Item 18 - Text of an article by F. W. Pethick-Lawrence, entitled ‘The Arab View on Murder’

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Text of an article by F. W. Pethick-Lawrence, entitled ‘The Arab View on Murder’


  • c. 1935 (Creation)

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(Carbon copy of a typed original. The events mentioned in this article, which was apparently written for a periodical called the Penal Reformer, are mentioned in Fate Has Been Kind, p. 182.)



The Arab View on Murder.

By F. W. Pethick-Lawrence.

During my recent visit to Palestine {1} the Arab attitude to murder came directly under my notice on two occasions. The first was when in the company of the District Governor I was visiting an Arab village near Jerusalem.

The responsible men in the village were met together and discussions took place with regard to taxation and other local matters. At last the question of relations with a neighbouring village was brought up. It was said that some twenty years ago two Arabs one from their village and one from the other had migrated to America and there one had murdered the other. A short time afterwards the murderer had himself met with a fatal street accident.

Ever since that day feud had existed between the two villages and when individuals met in Jerusalem there was quarreling† often leading to violence. Now the village of the aggrieved family were demanding that a settlement should be reached and satisfaction given.

The process I was told would be as follows, a sum of money would be demanded as compensation and if agreement as to the amount could not be reached it would be settled by some Arab body entitled to effect it. The members of the murderer’s family would then proceed to collect this sum primarily among themselves but if necessary with the help of other members of the village. Having obtained it they would go on an appointed day with it and with articles of food to the other village. There the food would be cooked and all parties would share it together, and after that the hostility would cease.

The other instance was when I was in Amman in Transjordania paying a visit to some English residents who were interested in the schools and Christian Churches in Transjordania. A young Arab woman and two Arab men came in and proceeded to tell a story with evident sign of great distress. It concerned the young child of the house a boy of about 7 years old and another somewhat older boy of another family. Both were Christians but while one family belonged to the Greek Church the other belonged to the Latin (i.e. Roman Catholic).

The original dispute was all about a football. The “Latin” boy had taken the ball away, and had behaved in an exasperating manner until at last the little “Greek” boy egged on by his playmates retaliated by picking up a stone and throwing it at the “Latin”. Tragedy occurred. The stone struck him behind the ear and he was killed. The little fellow was arrested but owing to his tender years the British Court decided he could not be punished and left the matter between the families to be thrashed out by the Arabs themselves.

Our visitors explained that they had been obliged to stand in the market place with bowed heads and the “enemy” had beaten them. Now a sum of £100 had been decided upon as the proper penalty-compensation. This they complained was much too high. They had sold everything they had consisting of their furniture and it had fetched only £50 and now they were come for advice to see whether their British friends could secure a reduction in the amount or failing that could put them in the way of raising the balance from kindly disposed people.

I do not know the precise ending of either of these stories. Nor I imagine are readers of The Penal Reformer very much concerned with them. What is of interest and importance is the contrast between Arab and British attitudes towards murder.

The British view is that it is an offence against the king’s peace, and that as the victim is dead the question of compensation does not arise. In other words British law is concerned with the “criminal” and not with the “civil” aspect of the matter.

The Arab on the other hand does not consider that the death of the victim rules out compensation. There is the family to be considered and perhaps even the village. Equally the fact that the murderer has himself died or is a child too young to be responsible for his action does not entitle his family or his village to escape punishment.

As to the preliminary violence which precedes the final settlement, this is no doubt the remanet of the methods of a primitive community in which there were no police no law courts no central power, nothing but individual action to enforce justice and to prevent the wrongdoer from getting off scot free.

It seems to me, without in any way wishing to revert to more primitive methods of dealing with crime, that there is something to be said for restoration and restitution in dealing with offences against the person. Incidentally it satisfied a natural craving in the human heart. Even in the case of murder a settlement which after penitence and suffering restores harmony between the families is surely better than the piling of tragedy on tragedy which is what the British law achieves.


{1} This visit probably took place in 1934 or 1935. See PETH 1/46–7.

† Sic.

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