Can you have faith in the law when the law bows to faith?

The Ayodhya verdict: not as satisfactory as it seems

"Why can't the Jews find another wall to wail at?" complained King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1967 after Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six Day War. The Western "wailing" Wall, sacred to the Jews, was now in Israeli hands -- as were the adjacent holy Muslim site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The status of Jerusalem has been the subject of violent conflict and drawn-out negotiation ever since.

On the surface, the ruling by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahbad High Court in India that an area in Ayodhya claimed by Hindus and Muslims must be shared by both sounds like a common sense solution, of the sort that could end the interminable dispute between Israel and Palestine over the ownership of the Temple Mount area. Ayodhya is where the 500-year-old Babri Masjid was torn down by hordes of militant Hindus in 1992, rabble-roused by leaders of the BJP who claimed that the mosque was built over the birthplace of Lord Ram and had been constructed only after a previous temple honouring him had been demolished. The destruction of the mosque and reaction to it later led to two outbursts of intercommunal violence in which 3000 people died. So an end to the wrangling over the site was to be welcomed, even if cautiously.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has appealed for peace following the verdict, and today's Guardian quotes the historian and journalist, MJ Akbar, as saying: "It was always thought there would be wailing and groaning on one side and triumphant gloating on the other but it is very clear that India has matured and the Indian, Muslim or Hindu, has decided that the law must take precedent over sentiment." Prime Minister Singh also referred to the law, saying that his government remained fully committed to upholding it, and that "the correct conclusion, at this stage, is that the status quo will be maintained until the cases are taken up by the Supreme Court."

So far, so reasonable. Two groups claim the same land, and neither will give way. So the law declares they will have to share it. Couldn't this judicial fair-mindedness be an example for settling other competing claims by religious groups? This morning's edition of the Hindu, however, makes a strong and persuasive argument that it is the law itself that is at fault here, and gravely so; and that "the legal, social and political repercussions of the judgement are likely to be extremely damaging". The court, it says:

"Has made judicial history by deciding a long pending legal dispute over a piece of property in Ayodhya on the basis of an unverified and unsubstantiated reference to the 'faith and belief of Hindus.' The irony is that in doing so, the court has inadvertently provided a shot in the arm for a political movement that cited the very same 'faith' and 'belief' to justify its open defiance of the law and the Indian Constitution. That defiance reached its apogee in 1992, when a 500-year-old mosque which stood at the disputed site was destroyed. The legal and political system in India stood silent witness to that crime of trespass, vandalism and expropriation. Eighteen years later, the country has compounded that sin by legitimising the 'faith' and 'belief' of those who took the law into their own hands.

It continues:

"Leaving aside the question of who 'the Hindus' referred to by the court really are and how their actual faith and belief was ascertained and measured, it is odd that a court of law should give such weight to theological considerations and constructs rather than legal reasoning and facts.... The 'faith and belief' that the court speaks about today acquired salience only after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a political campaign in the 1980s to 'liberate' the 'janmasthan.' [birthplace]

Collectives in India have faith in all sorts of things but 'faith' cannot become the arbiter of what is right and wrong in law."

This is not the same as arguments over the "sanctity of life" that stem from religiously-inspired conscience. This is about ownership of a piece of land, the Hindu claim to which was disgracefully exploited by narrow, partisan politicians for electoral gain nearly 20 years ago. It worked then. This judgement provides encouragement for those who might wish to try similar tactics, perhaps not now, but in the future.

The Hindu newspaper concludes that the court's "reasoning is flawed and even dangerous." Much as the solution initially seems pragmatic and fair, it's hard to disagree.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University