SIDEBAR: Muslims embracing unbelief often face a lonely journey

NEW YORK — There was a time in his life when Ibrahim Abdallah thought he was the only Muslim-turned-atheist in the world. Then, at a party, he met a fellow Egyptian and former Muslim, and while the other guests danced, they sat and talked.

And talked and talked.

“I was so happy, and so shocked,” Abdallah, 33, said. “We both felt,’I am not the only one.’ It was huge.”  Now, several years later, Abdallah is on a mission to create the kind of safe space for questioning Islam and all matters of faith that he wishes he could have had.

Last May, he founded “Muslim-ish,” a support group for questioning and former Muslims that meets under the auspices of Manhattan’s Center For Inquiry, a humanist organization. The group has about 50 members, both cradle Muslims and converts, and meets twice a month in a secret location.

It’s support they very much need, Abdallah said, because Muslims who abandon their faith face challenges not faced by those who leave other religions. Divorce and disowning are common, as is the threat of physical violence. Some more conservative Muslims believe Islam sanctions the killing of apostates (those who abandon the faith) and blasphemers (those who belittle Islam, the Prophet Muhammad or other Muslims).

Muslim-ish is growing beyond its New York birthplace. A new group was recently established in Dearborn, Mich. — home to the largest population of Muslims in the U.S. — and other groups are forming in Chicago and Washington, D.C. An online version now meets via Google+ and is drawing people from Alabama, Florida and overseas.

Leadership in Tallahassee must stand against in-toleration

Over the past two legislative sessions, the Florida House and Senate wasted precious taxpayer dollars hearing harmful and unnecessary anti-Sharia legislation. Indeed, it came perilously close to passage in 2012 — passing the House and ultimately dying awaiting a final vote in the Senate.So no Floridian should be surprised that an anti-Sharia bill was once again filed for the 2013 session.

The real uncertainty is whether Tallahassee leadership will finally stand up to this intolerance, or again give into it and, in the process, waste valuable taxpayer dollars.The neutrally titled and worded “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which applies to family law provisions, is nothing more than camouflaged bigotry.

It is based on model language drafted by a controversial attorney, David Yerushalmi, who has a record of espousing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist views.This legislation is a classic example of the proverbial “solution in search of a problem.” Its supposed purpose is to counter the infiltration of our judicial and legal system by Sharia (Islamic) law.

But for the past two legislative sessions, proponents have failed to cite even one Florida court decision, or any other court decision, demonstrating an actual need for this legislation.  They can’t provide any examples because — as pointed out by a recent American Bar Association resolution and report opposing anti-Sharia measures — state and federal laws already prohibit courts from applying religious or foreign law in any way that would be against public policy, or constitute government advancement of or entanglement with religion.

This reckless legislation, however, imprudently goes far beyond these proven limitations.  This legislation is applicable to all religious law. So, for instance, the observant Jewish community regularly uses religious tribunals (Bet Dins) to resolve all kinds of disputes, including divorce settlements, which often are the basis for civil court divorce decrees and orders.

But this legislation would prevent a Jewish couple in Florida from voluntarily using a Bet Din to resolve their divorce settlement, and also would invalidate an out-of state divorce based on a Bet Din arbitration.  It also could negatively impact the use of Christian religious tribunals or certain applications of Canon law.

The leadership in Tallahassee needs to send a clear message that Florida values its diversity and welcomes persons of all backgrounds. They can do that by blocking this offensive bill, and unifying Floridians through legislation that finds common ground to move the state forward.

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

Muslim Divorces Without Shariah Can Get Tricky

New Jersey lawyer Abed Awad has been involved with more than 100 cases that involved some component of Shariah, or Islamic law, and knows firsthand how complicated things can get.

In one of those cases, a woman claimed she was married to a man according to Islamic law in her native West Africa. The man asserted there was no valid marriage, leaving a judge to decide whether the two were ever legally married in the first place.

