“LET the punishment fit the crime,” wrote W.S. Gilbert in Act II of his comic opera The Mikado, set in the Town of Titipu in ancient Japan. The concept of punishment fitting the crime, which has been mentioned in British and global political debates over the century, at least in its legal context, however, predates Gilbert.
Its modern-day relevance could not have gone unnoticed in the Woolwich Crown Court in London in February, when the presiding judge, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb, sentenced an extreme right wing Islamophobe, Darren Osborne, to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 43 years behind bars.
Osborne, 48, and a father of four, was found guilty of murdering Makram Ali, 51, after he deliberately drove a van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers in Finsbury Park, North London, in June last year after they had finished their tarawih prayers at the Muslim Welfare Centre during Ramadan. He was also convicted of attempted murder of nine other people injured in the attack . Justice Cheema-Grubb had described Osborne’s act “a terrorist attack”, and “you intended to kill”. Osborne will be 91 years old when he is eligible for release.
No one enjoys the incarceration of a fellow human being, especially a lengthy one. There are those who will rightly philosophise on the merits and demerits of retributive justice and the morality of punishment.
It remains the duty of the government and society, through the criminal justice system, to uphold the law of the land and to hold people responsible for the crimes they committed. They must face the consequences of their actions. When those crimes are tempered with race and religious hate and intent, and involves extreme violence, then that duty assumes an infinitely more important dimension, which any government or criminal justice system would ignore at its peril.
Osborne had allegedly been radicalised in far right white supremacist ideology, as espoused by the banned Britain First, English Defence League and National Action Neo-Nazi groups, characterised by their hatred of Jews (anti-semitism) and Muslims (Islamophobia). His rapid radicalisation and his obsession with the Rochdale abuse scandal television programme involving mainly Pakistani men — especially the way he was fixated on the idea that Muslims in Britain were “feral” and “rapists preying on our children” — is shocking. The fact that he smiled and showed no remorse when he had run over and killed Makram proved to the jury that his motive was ideological.
The local community in Finsbury Park and its environs — whose member of parliament is Labour Party leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who Osborne claimed he had originally planned to kill because of his support for Palestinian “terrorists” — have commendably come together in a show of a stronger sense of community. Just look at the placards carried by people from all backgrounds and ages in support of the Muslim community in Finsbury Park the day after the attack — with messages like “United against all terror”, “Love will win”, and “Terror will lose”.
Solidarity in the fight against terrorism is vital, but so is the commitment to zero tolerance to the acts and ideologies of the perpetrators. The truth is that Osborne is not the first, nor will he be the last, terrorist who was radicalised and brainwashed so quickly. Muslim communities must not be deluded that they are the only victims.
Another father of four, Gary Staples, a Muslim convert, is awaiting sentencing on Feb 27, after he was convicted at the Old Bailey for posting homemade films glorifying the Islamic State group online and encouraging terrorism. The United Kingdom’s Sentencing Council, in its first comprehensive review of terrorist offences, had recommended much longer jail terms for those convicted of preparing and propagating acts of terror.
To me, the “hero” of this tragedy is Imam Mohammed Mahmoud of the Muslim Welfare House. He stopped fellow worshippers from harming Osborne immediately after the attack, when the latter was dragged from the van, stressing that he must answer to the courts so that justice could be done. He has raised crucial points, which go to the heart of the radical extremist challenge.
“There is no difference between a far right British extremist and an IS-inspired terrorist. They are two sides of one coin,” he said.
The evidence suggests that the far right terrorist threat in the UK and West is increasing and they are prepared to use murder and acts of terror. The fear also is that extreme right and terrorists are feeding off each other, which may lead to a spiral of violence, posing an “existential threat” to Britain. While terrorist threats from Irish extremists and IS remain the main concerns for UK officials, the disturbing sign is that the far right was already copying tactics from IS to gain followers and incite violence.
Muslim leaders have been urging British security forces to take the far right threat more seriously. Imam Mahmoud rightly takes the coverage of Islamist terror acts by the right wing media to task:
“Nobody can assume that Christianity is a violent religion because of the KKK or far right groups which claim to represent Christianity in Britain. Therefore, the same standard should be applied when judging a religious group, such as Muslims. Terrorism, radicalisation and extremism is not exclusive to one group of people over another — it is something that has existed and still exists among ethnic and religious groups who have a warped vision and deluded ideology of their religion, and that what they are doing is a righteous action that serves a just cause. In the end, it’s always civilians and innocent people that pay the price.”
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer