Tolerance on Trial

A young person – at 17 in law still a child – died in 2003 at the hands of her parents, who have both in 2012 been convicted of her murder. And now "tolerance" also stands in the dock. 

The murder of Shafilea Ahmed has prompted much comment, some of it about the repugnant term "honour killing" which certainly should have no place in anyone's crime lexicon, and some about the concept of "tolerance" and its status as virtue or vice. 

A good look at the comments beneath this Guardian article by Sara Khan ( demonstrates this issue nicely. We're all far too multi-cultural, tolerant and afraid of upsetting Muslims, or being accused of racism, it seems. 

The modern definition of "tolerance" in the context of differences between cultures might be: a fair / objective / permissive attitude towards those whose opinions and practices differ from one's own.  By this definition tolerance is a virtue. It can be said to denote an absence of bigotry at the very least.

"Tolerance" in this context (it seems to me)  contains some if its other meanings too – that sense of enduring or putting up with something inconvenient or distasteful (next door's noisy children, a bonfire when you've just got your washing out, smelly drains, the first bus passing at 5am);  and also (as in machining) the permissible range of variation in something. 

Mealymouthed "tolerance" therefore describes our fairness and objectivity in relation to that permissible range of variation in cultural practice we are prepared to endure without complaint. "Tolerance" isn't "acceptance", still less "welcome". It is not a huge multi-cultural leap. It is the very smallest fair and objective step a person can take when relating to a different culture. The most modest of virtues. And yet some commentators on the Shafilea Ahmed murder are all too ready to reposition it as a vice. 

Christina Odone in this extraordinary and repellant piece in the Telegraph (

wants some of us to embrace intolerance instead. She writes:

"When Muslim parents hate their host culture so much that they will kill a child who seems to embrace it, then they are guilty of intolerance – the kind that non-Muslims are wary of showing, lest they be branded racist, or bigoted." 

Read that again and feel your jaw drop. Odone describes the murder of a child as an act of "intolerance". An intolerance that she describes non-Muslims (who the wide awake among us will know also sometimes murder children) as "wary of showing", but which she herself appears ready to embrace, saying:  "A tragedy like Shafilea's makes me feel intolerant." Is she really on the point of killing teenage girls in response to this tragedy? It doesn't seem likely.

I've no great admiration for Odone's writing, but I know she wouldn't write a paragraph as addled as this unless she'd got herself into a right old mess and was really trying to convey the notion that "tolerance" – as in, the uncomplaining willingness to endure another's culture – is more of a vice than a virtue and should therefore cease forthwith.  To that end she sees this murder as a "very strong argument" for more Muslim faith schools. It is bafflingly unclear why such segregation would protect those young women at risk of forced marriage – though perhaps she thinks it might protect teachers with different, "Western"  values from having to confront these situations. She certainly doesn't seem to recognise or acknowledge that this murder, and the presumed 'reason' for it, are as abhorrent to the majority of her Muslim compatriots (and yes, I chose that word deliberately) and to the majority of UK residents of Pakistani origin, as they are to her. 

"Tolerance" also gets a bit of a telling off in the much more considered and thoughtful blog of @Langtry_Girl ( But even here the dubious virtue of "tolerance" is deemed to have gone too far. 

"When tolerance, whether exercised by the state or by individuals becomes so expansive that it leads to someone’s injury or death, it’s no longer tolerance; it’s apathy. In Shafilea’s case, that apathy was effectively an accessory to murder." In this reflection on the vice of tolerance, the state becomes the co-accused, along with Shafilea's parents: "It was her rights that the state needed to protect, not her parents’.  It failed. She died."  The state in its various manifestations (school, police) was, in this interpretation, more interested in permitting Shafilea's parents to maintain their cultural traditions, even where these extended as far as homicide, than in protecting a child. 

Unlike Odone's argument, which is both loathsome and confused, @Langtry_Girl's proposition does merit exploration, not least because we've been here before. When Victoria Climbié was killed by her carers in 2000, in a case which became the catalyst for a huge revision in child protection practice,  much soul-searching was undertaken into whether the social work profession was making differential assumptions about how families from other cultures should be allowed to discipline their children.  In other words, whether a "tolerance" of severe physical discipline had led to a failure to protect her.

In Lord Laming's 2003 report and recommendations arising from the Victoria Climbié case he made expectations clear: 

"The basic requirement that children are kept safe is universal and cuts across cultural boundaries… Cultural heritage is important to many people, but it cannot take precedence over standards of childcare embodied in law. …each child, irrespective of colour or background, should be treated as an individual requiring appropriate care."

