Equality under the law is abrogated by shari'a councils
Islamic shari’a councils are now recognised as arbitration tribunals under the 1996 Arbitration Act, and are part of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) procedure available to UK citizens. So far, at least five councils have been recognised as tribunals and moves are afoot to have scores more throughout the country.
The tribunals cover all disputes that come under civil law or family law but exclude criminal matters.
In the case of a civil dispute, the decision of the tribunal is recognised by the UK courts and, if it is a family matter, will be accepted as the basis of a UK court decision and in both cases, if necessary, enforced under UK law.
In the one case, the court is upholding the judgement of the shari’a tribunal; in the other, it is using it as the basis of its own decision and which it is very likely to accept as courts are generally reluctant to overturn a tribunal judgement.
The Arbitration Act simply requires that both parties make a prior agreement to submit their dispute to the tribunal and that the outcome does not break any UK law.
It would do an aggrieved party no good to appeal to a UK court that the shari’a ruling to which he or she had submitted was wrong or that he or she would have been treated differently in a UK court not acting on shari’a principles: unless it could be shown to be unreasonable and outrageously unfair it would be enforced. Thus, Islamic shari’a is propagated by UK law.
We have cause to be worried.
(1) Has anything changed?
Apologists for shari’a claim nothing has changed. A shari’a tribunal decision cannot be enforced if it breaks UK law. This view is out of touch with how things really work and what is going on today.
We have, for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s revelation in a BBC interview that the adoption of Islamic shari’a law in the UK is ‘unavoidable’. This gives a disturbing insight into the minds of some of our leaders.
Twisting the law to meet cultural requirements is not unknown. Lord Pearson asked this question in the House of Lords in June: “…. will Her Majesty’s Government take steps to ensure that resident Muslim men will no longer be allowed to commit bigamy by bringing in their second, third and fourth wives and all their children to enjoy the benefits of our welfare state?”
He was not given an answer.
And, most importantly, judges judge: they assess witnesses, weigh up the worth of arguments, and apply social criteria, interpretations and precedents as they believe they fit the facts of a case. There is plenty of scope for keeping to the letter of the law.
Recognition of shari’a tribunals introduces a new breed of judges with a mindset alien to this country and which provides ample evidence of its hostility both to western Christian and Enlightenment secular values.
(2) Unequal treatment of men and women
Under shari’a, men and women are not treated equally. In matters of inheritance, property division, divorce and the custody of children, shari’a law disadvantages women and they are considered inferior as witnesses: a man may easily divorce his wife whereas a woman must argue her case and undergo a lengthy legal process.
A Muslim woman seeking a divorce is subjected to an interview process aimed at keeping her married and she risks financial ruin by the obligation to return her dower.
Shari’a rules on child custody can be rigid and were described by judges in the House of Lords as ‘arbitrary and discriminatory’. In general, child custody reverts to the father at a preset age (seven for boys) no matter the circumstances or the behaviour of the father, and if a woman remarries she loses custody of her children.
If a wife refuses to agree to give the husband access to their children, even in cases of possible child abuse, the divorce is stalled until that issue is resolved.
A Family Court judge may find himself presented with an ‘agreement’ produced at a shari’a tribunal that gives custody of the children to the father which in normal circumstances the court would register and enforce. But how is he to tell if this is a truly mediated agreement or simply the woman’s resigned acquiescence in shari’a law which does not explicitly consider the interests of children?
Women inherit half what a man inherits. And, of course, a Muslim man can have up to four wives.
Under shari’a, a Muslim woman will get a decision from a tribunal far less favourable than she would get from a British court under the Crown.
Shari’a councils are entirely male: there are no female shari’a judges. Nearly a quarter of judges in UK courts are female and in magistrate courts it is half. The Islamic Shari’a Council is listed as a charity and people who seek a divorce pay a fee. For a man, it is £100; for women, it is £250 because (they say) it is more work to process a woman's application as her word has to be corroborated.
(3) Community pressures and exploitation of ignorance
Muslim women will be under enormous pressure to use shari’a tribunals rather than civil courts. If they don’t use a shari’a tribunal, they run the risk of being ostracised by their family and their community as bad Muslims or even as apostates.
This pressure already exists but giving any shari’a council recognition as a tribunal under the Arbitration Act massively increases it.
Many women may simply be ignorant of their rights, due to language or cultural barriers. Many of those dealt with by shari’a councils are from the most marginalised segments of society with little or no knowledge of their rights under English law.
This will be true of male and female workers, especially the poorly-educated and low-paid, who find themselves unfairly treated by a Muslim business owner, or of tenants in disagreement with a Muslim landlord.
The appearance of ‘officialness’ will give the uneducated and the vulnerable the impression that there is a parallel Muslim system of law in England which is the one that Muslims should use.
This is already being exploited. The home page of the website of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) goes out of its way to look official. It has a photograph of Lord Phillips when he was Lord Chief Justice in his wig and finery. A bold heading declares: ‘Lord Chief Justice endorses ADR (alternative dispute resolution) under Shariah Law’.
Underneath it has a picture of Lord Hunt, a government minister. The website emphasises that MAT rulings are binding under English law.
(4) The importance of civil and family law – what binds people together
Proponents of shari’a tribunals make the point that they are involved only in civil and family matters and are not involved in criminal cases, as if this somehow lessens the impact on society.
Family, marriage, children, inheritance, relations with neighbours, doing business, are the most important matters for most people. Very few of us are touched by the criminal courts, but civil and family matters touch us all.
