Has sharia accommodation in England reduced the Magna Carta to a dead letter? The question presses thanks to the ruling of a Crown Court in London that permits a Muslim woman under indictment for witness intimidation to wear a niqab – a veil which makes only her eyes visible to observers – during her trial.
The ruling is a compromise. The defendant will be shielded from public and media view; her face will be observable, however, to the trial jury, as well as the judge and lawyers in the case.
As Robin Shepherd of thecommentator.com contends, this resolution disserves the bedrock principle of equal protection under the law. All other citizens will be forced to endure the public examination attendant to being accused of crime – only Muslim women are given this safe-harbor. Shepherd roots his argument in Western tradition. On that account, he might have added that the niqab itself is a powerful statement of the anti-equality principles that undergird sharia, providing another reason why Western legal systems should resist its principles.
Moreover, the argument here is not just about tradition but about the practical administration of justice. The courts in a free society belong to the public and dispense justice in the public’s name. Trial proceedings are presumptively public for that reason and, just as important, because openness to the public and the press acts as a check encouraging faithful and effective performance by the trial participants, including the jury. The administration of justice – which in this instance promotes accurate judgments about a witness’s credibility – obviously outweighs any individual’s interest in concealing his or her face.
The requirement that a witness’s face be observed, like the requirement that a person’s face be visible in a photograph for a lawfully required identification document (e.g., a passport or driver’s license), is generally applicable to all persons and neutral on the matter of religion – its terms do not single out believers for hostile treatment and it was patently not enacted out of hostility toward any sect. Civil society and equal protection require that such basic laws be applied to everyone, equally.
That is not something to compromise about. The compromising is done in the legislative process; if they are lawfully enacted, that should be the end of the matter. And even if, for argument’s sake, it were worth compromising for some reasons, it should never be worth compromising with sharia, an anti-liberty system, particularly in connection with one of its anti-equality provisions, such as dress codes for women.