19 November 2012
The implementation of the Sharia (Islamic law) in the UK has been a very controversial topic. Although certain aspects of Islamic law have been implemented in the UK for a decade, certain sections of the society seem to be resisting the idea.
Rulings under Sharia law are enforced through the 1996 Arbitration Act, which warrants any form of agreement provided that both parties agree to adhere to its decision. Since then practicing Muslims have been seeking remedies from the Islamic law at the Sharia courts to resolve disputes among themselves.
Sharia law was first brought to the attention of the public in 2008 when Dr Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, in a BBC interview remarked that adoption of some aspects of Islamic Sharia law in the UK “seemed unavoidable”. He then received some hostile reactions and his remarks were then followed by a report on Sharia courts. According to the report published by a think thank called Civitas in 2009, around 85 Sharia courts operate in Britain. The report claimed that the decision of these courts most of the time are incompatible with British common law and “inherently discriminatory against women in matters relating to child custody, domestic violence and divorce.”
The use of Sharia in the UK came under heavy criticism from the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which is campaigning to stop its use in Britain:
”We have spoken to many women and all of them tell us the same story; sharia law is not providing them with the justice they seek. The councils are dominated by men, who are making judgements in favour of men,” said Diana Nammi, a spokesperson for IKWRO.
Further Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, has long opposed the use of Sharia in the UK, and argued the rule of law “must not be compromised by the introduction of a theocratic legal system operating in parallel”.
On 7 June 2011 Baroness Cox introduced a new Bill in the House of Lords that aims to outlaw the Sharia law where it conflicts with English law. In proposing the new Bill she said:
“Through these proposals, I want to make it perfectly clear in the law that discrimination against women shall not be allowed within arbitration. I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Muslim women by sharia Courts. We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness. Many women say, ‘we came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here’.”
The Bill will receive a second reading later this year.
According to a BBC report however, increasing numbers of British Muslims are using these courts to resolve family and financial disputes. In the report Sheikh al-Haddad, a representative of the Islamic Sharia Council, the biggest Sharia body in the UK states that ”Our cases have easily more than tripled over the past three to five years, on average, every month we can deal with anything from 200 to 300 cases. A few years ago it was just a small fraction of that”.
Further, a leading UK barrister Sadakat Kadri supported the use of Sharia law in the UK. He told the Guardian that sharia courts were good for “the community as a whole” by putting Sharia on a transparent, public footing and should be more widely accessible to those who want to use them.
Kadri said they played a role in safeguarding human rights: “It’s very important that they be acknowledged and allowed to exist. So long as they’re voluntary, which is crucial, it’s in everyone’s interests these things be transparent and publicly accessible. If you don’t have open tribunals, they’re going to happen anyway, but behind closed doors.”