Last year, the UK began backing up Sharia judgments with the full force and authority of British civil courts. Now, a campaign has been launched to end the operation of all religious courts in Britain --- especially those operating under Islam.
Dubbed “One Law for All”, the campaign commenced not coincidently on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Promoters of the No Sharia Campaign wanted to highlight the contrast between human rights and Sharia law.
In 2007, Sheik Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi discovered a clause in the Arbitration Act of 1996 that he rightly believed he could take advantage of. Under this Act, Sharia courts could be classified as arbitral tribunals. Rulings issued in arbitration are binding by law so long as both parties consent. Siddiqi now heads the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which runs the British Sharia courts.
To date, British Sharia courts have heard over 100 cases issuing legally enforceable judgments. They deal with disputes involving divorce, inheritance and other civil issues as well as “small criminal cases” such as domestic violence. There is a network of five Sharia courts that have been conferred the full power of the judicial system through the county or high courts. Two additional such courts are planned. However, there is evidence that there are many more Sharia courts operating in the UK than those which have been publicly acknowledged.
Sharia courts have operated in Britain for years. But previously they relied on voluntary adherence to rulings and their judgments were not legally enforceable. Enforcement of Sharia court judgments took effect one year after the Archbishop of Canterbury caused a major controversy by declaring that formal recognition of Sharia law “seemed inevitable.” Numerous politicians have expressed concern that the formal backing of Sharia courts marks the beginning of a parallel legal system based on Sharia law, such as exists in Lebanon. Dominic Grieve, shadow home secretary, made clear that he considers the court enforcement of Sharia judgments to be illegal. He emphatically declared that British law is absolute and must remain so. Others agree that Sharia judgments should not be encouraged or enforced by the British courts.
There are numerous problems posed by the official backing of sharia judgements. First, arbitration is permissible only when both parties consent. Evidence shows that in some families and within the Islamic ummah (community), many women are intimidated into submitting to Sharia arbitration and are not truly there based on free will.
Second, the Sharia courts treat men and women very disparately. For example, in inheritance cases, they award the sons twice as much as the daughters. By contrast, British courts award sons and daughters equal amounts. Indeed, the enforcement of Sharia courts was defeated in Canada by Muslim women who complained that they came to Canada to escape the oppression of Sharia meted out in their countries of origin.
Third, the UK has been unsuccessful at integrating Muslims into mainstream society. Sharia courts undermine the efforts of moderate Muslims to assimilate, and make it more difficult for them to come to an understanding of Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.
Finally, a Civita study demonstrates a correlation between Sharia courts and honor killings. While there is no evidence that the courts have ordered murders or beatings, the fact that men are given extreme rights and power over their wives and daughters creates a strong risk that the legitimized control contributes to the exercise of that control through violence.
The underlying principle in allowing parties to consent to arbitration is that they should have the freedom to contract. Parties who consent to arbitration waive their rights to a judge or a jury. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that those who enter into such agreements are truly doing so voluntarily. When they do, arbitration is often a more efficient method to resolve disputes than engaging in long drawn out litigation in court.
Some Muslims argue that so long as there are Beth Din courts (Jewish religious tribunals), Sharia courts must also be permitted. However, there are some notable distinctions. Looking around the globe, there is no evidence that Jews are trying to impose their religious beliefs on others through violence or intimidation. Nor are they promoting the notion of Jewish supremacy. On the contrary, they don’t even believe in proselytizing to non-Jews, and explicitly adhere to the rule that they must abide by the official laws of the country in which they reside. By contrast, there are several radical Islamist movements that are working hard to spread Islamic supremacy through the use of terrorism, intimidation, litigation and disinformation campaigns. In many Muslim majority countries, Muslims and non-Muslims are deemed unequal, the latter being treated as second class citizens. Some of these nations are trying to expand their oppressive laws to other lands through creative legal instruments. A parallel legal system utilizing Sharia courts is likely to constitute one step toward expanding political Islam, rather than serving as the final request for a religious accommodation. Unlike other religions which adhere to the notion of separation of religion and state, Sharia law by definition, embodies a whole way of life. It merges the political and the spiritual. Its goal is to replace democracies with Islamic theocracies.
Finally, even if Sharia courts are permitted to engage in legally binding arbitration, the subject matter over which they are granted jurisdiction should be confined to civil matters. It is imperative that “small criminal matters” such as domestic violence, are limited to British criminal courts. A civil matter involves a wrong done by one private party to another, or a dispute between two or more parties on the issue of money or property. On the other hand, a crime is a wrong perpetrated upon the State. That is why a criminal case can land a murderer in jail, but does not require the murderer to provide restitution to the victim’s family. Criminals prosecuted and convicted for murder or theft go to jail in part to penalize the perpetrator, but also to protect society from the criminal who might do further societal harm if he were free. However, if a victim or victim’s family files a civil lawsuit for wrongful death or other wrongs committed, then the goal is to make the plaintiff whole if he wins his case. The remedy is usually financial compensation.
Therefore, in cases where a man commits a crime such as domestic violence, he not only harms his wife, but wrongs society and tramples on its values. In no case should he be let off with mere “anger management” classes, while the abused wife is encouraged to withdraw her police complaint. Yet, this is often the scenario when Sharia courts hear domestic violence cases.
The advocates of the No Sharia Campaign argue that One Law for All should apply --- and that law is a British secular law. They argue this on the basis of equality for all. They argue this on the basis that Sharia rights for some means less than civil rights for others. They argue this on the basis that in Sharia courts Muslim women will be treated as less than full human beings, worth half the value of their male counterparts. They argue this on the basis that human rights should prevail over the “rights” of religions or ideas. Accordingly, they are advocating that the Arbitration Act of 1996 be amended so as not to allow British court enforcement of any religious edicts.
The One Law for All campaign already has an impressive showing of support from prominent individuals such as Aayan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is a former Dutch Parliamentarian who wrote the script for “Submission”, a documentary about the abuse of women under Islam. The producer of the film, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by radical Muslims who threatened that Hirsi Ali would be killed next. Additionally, numerous human rights organizations enthusiastically support the campaign against Sharia. They include the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and others.
In this battle, let us hope that civil rights triumph over Sharia. Individuals have the right and the freedom to practice the faith of their choosing. However, society must be vigilant in ensuring that the faith of some is not imposed involuntarily on others or impinging on individual rights. Additionally, no belief system should be granted the legitimacy of British law if it usurps the democratic law-making process.
A win for the campaign against Sharia would be a win for human rights, and especially the rights of Muslim women in the UK who might otherwise have no choice but to suffer discrimination at the hands of Islamic jurists. More importantly, it would be a statement to those who hold a radical political ideology cloaked in the name of Islam, that Britain stands for freedom and equality, and will not appease those who seek to subvert it.