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From Ancient Times to the Present: Transferring Guilt Makes a Mockery of Justice

One of the foundations of modern ethics is crumbling. Having rights is about being respected as a human individual who shapes his life through choices. Whether with respect to original sin, honour based violence, modesty dress codes, ‘incitement’ to violence, or white guilt, – the transference of moral responsibility from individual moral agents to others, or from others to the individual, makes a mockery of justice.

Either we are responsible for our own behaviour or we are not. Imagine how wonderful it would be if we could all take credit for other peoples’ good deeds. But we cannot, and we do not because only the moral agent responsible for the act deserves praise (or conversely, blame).

The Doctrine of Original Sin

Transference of guilt has its religious precedent in St. Paul’s Christian doctrine of original sin, according to which the entire human species is tarnished by the sins of their disobedient progenitors, Adam and Eve. Transferring guilt across generations from ancient ancestors to their heirs was highly convenient for religious authorities. It created a very sizable market for their product. Since we’re all born with a moral sickness, we need the medicine they’re peddling – salvation. To get this remedy for our hereditary disease we need only assent to our guilt and then give eternal gratitude to God for providing his son Jesus – the sacrificial lamb who remedied the situation by enduring the punishment that we so richly deserved. According to this narrative, God took an economical approach to punishment. Instead of sending another flood and killing all of us (again), he gave us a loan – his son – so that we could pay him back, with interest, in the form of a lifetime of joyless repression and slavish obedience. Thankfully some self-appointed middle men (priests) took over the day-to-day business operations and began collecting our obedience dues on God’s behalf.

Honour Based Violence and Collective Morality

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5,000 women are killed each year for ‘dishonouring’ their families.  ‘Honour based violence’ (HBV) is defined by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers as “a crime or incident which has or may have been committed to protect or defend the honour of the family and/or community.”

Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus view honour and morality as a collective family matter.  In the normative paradigms of these cultures, rights are primarily collective, not individual. Family, clan, and tribal rights supplant individual human rights [1].

While not all honour killings in the West are perpetrated by Muslims, the overwhelming majority are. In two studies of press-reported successful or attempted honour killings in North America between 1989 – 2008 and in Europe between 1998 – 2008, ninety percent of the honour killers were Muslim. In every case studied, perpetrators viewed their victims as violating rules of religious conduct and acted without remorse. Honour killings reported in the press in the United States, Canada, and Europe show the killings to be primarily a Muslim-on-Muslim crime.[2]  
The underlying belief of those who commit ‘honour’ violence is that the victim’s illicit action somehow transfers the moral stigma for misconduct from the guilty individual to other family members. Ironically, this Muslim understanding of honour (‘guilt by association’) is exactly what Islamists and their apologists seize upon and bewail following every jihadist terror attack. Transference of guilt from the one to the many is the cardinal sin committed by “the far right” for daring to suggest that terrorism is a Muslim problem. Transference of guilt from the individual terrorist to other Muslims innocent of his crime is the most egregious, inexcusable error when non-Muslims do it. 

Yet the same Islamophiles who constantly revile this logic when deployed by allegedly ‘right-wing’ commentators have never complained about the same guilt-by-association logic when it applies to the Islamic concept of ‘honour’.  

In the case of honour-based violence the absurdity is multiplied by the fact that the victim’s transgressions in question do not even harm anyone else. Her ‘dishonourable’ behaviour merely harms some people’s abstract ideas about what is or is not “honourable” for a woman to do with her own body. This antediluvian male chauvinist claptrap is unworthy of modern enlightened minds and thus gets its clout from a combination of superstition and violent coercion.

Religious Dress

Religious-based gender uniforms such as the burqa follow a similar logic. The immodestly dressed female is deemed to be responsible for the indecent behaviour of males, whose predatory sexual behaviour cannot be controlled absent a strict ‘modesty’ code.

The rationale is that a man’s biological sexual urges ‘naturally’ overpower his will to the extent that he cannot really be expected to control them. Again, this idea is not far removed from Pauline Christianity, as we can see in his letter to the Romans:

14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.[c] 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am!

