The Legal Rape, and the Limits of Cultural Tolerance and Religious Freedom

Sometimes conduct is just wrong, and a culture should be able to reject and condemn it confidently without engaging in navel-gazing over cultural tolerance and diversity. The position, unfortunately popular, that all cultural determinations of right and wrong are equally valid is both lazy and insidious, though it has wormed its way into the minds of some who would cal themselves “progressive,” but who are more appropriately called “confused.”

In this category is a New Jersey Court judge, who refused to find a Muslim defendant guilty of sexual assault despite undisputed evidence that he raped his wife multiple times, (immediately prior to their divorce), saying at one point,

“You are my wife, I can do anything to you. The woman, she should submit and do anything I ask her to do.”

The judge ruled that this was not, under the circumstances, a crime, saying..

“This court does not feel that, under the circumstances, that this defendant had a criminal desire to or intent to sexually assault or to sexually contact the plaintiff when he did. The court believes that he was operating under his belief that it is, as the husband, his desire to have sex when and whether he wanted to, was something that was consistent with his practices and it was something that was not prohibited.”

The judge said that he recognized that this was a case in which religious custom clashed with the law, and that under the law, plaintiff had a right to refuse defendant’s advances. Still, the judge found that the defendant husband did not act with a criminal intent when he repeatedly insisted upon forcing sexual relations on his wife, despite her emotional pleas for him to stop.

In plain langauge, the judge ruled that rape between Muslim spouses will be tolerated in America, while it is illegal for everyone else, as long as the rapist-husband believes that he has a right to rape his wife.

The New Jersey appellate court, thanks be to Allah, reversed, writing (with admirable restraint):

“Defendant’s conduct in engaging in nonconsensual sexual intercourse was unquestionably knowing, regardless of his view that his religion permitted him to act as he did. As the judge recognized, the case thus presents a conflict between the criminal law and religious precepts. In resolving this conflict, the judge determined to except defendant from the operation of the State’s statutes as the result of his religious beliefs. In doing so, the judge was mistaken.”

He was mistaken, all right, and it’s a mistake that our culture needs to nip in the bud. There are some core ethical principles that the United States should never flinch at declaring are not merely conditionally right or culturally right, but absolutely right, and that our respect and tolerance for the beliefs and practices of other religions and cultures stops at killing, slavery, rape, subjugation, racism, bigotry, assault mutilation, child abuse, polygamy, animal cruelty and suppression of human rights, whether or not the victims of such absolute unethical conduct assent to it or not. It may not be written in an authoritative tome in the hand of a deity, but right and wrong do exist, and some cultures have more advanced wisdom on the matter than others. It is not hubris, “cultural imperialism,” or religious intolerance to act on certain verities that have been demonstrated  by the human experience and clarified by the best human minds, and that included punishing without remorse individuals who import warped and toxic practices into the country when they have been declared criminal by our legislatures and courts.

It is said that hard cases make bad law, but this is not a hard case. The fact that it apparently seemed like one to an American judge in New Jersey should send a cautionary warning that in trying to be tolerant and broad-minded (and not to be accused of hate and bigotry every time we assert our confidence in core American values),  it is possible to find our ethical compass spinning erratically, sending us, and our society, in dangerous directions.

[Note: Lest there be any confusion, this story has no relevance whatsoever to the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.]

14 thoughts on “The Legal Rape, and the Limits of Cultural Tolerance and Religious Freedom

  1. Agreed.

    But what about the ‘ground zero’ mosque? Given that its the dominant story regarding such tolerance today, why not use the questions surrounding it to provide context?

    • A couple of reasons. 1) I don’t think the case is a good analogy to the mosque, and too many lousy analogies are flying around, including some of my own. (But nobody has has the stones to challenge my Me Lai analogy, which I think is dead on.) 2) It invites bad metaphors, too—I actually heard someone say that the mosque was a “rape of the city,” and with that big tower and everything—see, there I go. 3) A comparison like that makes nuance impossible. I don’t think anyone has any business trying to block the center; in fact, I know that—the Constitution is quite clear. I think people can object to it, and I understand why people who aren’t bigots or Right Wing cynics think the idea of a mosque there is offensive. I think it demands a great faith in human ability to do stupid things with good intentions to believe that the organizers really and truly intended the project to build bridges between cultures, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and take their word for it. But if that was their intent, and since the very existence of this controversy demonstrates that the damn thing will not build bridges, but rather will destroy them, the sensible and sensitive thing to do would be to say, “Ooops! Sorry! Didn’t mean to offend! We’ll put it somewhere people don’t associate with 9-11! My bad!” and not “Well, too bad. Get over it. We have a right to build, and we’re going to, no matter who it upsets.” The fact that so many liberal commentators—the Olbermanns, the Cohens, the Breinarts (how do you type in “gag”?)—can’t even comprehend that the project could be found offensive by non-bigots (and I take this line personally, because I too find the plan in bad taste—not enough to protest or lose sleep over it, but enough to to conclude that the group insisting on building it doesn’t understand the American public at all are as dumb as bricks—and I honestly don’t care a bit about what someone’s religion or national origin is, especially since my late, great father’s was something of a mystery) shows that they have allowed the gentle liberal tenet of tolerance to rot their brains—yes, like the judge. 4) I’ve written plenty about the story, and passed my quota about a rant ago, and 5) I’m sick of it.

