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Opposition mounts to growing use of sharia law in Britain

Country/Region: Europe, United Kingdom

Opposition is mounting to the growing use of Islamic law to settle civil disputes in Britain as a Muslim campaigner backs a bill that aims to stop sharia councils from falsely claiming legal status England and Wales.

Scales-of-Justice-Old-Bailey-London-4x3.jpg
Scales of Justice, Old Bailey, London
Andrew Middleton / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A report by the BBC’s Asian network last week highlighted the increasing use of sharia by thousands of Muslims to settle disputes each year. An estimated 85 sharia councils now operate in Britain, and several bodies, such as the Islamic Sharia Council, have reported a large increase in their case-load.

Sheikh al-Haddad said:

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. Muslims are becoming more aligned with their faith and more aware of what we are offering them.

As demand for the use of sharia law increases, opposition to it is also growing. Campaigners are concerned that women are being denied justice in sharia courts. Under Islamic law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man’s, she receives only half the compensation a man would for the same injury, she can inherit only half what her brothers would, and it is far more difficult for her to divorce her husband than for him to divorce her. Non-Muslims are also discriminated against under Islamic law.

The Christian and humanitarian campaigner Baroness Cox introduced a bill to the House of Lords last year that seeks to create a new offence – punishable by up to five years in prison – of falsely claiming legal jurisdiction over criminal or family law.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which has the backing of the National Secular Society and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, last week also gained the support of Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. She is concerned that Muslim women are not aware of alternatives to sharia law.

Ms Kazi said:

They don’t have any legal power and are completely informal so very hard to regulate… We want to educate women so they know what their rights are.

Another advocate for Muslim women’s rights is also backing the bill. Cassandra Balchin, co-founder and chair of the Muslim Women’s Network-UK, said that the bill, if made law, would probably increase pressure on sharia councils to make clear to their clients before they initiate mediation that their decisions have no legal weight.

The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation is campaigning for sharia councils to be completely banned.

Parallel law

Sharia councils have been operating in Britain since 1982, effectively creating a parallel legal system by which Muslims can resolve disputes. They deal with family, financial and commercial matters in accordance with sharia principles; 95 per cent of their cases relate to divorce.

Although they have no legal powers and cannot impose their rulings, in practice they function as courts and carry the same authority within the Muslim community as a legally binding process of arbitration. And in 2008 the British government acknowledged that it had for some time accepted the role of sharia tribunals in arbitration, in certain limited fields.

Opponents are concerned that the acceptance of certain aspects of Islamic civil law in Britain could be the start of a slippery slope into full-blown sharia. In a report, Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights, published in June 2010, human rights campaign group One Law For All argued:

Despite all efforts to package Sharia’s civil code as mundane, its imposition represents a concerted attempt by Islamists to gain further influence in Britain. By undermining British legal principles of equality before the law, the universal concept of one law for all and the protection of the rights of women and children, these courts help to increase discrimination, intimidation and threats against the most vulnerable. They also deny people their rights and leave countless human beings at the mercy of Islamists. 1

Footnotes

1 One Law For All report, p8.

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