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When a kind of illiteracy leads to cruelty

05 September 2014

The Ashya King case has revealed ignorance about faith, says Paul Vallely

 

IT WAS just a little parenthesis, but, between the commas, a thread of prejudice was revealed. "Mr and Mrs King" began the sentence. And then came the words "who are Jehovah's Witnesses". It did not appear in just one newspaper, but in many of the first reports of the story of five-year-old Ashya King, the boy with the brain tumour whose parents had suddenly removed him from Southampton General Hospital.

Others were more explicit, revealing that the thread was part of a backcloth of bias. Brett and Naghemeh King had taken the boy from hospital "despite" his suffering from a brain tumour. Jehovah's Witnesses, they noted, "refuse blood transfusions on religious grounds". Hampshire Police had issued an arrest warrant for "cruelty to a person under the age of 16 years". The bad faith of the Kings was taken for granted.

On Radio 4, the Today programme compounded the smear by using the case as the introduction for an attack by the novelist Ian McEwan on Jehovah's Witnesses; the interviewer, Mishal Husain, invited him to extend his assault on religion more generally.

Mr McEwan's latest novella, which has been criticised for its "formulaic" plot, centres on a High Court judge who must decide whether a teenager who is not yet 18 should be allowed to refuse a live-saving blood transfusion. "Sometimes religious views run right against the grain of what seems rationally compassionate," the novelist told Ms Husain, who tried to move the subject on to the Trojan Horse plot and extremism in schools, perhaps hoping that Mr McEwan would repeat his view that in the clash between the religious and secular imaginations "the secular mind seems far superior".

What the novelist, the media, and the hospital authorities had in common was a degree of religious illiteracy. Jehovah's Witnesses may oppose blood transfusions, but they offer no religious opposition to the chemo- or radiotherapies that the hospital wanted for Ashya. Mr McEwan has elsewhere complained about the "uninterrupted monochrome" of religion. Those who criticise faith have no credibility when they proceed from a basis of such ignorance.

A little knowledge was a dangerous thing, the doctors in Southampton probably thought, when Mr King trawled the internet for alternative treatments for his little boy. But the same admonition applies to those who so blithely parade their religious prejudice.

Misinformation dogged this case from the outset. The Kings' objections to blunderbuss radiotherapy were not religious: they were medical. The parents wanted a more focused Proton-beam radiotherapy, which is used in the UK to treat only eye tumours, but is used on brain tumours in other countries. They did not from remove him from Southampton "despite" his brain tumour, but because of it. However misguided that may have been, it was well-intentioned.

Perhaps that is true, too, of the authorities who told Mr King that, if he questioned their judgement, they would exclude him with a court order, and then issued a heavy-handed warrant, alleging cruelty by the parents. The irony is that their fear of cruelty ended in the actual cruelty of leaving a small child to lie alone in a foreign hospital - while his mother and father were in prison 300 miles away - surrounded by strangers whom he could not understand. 

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.
www.paulvallely.com

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