8 May 2013
The Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, the institution which was the subject of a recent BBC Panorama documentary on sharia councils in Britain, has criticized the BBC for its undercover reporting and for editing the footage out of context.
The documentary features an undercover BBC reporter posing as a woman complaining of domestic abuse, and shows members of the Islamic Sharia Council staff urging her to go to the police only as a last resort. The documentary alleges that some women who turn to these sharia courts are not aware that their rulings on such matters as child custody disputes are not legally binding. The Islamic Sharia Council has challenged the impartiality of the BBC investigation, asserting that the Panorma crew had a “pre-determined agenda and stereotype of how shariah councils operate.”
For its part, the BBC has rejected accusations of impropriety, saying in a statement to the Guardian, “Panorama fully stands behind its investigations into the workings of some of Britain’s Sharia Councils.” The documentary, entitled: “Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils” has garnered the attention of many British politicians and was heavily referenced in a recent parliamentary debate on the role of sharia courts in the United Kingdom.
Growing numbers of non-Muslims are turning to Sharia “courts” to resolve disputes in Britain, it has been claimed. Up to five per cent of cases heard by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) involve people who do not follow the Islamic faith, it has been estimated.
The body operates court-like arbitration hearings in London, Bradford, Birmingham, Coventry and Manchester, mainly dealing with disputes between business partners and mosques. Those who use the service agree voluntarily to submit to its adjudication but its rulings are considered to be legally binding and can be enforced in county courts under the 1996 Arbitration Act. A separate body, the Islamic Sharia Council, has been operating for several years, hearing divorce cases with a panel of seven “judges” based in London.
The MAT said that the greater weight attached to oral agreements in its hearings than the courts was making its service attractive to non-Muslims in Britain, who it estimates are now involved in one in 20 of its cases. “We put weight on oral agreements, whereas the British courts do not,” said Freed Chedie, a spokesman.
For the first time, the Islamic Sharia Council has granted access to a newspaper to observe the entire sharia legal process in Britain. Over several weeks, the author was allowed to witness the filing of complaints, individual testimony hearings and the monthly meeting of imams, or judges, where rulings are handed down.
Sharia has been operating in the UK, in parallel to the British legal system, since 1982. Work includes issuing fatwas – religious rulings on matters ranging from why Islam considers homosexuality a sin to why two women are equivalent to one male witness in an Islamic court. The Islamic Sharia Council also rules on individual cases, primarily in matters of Muslim personal or civil law: divorce, marriage, inheritance and settlement of dowry payments are the most common.
However, sharia is also being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system. A few hardline leaders would like it to be taken even further. One religious leader said that Britain should adopt sharia punishments such as stoning and the chopping off of hands to reduce violent crime.