Nov 12th 2016
NEWT GINGRICH, an American politician who expects a top job in the Trump administration, has draconian ideas about Islamic law: he suggested questioning all Muslims and deporting those who believe in Sharia. Fantastic as it may sound in an American context, such a proposal is even less likely to win traction in Britain because the use of Islamic principles in settling marital and family affairs is already a deeply entrenched social phenomenon.
The ever-growing reality of “Sharia councils”, mostly attached to mosques, emerged clearly during some hearings conducted earlier this month by a British parliamentary committee. Dozens of such councils are believed to exist: at least 30 well-established ones and probably many more that operate less formally. For some Muslims with marital difficulties they are an indispensable port of call.
The House of Commons home affairs committee heard both strong pleas to recognize the legitimacy and usefulness of such councils, and powerful arguments against them. Amra Bone, a legal scholar, said the work she did as part of a Sharia panel attached to Birmingham Central Mosque was helpful to “hundreds and perhaps thousands of women who otherwise would be in a very difficult and oppressive situation.” Most of the people who approach Sharia councils are women seeking an Islamic divorce, which is a separate procedure from a civil divorce, and has no standing in British civil law but is nonetheless very important to somebody living deep inside an Islamic sub-culture. Islamic law makes it much easier for a man to initiate divorce unilaterally.
Mizan Abdulrouf, a barrister who is vice-chairman of the United Kingdom Board of Sharia Councils, said that unless Islamic adjudication was somehow regulated and licenced, it would be driven underground. “We will have backstreet Sharia councils. There will be practices and procedures that are backstreet and not transparent.”
His board, he insisted, was needed to make sure that the councils limited themselves to their proper role: which was to certify the validity of marriages and divorces from an Islamic viewpoint, not get involved in matters of custody and alimony which were best left to civil courts. “This (the Sharia councils) is not intended to be a parallel legal system.”
Critics retort that the Sharia councils are already beginning to resemble a parallel legal system. If they are now regulated and licenced by the government (with the implication that some of them are doing a decent job) that problem will merely worsen.
Sadikur Rahman, a solicitor who is a member of the board of the National Secular Society, wrote in an article published on November 11th that there were clear signs of the principle of “one law for all” being undermined. Both the parliamentary probe, and a separate enquiry being conducted by the Home Office, was being conducted in a spirit of openness to the possibility that Sharia councils performed a useful function, he complained. This was a mistake: if any change was made, it should be firmer insistence that the (secular) law of the land was supreme.
Nor, in Mr Rahman’s view, did the argument about licencing “good” sharia councils in order to squeeze out bad ones have any real force. Whatever policy-makers laid down, ultra-zealous Muslim groups might in any case try forming their own semi-secret tribunals. Given that Jewish religious courts known as Beth Din already have some standing in British case law, there was a risk of a proliferation of religious tribunals challenging the authority of secular justice.
Any legitimisation of Sharia councils will lead to the set-up of tribunals for Hindu, Sikh, and perhaps even other Christian denominations. Differing laws will mean inequality of legal rights and obligations with some rights being better than others and plain discrimination based simply on the basis of religious identity.
Whichever side you take, the very terms of this argument provide a sort of vindication of an intensely controversial prediction made in 2008. Rowan Williams, who was then archbishop of Canterbury and head of the global Anglican church, said it was “almost inevitable” that some forms of Sharia law would be practised in Britain. It may have been a tactless or maladroit thing for a man in such a sensitive position to say, but as a prediction about the future, it looks pretty accurate.