In a similar vein to this antiquated belief, a Muslim male cannot be expected to exercise sexual self-discipline, and it follows from this that he is not really a free and responsible moral agent after all. This explains why women must be ‘modest’. If women were to uncover their irresistible bodies (especially their hair) or to give them any ‘opportunity’, then men would be right to molest them. It would be tantamount to leaving fresh meat out and then expecting that the cat will not eat the meat, according to Australia’s most senior Islamic cleric.[3]

Transference of guilt from male sexual predators to their female victims is the rape culture mentality that Labour MP Sarah Champion was sacked for suggesting correlates to Pakistani perpetrators’ ethnic heritage.[4] As Trevor Phillips astutely pointed out, “What the perpetrators have in common is their proclaimed faith.”  Justifying the call for Champion’s resignation, a source close to Mr. Corbyn said: “There can be no question of stigmatising entire communities on the basis of race, religion or country of origin.”  [my emphasis]  Indeed. But challenging their deeply held beliefs and ideas is not the same as stigmatising a group of people.  Moreover, by challenging religious ideas about ‘modesty’ we could hope to prevent people from stigmatising entire groups of people (namely women) on the basis of their biological sex.

This thinking is crystal clear in Saudi Arabia where the ultra-conservative version of Islam (Salafi-Wahhabism) prevalent among UK-based Islamist extremists originates.[5] In 2006 the Qatif General Court sentenced a 19 year old woman who had been gang raped to six months in jail and 200 lashes for the ‘crime’ of getting herself raped.[6]

Irrespective of hair-splitting exegetical debates about whether the veil is genuinely Islamic, it has been interpreted as such by ultra-conservative clerics who exert powerful influence in Muslim communities. The fact that there is no official Islamic mandate to wear it becomes immaterial. There was no Biblical mandate to burn witches either, but that didn’t prevent Christians from doing it.

White Guilt

Which brings me to the most colossally popular genre of guilt-transference current today: instilling ‘white guilt’ in victims or critics of Islamist terrorism. The story goes like this: Islam is ideology-free. Islamism has nothing to do with waging jihad in conquest for the advance of Islam.  Its rare violence is grievance-based; a mere response to maltreatment and injustices suffered at the hands of Western colonialism. It might be revenge, but it is a just reparation, not aggressive religious imperialism seeking to conquer the world until all nations are brought under sharia law and Dar Al-Islam[7].  The victims of the terrorism are the distant descendants of past perpetrators of colonial crimes. Here the guilt even transfers across generations.

The individuals attacked by today’s jihadis did not commit the colonial crimes for which they are being punished; but they are guilty by association and so attacking them is just.
Now let us imagine for a moment that everyone punished heirs for the sins of their forefathers. (In the case of jihadist terrorism, the victims may have no blood relationship to past perpetrators at all. But never mind that, white people are all the same.)  The world would be a constant theatre of bloodshed if all of us felt that we had the right to dish out punishment to the progeny of every nation or tribe that ever committed atrocities. In Rwanda, the grown up children of Tutsis would avenge their parents’ deaths by taking machetes to the skulls of Hutus’ offspring. Would we really applaud this and say that the Hutu descendants deserve this?  If not, then our enthusiasm for making white people bear the guilt for crimes they did not commit seems a bit, well … racist.

But of course evil Belgian colonialists propelled Hutus to slaughter Tutsis, so they had no free will! Which brings me to . . .

Incitement to Violence

Obviously speech and expression are influential, otherwise liberals like myself would not spill so much ink defending them. But the fact that we are influenced does not allow us to abdicate personal responsibility for our actions. Human beings have competing desires and choose between them all the time. When someone influences me, it is because I value what he says or writes. I select these opinions or perceived truths from among other opinions or viewpoints and invest them with importance. If I did not then the potential causes of my actions would be endless – films, books, parents, teachers, preachers, television personalities… any combination of these ‘influences’ could be held accountable and I could be let off the hook. But how would we ever know which of them to blame for my action? Was it a Netflix documentary I watched or a Guardian columnist’s opinions, or both?

It is true that ideas can be as pernicious as they can be enlightening. But even more dangerous than bad ideas is the atmosphere of fear in which they may not be challenged by better ones. In every instance in which dangerous ideas have precipitated actual harms, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, there has been a chilling silence from fearful listeners who (had their freedom to protest been protected) should have put a halt to the rhetoric by speaking back. It is in a climate of censorship and coerced conformity that the beast of bad ideas takes root and grows into a monster.

