Nov 25th 2014
AS ERASMUS reported back in August, a row has been raging among practitioners of English law over how far they should go in accommodating the desire of Muslim clients to handle and bequeath their property in accordance with the strictures of Islam. Secularists were horrified when the Law Society (a prestigious professional body for solicitors) issued a guidance note to its members designed to help them formulate an Islamic will. The note recalled, for example, that in many circumstances a male relative can expect to receive twice as much as a female, and that non-Muslims cannot inherit at all. The objectors insisted that they were not trying to overturn the cherished English axiom of testamentary freedom, the right to leave your property to anybody you please; but they felt it was wrong for lawyers to be put in the position of offering "Islamic" advice.
This week, the Law Society reversed its position; it withdrew the "advice note" from its website and apologised for the upset it had caused. The Lawyers' Secular Society (LSS), which had been leading the charge against what it calls creeping Sharia, warmly welcomed the change. Some people ascribed the switch of line to a personal initiative by the professional body's newish head, Andrew Caplen, who said on taking up the job that his priorities would include equal access to the law for all, social justice and protecting people from domestic bullying or abuse.
But the secularists are still not completely satisfied. They are still concerned by the burgeoning of "Sharia councils" to which Muslims, in England and many other Western countries, turn for arbitration and advice in settling commercial disputes, family and marital matters, and inheritance. These bodies have no powers of coercion; in theory at least, they can only function by the free consent of all the interested parties but, secularists worry that vulnerable individuals who live "deep inside" an introspective Muslim community will come under strong pressure to abide by rulings of Sharia councils rather than regular courts.
Charlie Klendjian, secretary of the LSS, said he was pleased by this week's news but felt strongly that there was more work to do.
The legal profession...has finally demonstrated that it will not promote Sharia. We welcome that. We hope that the legal profession’s clear withdrawal of this Sharia guidance, and by implication its rejection of Sharia generally, will send a powerful message to the public and to politicians that Sharia must not be promoted, even within the law. But there is more work to do. Ideally we would like this withdrawal to be a watershed moment from which Sharia can be more easily scrutinised and criticised, and indeed actively challenged. In particular we need to recognise the immense danger posed by Sharia councils, which are creating a de facto parallel legal system which conflicts with the English legal system and under which people are suffering today. This de facto parallel legal system, left to its own devices, will eventually usurp the English legal system.
Oddly enough, there is a connection between this very English debate and my previous posting, sent from northern Greece. By a quirk of history, the only place in the European Union where the practice of Sharia law in family affairs is firmly established is in the region of Greece bordering Turkey. In a practice which dates from Ottoman times and was entrenched by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the local Muslim community generally turns to the mufti to settle marital and inheritance disputes. They would be perfectly free in theory to turn to regular Greek courts, but there is strong social pressure not to do that. For a Greek government of any ideological hue, this is a very delicate issue; and that is one of the many reasons why the huge task of disentangling religion(s) and the state in Greece will probably not be undertaken any time soon.
To speak of Sharia entirely usurping the law of the land, in any part of Europe, may be a rhetorical flourish; but co-existence between the two systems is never going to be easy, as we are only starting to realise.