Justifying Sharia in Britain

In an East London office, British Muslims consult the legal talents of the Islamic Sharia Council’s (ISC) scholars. The dispute-solving Sharia body is the largest in the UK. The books on the waiting-room coffee table, bearing titles such as ‘Tolerance within Islam’ and ‘The Journey of the Soul,’ seem to prepare disputants for a mutually agreed solution.
Sharia law has been applied in the UK since 1982 facilitated by locally-appointed councils, known as Sharia courts. An estimated 85 Sharia courts are believed to be operating in Britain, according to a 2009 report by the think-tank Civitas. They have no formally recognised powers and therefore cannot impose legally binding penalties. However, it is estimated that thousands of UK residents use Sharia courts each year, and they voluntarily accept the rulings – mostly about family matters.
Although widely used, women’s rights groups such as the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation complain that Sharia courts discriminate against women. And, it was these complaints along with British activists who ran the campaign called ‘One Law For All’, that lead Baroness Caroline Cox to introduce The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in the House of Lords on 7 June 2011. The bill, which is up for debate on 19 October 2012, is aimed at ensuring that Sharia courts operate within the realms of British law. Islamic scholars are noted for claiming they have legal powers under Sharia law.
According to Cox, many British Muslim women do not know their rights under English civil law: “A woman once told me that she came to this country to escape Sharia law, but that the situation was much worse here than that of the country she was from.”
One example of the inequality is the fee for divorce. The application for religious divorce costs 200 pounds for men and 400 pounds for women. The reason behind this is that the process is more complicated and therefore more expensive, while it’s easier for a man to get a divorce.
But the bill could benefit men too. Despite being legally divorced under British law Mizanur Rahman, whose wife applied to the council for a religious divorce, says the council is unfair. His wife has been demanding money from him through the ISC. The council has sent the Islamic divorce papers to him three times. So far, he has resisted signing: “It’s not me but her who wants a divorce, thus she needs to pay,” he says.
Anti-Sharia activists say the courts are incompatible with democracy and human rights and thus hard to incorporate into British life. A petition calling for the ban of Sharia courts organised by the ‘One Law for All’ campaign gathered twenty thousand signatures. Activists say “Sharia is the legal arm of a political Islamist movement wreaking havoc across the world and therefore is a threat to secularism”.
Defenders of the courts believe everyone, including devout Muslims, should have the right to settle personal disputes in front of the tribunal of their choice. They say they give Muslims a facility already available to Orthodox Jews under Beth Din courts. They claim that many Muslim women feel the need for a cleric’s reassurance that they can break a forced marriage. Financial disputes are also claimed to be resolved quicker and cheaper rather than within the British legal system. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, says he does not see Sharia courts as a threat to the harmony in the UK, either.
The Equality bill will not ban private religious courts, but will place a duty on public bodies to ensure women who have religious or polygamous marriages are made aware of their legal rights under the law. The Bill is also seeking to create a new criminal offence criminalising any person who purports to legally adjudicate upon matters that ought to be decided by criminal or family courts. Lady Cox also insists that the Bill is not aimed at Muslims, nor does it name them. It targets gender discrimination whenever the religion arbitration court makes the discrimination.
However, even is the bill is passed, it may face some opposition from the council itself. Furqan Mahmood, an Islamic scholar at the ISC says, not women but men need to be protected. He says that according to Islam, men have to pay women to get married, financially care for their wives, and support their children even after divorce. He says “Islam makes men slaves of women.”
Berza ŞİMŞEK – Contributor, Strategic Outlook
contact : berza.simsek@yahoo.com