By recognising shari’a councils as tribunals, the UK authorities are saying it is fine for some British citizens not to exercise certain rights, even if English law and tradition grants them those rights, and to accept deals that are worse than what they would get from other British courts with regular judges.
Rights are established for the good of society as a whole, and they are often achieved only after a long and hard struggle, so why should a particular group of people be allowed to ditch any of those rights against the wider interest of society?
Why should my next-door neighbour live by a different idea of what is ‘fair’ – for example, what is seen as fair in a default position on inheritance or the relative difficulties between men and women in the procuring of a divorce? Surely ‘what is considered fair’ is a universal that binds people together and gives them a sense of identity.
(5) Quick and cheap justice
A vital foundation for any society is a legal system that provides justice quickly at a reasonable cost. The breakdown of the legal system in parts of Pakistan is the underlying cause of the anarchy and strife that prevails there. In the UK, we do not have massive corruption but we seem to be well on the road to a system that is too expensive and takes too long.
It is claimed that an advantage of shari’a tribunals, and a good reason for having them, is that they take on some of the burden of solving disputes and relieve an overburdened courts system (this was the justification given in Canada for a similar proposal to recognise shari’a tribunals in family matters, but it was eventually rejected largely due to the protests of Muslim Canadian women). This theme crops up all the time. Shari’a tribunals are a way of helping people to resolve their differences in their own way without clogging up the higher courts: it is cheaper and quicker. Apparently, shari’a tribunal judges are not paid a fee.
It seems unlikely that the availability of an alternative justice system for Muslims would ease the burden to the degree that cost and efficiency issues are solved for everyone else who only has the regular court system to turn to.
If this is good solution, you might ask why we do not also have a parallel tribunal system for civil and family matters for Christians? Why not tribunal systems for Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and even one for atheists?
But the question we should really ask is why do we not have a system for all citizens that delivers timely justice at an acceptable price?
(6) Criminal matters
Notwithstanding the numerous statements that shari’a tribunals do not cover criminal matters, under the heading ‘Types of Cases that we deal with’, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal website lists:
Forced Marriages, Domestic Violence, Family Disputes, Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, Commercial and Debt Disputes, Inheritance Disputes, Mosque Disputes
In relation to domestic violence, it says:
“MAT is unable to deal with criminal offences as we do not have jurisdiction to try such matters in the UK.
“However where there are criminal charges such as assault within the context of domestic violence, the parties will be able ask MAT to assist in reaching reconciliation which is observed and approved by MAT as an independent organisation.
“The terms of such a reconciliation can then be passed by MAT on to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) though (sic) the local Police Domestic Violence Liaison Officers with a view to reconsidering the criminal charges. Note that the final decision to prosecute always remains with the CPS” (emphases added).
So, Muslim domestic violence cases are treated differently from those in the rest of the population!
Just imagine – the vicar can get involved: he can formally tell the police that the suspect is a regular church-goer, he attends every Sunday, and he really regrets what he has done. He has agreed to go on an anger management course and the vicar thinks he deserves a second chance. The policeman, who is also a Christian because it is a Christian area, agrees.
This is precisely what is going on in some Muslim areas. In incidents severe enough to be referred to the police, the Muslim men involved have been directed to take anger management courses, and the women to withdraw their complaints. This has caused considerable disquiet suggesting that the police are turning a blind eye to domestic violence in the name of community cohesion or cultural sensitivity.
(7) Support for barbaric laws and practices
Shari’a is a system of laws and a mindset which approves, inter alia:
(i) Death for apostasy
(ii) Amputation of limbs as punishment
(iii) Stoning to death for adultery
(iv) Belief that a woman’s evidence is worth less than a man’s
(v) Blood money
Recognition of shari’a in the UK – even of just those sections which do not conflict with UK law – bestows status and respectability to a system which produces these barbaric practices. They are not some distant echo of the past but a fact in many parts of the world today.
Faisal Siddiqi, a Pakistani-born barrister and the founder and chairman of MAT’s governing council, criticised the British media for its obsession with beheadings and other extreme punishments. He said: “They constitute only 10% of shari’a.”
What a relief.
For an insight into current thinking by some Muslims on the matter of death for apostasy, one might consider: Muslim chaplain at Harvard to be toying with idea of executing apostates? And Supreme Court dismisses plea against death sentence for blasphemy.
For current views on stoning for adultery, consider: Indonesia's Aceh to stone adulterers under Islamic law.
Inayat Bunglawala, the assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, says that stoning to death for adultery is acceptable in a country that chooses to have that as the law.
And for an explanation of why the evidence of a woman is worth less than that of a man (you may laugh or cry), see the Islamic Sharia Council.
The Government has allowed and is encouraging the establishment of a parallel legal system for Muslims on matters that affect all of us. It is wrong for the country and wrong for Muslims.
The official recognition of shari’a councils as arbitration tribunals is simply another mechanism by which Muslims are being segregated from the rest of the population: it is a further barrier to integration and reinforces the fragmentation of society. The UK authorities are undermining both the Christian font of jurisprudence and the Enlightenment values by which this has been developed. The British concept of justice has been forged over centuries, sometimes at great cost. It would be ironic if it were to return to primitive expressions of inequity and unfairness.
Please note: Cranmer will not be tolerant of any unjustified or unjustifiable expressions of intolerance towards any group of people. He would like to remind his readers and communicants that there are very many British Muslims indeed who abhor the notion of shari'a in the UK, and who seek to challenge the intolerance of the ascendant and increasingly-pervasive Wahhabi orthodoxy.