      Aren’t you glad you asked?

    • Oh, lots of people, mostly in the media. The problem with naval-gazing is you are so far in the tunnel that you forget that context matters. Tolerance doesn’t trump everything, but don’t tell that to the likes of, for example, Richard Cohen, who announced yesterday that even a compromise by the Cordoba House group would be offensive, because it would mean that they were “bullied” out of doing what they wanted too. That’s diversity naval gazing. You can’t rape some one in the name of religious freedom, but you can be obnoxious…Cohen says that not only do people have to accept that the Muslims can erect a tower near where the other towers fell…American have to like it, too. That’s off the wall, as much of what Cohen writes is, and it is motivated by the same logical constipation as the judge’s ruling. We can find rape inexcusable without being bigots, and we can find the Ground Zero Mosque in bad taste—and it obviously is in bad taste—without being bigots too. When one elevates diversity over common sense, you get rulings like this one, and columns like Cohen’s.

  2. So this judge thought that it was OK for a Muslim man to break our laws in our country because of his beliefs, while at the same time, if we broke their laws in our country (by, let’s say, drawing you-know-who), that’s no good.

    (It’s not that I want to keep bringing that up, but as a cartoonist, it’s a sore point for me.)

  3. Because two wrongs don’t make a right, if the judge believed, as he apparently does, that it is “right” for religious law to trump national law. But he isn’t right. And any foreign law that lets men commit rape, no natter how it is justified, is wrong even if it is legal.

  4. The judge is a jerk. The case and the crime have nothing to do with the mosque, and little more to do with Islam than abortion-clinic bombing has to do with Christianity.

    • That last part, goes too far, don’t you think? The principle that a Muslim husband can do what he wants with his wife is “good” Sharia law. I don’t know of any Christian authorities that would approve of abortion clinic bombings, do you?

  5. I’m pretty sure that’s not “good” Sharia law–maybe in Afghanistan or back country Iran, but not in Turkey, Indonesia, Jordan, Syria, and certainly not in the US.

    I wish I knew more, but I think Sharia covers a lot of ground, just like Jewish law covers a range from Leviticus to lesbian rabbis.

    And I think there are some Christian clergy who justify clinic bombings. Can’t name you any.

    • I think it’s important, in extending fair religious freedom to all real religions, not to whitewash real atrocities. Genital mutilation of young girls is another example. Islam is Medieval in a lot of its attitudes toward the rights of women—the burqa controversy is on its way. The fact that there are a lot of moderates doesn’t mean the extreme conservative Muslims are wackos from their cultural perspective. This case was not, from what I’ve read, outside the boundaries of common practice. There are other religions that similarly treat wives as consenting to sex by marriage (even though the marriage is not truly volitional, as in this case) and not having the right to refuse sexual relations unless divorced.

      The judge in the trial court was given evidence to that effect—he didn’t make it up. The fact that some extreme Christian clergy advocate violence and terrorism is not the same as saying that it is consistent with accepted Biblical teachings or Christian ideology…it just isn’t.

  6. Hello Jack. Well done.

    Not sure about this:

    Note: Lest there be any confusion, this story has no relevance whatsoever to the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy.

    The imam behind the mosque has equated Sharia to the US Constitution and his intent is to bring Sharia to America. That’s relevance and a lot more than whatsoever.

    • I don’t disagree that Sharia is a cultural issue; I just don’t see the mosque controversy as relating to the strict tenets of Islam. That’s a matter of adherence to Constitutional rights, on one side, and respect and consideration for the sensibilities of one’s neighbors on the other.

  7. To Mark’s point, Rauf writes in his book that the US is truer to Sharia than any other nation because the Declaration and the Constitution enshrine basic Sharia principles. Surely the advocates of burkas and genital mutilation would disagree, but if we’re after him, let’s focus on what he really says, not tie him to a form of Islam that he excoriates.

    • 1) I don’t know whether Rauf is truly an authority or not. I don’t know much about the religion I was Christened in—I sure am not inclined to study his.

      2) I don’t think his form of Sharia or what kind of Muslim he is matters either to his undeniable right to build “the damn thing,” or TDT for short, or to the fact that many non-bigoted people will, understandably, get a pit in their stomachs if they see an Islamic temple rising up in the ghostly shadows of the dead Towers. They aren’t going to study Sharia to decide, “Gee, I’m not offended after all!, nor should they have to. Emotional reactions from people who have been frightened or hurt or traumatized deserve respect, and the Cohens et al lumping them all as bigots is exactly as unconsionable as the bigotry they are unfairly attributing to every critic.

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