If the judge rules they were married, there will be a divorce and she will receive alimony and a share of marital assets. If the judge rules that there is no marriage, then the woman will be left with nothing from her relationship.

To make a ruling, the judge will need to consider what Shariah, as understood in one corner of western Africa, says about what constitutes a legal marriage. He will likely have to consult Islamic law experts and apply what he learns to his decision.

But what if American judges were prohibited from considering Shariah and other foreign laws, as many state and national politicians want to see happen?

“How can I bring in testimony of Shariah generally, or Shariah as the law of a foreign country, when it comes to marriage? The judge won’t be able to adjudicate the case,” Awad explained.

“He can’t say yes or no because now it becomes, is he going to apply New York law or New Jersey law on the validity of a marriage that did not take place here but that took place in a foreign country?”

Counselors and activists estimate that roughly one in three Muslim marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Many Muslim Americans who divorce want their marriages dissolved in accordance with Islamic law. That means having dowries and other provisions of marriage contracts enforced, as well as obtaining an Islamic divorce certificate, which imams in the U.S. issue only after a civil divorce has been finalized.

“We recognize the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts,” said Suhaib Webb, imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “We won’t issue a divorce unless they bring a certificate from downtown.”

Shariah charade: The bogus threat of Islamic law in the U.S.

In the 19th century, Catholicism was regarded by many people in this country as thoroughly incompatible with Americanism. They saw it as a hostile foreign element that would subvert democracy. Today, a majority of the justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, and they are taken to be as American as Mountain Dew.

We’ve come a long way in religious tolerance. Or maybe not. The belief that Catholics are irredeemably alien and disloyal has given way to the fear that Muslims pose a mortal threat to our way of life.

That distrust is behind a push in state legislatures to forbid courts from applying Islamic Shariah law in any case. Arizona, Tennessee, Louisiana and Oklahoma have passed these bans, though the Oklahoma law was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court.

The chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Peggy Mast, explained, “I want to make sure people understand there’s sometimes a conflict between other laws and the Constitution, and we need to assert our Constitution is still the law of the land.” That’s like asserting that the sun is hot: It will be true regardless.

The change will have about as much effect in Kansas as a ban on indoor co-ed field hockey. It turns out no one has been able to find a case where a Kansas court has actually employed Islamic strictures to reach a verdict.

If, for instance, a Muslim man marries a Muslim woman and then tries to divorce her by saying “I divorce you” three times, in accordance with Shariah, he will find he’s wasted his breath. State marriage law will govern in Kansas just as it has in other states when it conflicts with the dictates of Islam.

Legislature approves bill to bar use of Islamic law, other foreign codes, in Kansas courts

TOPEKA, Kan. — A bill designed to prevent Kansas courts or government agencies from making decisions based on Islamic or other foreign legal codes has cleared the state Legislature after a contentious debate about whether the measure upholds American values or appeals to prejudice against Muslims.

The Senate approved the bill Friday on a 33-3 vote. The House had approved it, 120-0, earlier in the week. The measure goes next to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who hasn’t said whether he’ll sign or veto the measure.

The measure doesn’t specifically mention Shariah law, which broadly refers to codes within the Islamic legal system. Instead, it says that courts, administrative agencies or state tribunals can’t base rulings on any foreign law or legal system that would not grant the parties the same rights guaranteed by state and U.S. constitutions.

But several supporters specifically cited the potential use of Shariah law in Kansas as their concern. Though there are no known cases in which a Kansas judge has based a ruling on Islamic law, supporters of the bill cited a pending case in Sedgwick County in which a man seeking to divorce his wife has asked for property to be divided under a marriage contract in line with Shariah law.

New Report – Understanding Trends in North American Muslim Divorce and Marriage

This report by Julie Macfarlane (University of Windsor) for the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding addresses the shortcomings of Muslim communities when dealing with divorce, and what support and services counselors and community leaders can provide in times of marital crisis. The report has important conclusions and recommendations that can be a resource and discussion guide for couples, community leaders, and the public. The goal of the four year empirical study was to explore what North American Muslims understand as their Islamic obligations in marriage, the challenges they face in their married lives, and under what circumstances they might consider divorce – including their decision-making process, where they turn for help, and what rituals of closure and divorce outcomes are important to them.

