorts of rules: one for Italians, another for immigrants. A Catholic father who’d acted this way would have been severely punished.”
Ms. Sbai echoes Michaela Sulaika Kaiser, who leads a group that counsels Muslim women. Speaking out on Nishal’s behalf, she said: “For Muslim men, this is like putting oil on water, that a German judge thinks it is O.K. for them to hit their wives.”
There are not many happy endings to stories like these. However, thanks to the efforts of Nishal’s attorney, a superior judge dismissed Datz-Winter from the case. We are unsure if Nishal received her divorce, however; and Fatima, now 19, lives in a shelter for battered women. We hope she received, at the very least, if not due process, then a lousy restraining order against her family.
“One thing must be clear,” says Christian Democrat Wolfgang Bosbach: “In Germany, only German law applies. Period.” I second that emotion. And I find no reason to sanction abuse for reasons of cultural sensitivity. Rulings of this sort serve no one, and amount to a cruel double standard. Islam has codified a system of laws to regulate the family, but there is no reason to assume Western magistrates should know much about it—or suppose it an acceptable alternative to “blind” Western justice.
R. John Matthies is Assistant Director of Islamist Watch: A Project of the Middle East Forum. He can be contacted at Matthies@MEForum.org