What followed the public outcry over Victoria Climbié's death was one of the most significant, and in many ways positive, transformations of child protection policy and practice most professionals working with children and young people will have seen in their career. If an 'expansive tolerance' to parents and carers of non-British origin brutalising their children to death did exist prior to the Children Act 2004, the passing of that legislation makes it much less likely to exist now. Certainly my own experience is that these issues, if raised, are never taken lightly or ignored, and are often looked for, even if not specifically flagged as an issue. 

Of course, the passing of that legislation came too late for Shafilea Ahmed, who was killed in September 2003. Shafilea's death was undoubtedly a 'preventable death' (at least in theory), and that the various organisations and agencies with responsibility for child protection failed to prevent that death is self-evident and uncontested. What no one can be sure of is that those organisations and agencies were apathetic in the face of what was going on in Shafilea's life, or that if they were, such apathy was caused by a fear of being perceived as intolerant. (The Guardian reports: "If awkward questions were asked, the Ahmeds would claim they were victims of racial prejudice." The murder trial necessarily focused on establishing beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of Shafilea's parents. It wasn't an investigation into the child protection practice of the various agencies she was involved with. But within the evidence there are tantalising glimpses of contact and possible engagement with various authorities; with the police when she ran away (more than once, it seems) from the age of 11; when her teacher Joanne Code reported her concerns (also more than once); when she shared her worries with a homelessness officer in a note;  when she was interviewed by social services in relation to injuries and she apparently asked for the investigation not to be taken further; while an in-patient in Warrington hospital after drinking bleach during a stay in Pakistan. 

To many people following this sad story it must seem obvious that if these authorities or individuals had done their jobs properly, Shafilea would still be alive today. And that may be so. But not every technically preventable death is actually preventable in practice, and at this point we don't know whether these individuals and organisations did everything that they could or should have done or whether there were indeed errors or omissions. We must now take steps to find out. 

As Chris Mills points out in this blog, the circumstances of this murder merit a serious case review which does not appear to have been carried out yet:

Now that the criminal trial has ended, this must surely take place. (Warrington's Child Death Overview Panel would also have drawn some conclusions about this case). It would certainly be instructive to discover whether or not a fear of being thought to be racist, intolerant or culturally insensitive impeded the proper actions of the authorities in 2003 and to assure ourselves that if that was the case then, practices have changed now. 

What would be a mistake though would be for commentators to conflate the concept of "tolerance" with failures of professionals to do their duty for non-culturally-inspired reasons and to suggest that we need to reduce our "tolerance" of other cultures and practices in order to prevent future murders. We know from other serious case reviews that there are, sadly, many other causes of failure to prevent what are deemed to be preventable deaths. (Again my own experience suggests that there are particular difficulties in keeping young people safe over the age of 16, when many statutory obligations and responsibilities change or cease.)

But let's focus on tolerance. A "tolerant" country wouldn't have the kind of crime and race statistics recorded in this study:
especially those for stop and search and imprisonment of non-white people. 

A "tolerant" country would not perpetuate the narrative of family-based, so-called 'honour' violence in Asian communities, when the data shows that it is white homicide cases that are most likely to involve a principal suspect that is a family member. 

"There were differences between the relationship of the homicide victims and principal suspects in cases with a current suspect across ethnic groups. While the largest proportion of homicides involving White victims involved a principal suspect from the victim’s family (37%), the principal suspect in homicides with Black victims was, in the largest proportion of cases, some other known person (39%); and, in homicides involving Asian victims, strangers (45%)." (p28 of same study).

This country needs more tolerance, not less. It needs to be more accepting and welcoming too. Children and young people from every race and culture need to be able to know that they can trust adults in all organisations and agencies to act together to protect them when they are at risk. 

A final mistake would be to assume that a murder which took place in 2003 automatically tells us something relevant and applicable to the UK of 2012 without further exploration of the current situation and a better understanding of current practice. Shafilea's murder has been successfully prosecuted this year, presumably because circumstances have changed (if only in terms of the willingness of the prosecutor to take action). Failings identified in local practice prior to the implementation of the Children Act 2004 are unlikely to remain unchanged or unchallenged today (as a review of the troubled history of Warrington's children's services shows: 

Shafilea's parents deserved to be on trial; it's always reasonable to check whether our current safeguarding and child protection arrangements have a case to answer; but let's keep "tolerance" out of the dock. 

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