American Muslims Against Shariah Law in US Courts, Study Finds

North American Muslims are more than satisfied with the secular legal system and do not want a set of parallel courts for Islamic law, according to a new study of U.S. and Canadian Muslims by a Washington-based think tank.

The study, by University of Windsor law professor Judy Macfarlane for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, would seem to refute critics’ claims that American Muslims want to impose Shariah, or Islamic law.

In fact, the study indicates that Muslims are just as unwilling to accept Islamic law as non-Muslims.

Executive Summary:

This is the first empirical study to ask North American Muslims what shari’a means to
them in their everyday lives. The study demonstrates that the present “moral panic” over
shari’a and its alleged impact on American legal and social culture is wildly overblown. For
most American Muslims shari’a represents a private system of morality and identity, primarily
focused on marriage and divorce rituals. None of the American Muslims interviewed for this
study expected American courts to enforce shari’a. Just like other Americans, they will access
the courts for adjudication according to American family law if they cannot make a private agreement (relating to divorce) that meets their needs and values.

B.C. judge rejects petition for divorce settlement based on sharia contract

The Globe and Mail – July 26, 2011

 

The British Columbia Supreme Court has turned down a petition for payment of a dowry under a marriage contract authorized in a sharia court of Amman, Jordan. Huwayda Al-Masri had asked the court to compel her ex-husband Ossama Aziz to pay her a dowry of 500 grams of 21-carat gold, which is currently worth around $22,000. The dowry was set out in a Muslim mahr agreement, written in Arabic and signed by Mr. Aziz and Ms. Al-Masri at the time of their marriage in 1997. Ms. Al-Masri, who was 19 at the time of the wedding, was born in Tennessee. Mr. Aziz, then a 29-year-old student who had previously been married, was originally from Baghdad. He had Canadian citizenship at the time of the wedding.

The couple settled in British Columbia but later divorced. Believing that she could rely on the maher, Ms. Al-Masri did not contest the divorce application and did not receive spousal support. However, Mr. Justice Arne Silverman decided he did not have sufficient evidence to enforce the provisions of the marriage contract under Jordanian or Canadian law.

Judge Silverman reviewed four cases from Ontario and B.C., where the courts had upheld similar contracts and decided Ms. Al-Masri was not entitled to the dowry. “I recognize that there may well be national or cultural traditions in Jordan which would resolve the question of to whom a dowry should be payable,” he said. However, he did not have any evidence before him to resolve the issue, he wrote; he did not have any expert evidence with respect to Jordanian law. Ms. Al-Masri will be appealing the decision.

Non-Muslims make increasing use of Islamic law to settle disputes

A spokesman for the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) said that there had been a 15% rise in the number of non-Muslims using Islamic law arbitrations in commercial cases this year. Last year, more than 20 non-Muslims chose to arbitrate cases at the network of tribunals, which operate in London, Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester, Nuneaton and Luton. “We are offering a cheap and effective service for Muslim and non-Muslims,” said MAT spokesperson Fareed Chedie.

The cases mainly deal with settling business disputes without going to court, but lately also include family law and divorce. The increase in marriage and divorce cases comes as one law firm has begun offering advice on civil Scots law and sharia law, making it the first in Britain to offer both civil and Islamic law as part of one service.

“The media get this out of context and hyped up,” said Dr Saba Al-Makhtar, from the Arab Lawyers Association. “Under English law there is room to settle disputes on any ground that it is acceptable to the parties involved, provided it doesn’t conflict with English law… it is an extremely good idea.” Critics like Maryam Namazie, a spokeswoman for the One Law for All Campaign, claim that sharia law particularly discriminated against women and neglects the universality of human rights.