The ‘incitement’ argument against free speech, in its current (distorted) usage, presupposes a direct causal link between someone’s expression of extreme views and other peoples’ violent behaviours. This causal theory undermines the presupposition of individual moral agency at the core of the justice system. If someone commits a criminal act of terrorism, defence attorneys may attempt to diminish the defendant’s responsibility in various ways. However, if the forensic evidence points to his guilt, and if he is an adult of sound mind, we do not accept outside influences as somehow causing him to act. If we did, we would reduce the sentence accordingly or even exonerate him completely – but we do not.

The fact that adult citizens are responsible moral agents entitles them to basic rights and protections on the one hand, and obligates them to accept moral accountability for their actions on the other. Civil liberties come with concomitant responsibilities. Only children, because of their relative naïveté or inexperience, are incapable of responsible moral agency. To say that Hutu individuals were not responsible for the acts they committed in the Rwandan genocide only infantilizes them and treats them with the kind of patronising contempt for which colonialists are so often roundly condemned.
Lessons From the Past

When World War II finally ended and the scale of Nazi atrocities came to light, some of those involved faced criminal charges. The defendants argued that only states and not individuals could be held responsible for the types of war crimes of which they stood accused. The court’s rejection of this argument set a landmark precedent, establishing that state authority could not be used to shield individuals from criminal accountability.

In the decades that followed, philosophers and social psychologists such as Stanley Milgram asked how individual human beings could have allowed themselves to become passive instruments of authority. German citizens still bear a heavy burden of guilt to this day.

Guilt is different to shame. Shame is placed upon an individual when she transgresses social taboos or conventional rules. Shame can be directed at a person even though she herself may not be convinced that she has acted wrongly. She may disagree with the grounds for a particular law, for instance, and feel that it would be immoral to obey it. A person can be shamed by others and may even internalise their blame, but this is different to the person with a guilty conscience. The individual who experiences guilt may do so even if no one ever discovers his crime, or blames him for his act. His own conscience condemns him because he has broken a law that he himself cannot gainsay.

Existentialists argued that excuses (“I was just following orders”) were attempts to deny individual responsibility and to pretend that we have no choice. This is bad faith. Each of us knows, with agonizing certainty, that we have inescapable choices to make. No amount of duress, regardless how severe, can really force us to choose against our will. If we give in to the torturer it is because we choose to end our own suffering even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, as Winston finally does to Julia in George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. A horrible choice is nevertheless a choice. If this were not the case then we would feel no guilt for our choices. But taking on responsibility for other people’s choices is just as weak as pretending that we have none for our own.
 [1] See Chesler, Phyllis, ‘Are Honour Killings Simply Domestic Violence?’ in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2009, pp. 61 – 69. Accessed on 23 Aug. 2017 at See also Chesler, Phyllis, ‘Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings’ in Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2010, pp. 3 – 11, accessed on 23 Aug. 2017 at[2] Ibid.[3] Muslim Cleric: Women Without Scarf are ‘uncovered meat’, Religion News Blog, Oct. 26, 2006, accessed on 23 August, 2017 at[4][5] A 2007 report by a team of researchers over a two-year project, written by Dr Denis MacEoin, an Islamic studies expert at Newcastle who previously taught at the University of Fez, uncovered a hoard of malignant literature inside as many as a quarter of Britain’s mosques. All of it had been published and distributed by agencies linked to the Saudi government of King Abdullah. Among the more choice recommendations in leaflets, DVDs and journals were statements that homosexuals should be burnt, stoned or thrown from mountains or tall buildings (and then stoned where they fell just to be on the safe side). Those who changed their religion or committed adultery should experience a similar fate. The 7/7 suicide bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were salafis. See, ‘Wahhabism: A Deadly Scripture’ at The Independent online edition,  Nov. 2007. Accessed on 23 Aug., 2017 at[6] Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, ‘Ruling Jolts Even Saudis, New York Times, Nov. 16, 2007, accessed on 23 August 2017 at[7] Dār al-Islam, in Islamic political ideology, the region in which Islam has ascendance; traditionally it has been matched/contrasted with the Dār al-Ḥarb (abode of war), the region into which Islam could and should expand. This mental division of the world into two regions persisted even after Muslim political expansion had ended. See jihad. [Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica, online edition, accessed on 22 Aug. 2017]

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