A campaign against Sharia law was launched last week in the UK. Titled "One Law for All", it commenced on the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, drawing attention to the contrast between human rights and Sharia law (Islamic law). Organizers of the campaign believe that Sharia law runs counter to the principles of human rights, freedom, dignity and equality for all.
Approximately one year ago, the UK government began giving Sharia court judgments the backing of British civil law enforcement. Prior to that, Sharia courts were able to issue rulings, but they were not legally enforceable. They relied on the parties' voluntary adherence to the awards.
Then in 2007, Sheik Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi discovered that under a clause in the Arbitration Act of 1996, Sharia courts could be categorized as arbitral tribunals. Arbitral tribunals issue rulings that are binding by law so long as the parties involved consent to arbitration as the means of resolving their dispute. When they do, they waive their rights to have a British judge or jury hear their case. On the other hand, it can be a more efficient means of dispute resolution than courtroom litigation.
Siddiqi now heads up the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which runs five Sharia courts in the UK. Two more such courts are scheduled. From the time they were given the backing of the British civil courts, Sharia courts have heard over 100 cases, issuing legally enforceable rulings. Though they primarily hear cases on divorce, money or property disputes, Sharia courts are increasingly addressing "small criminal matters" such as domestic violence.
Never-the-less, providing British legal authority to Sharia judgments can be very problematic. First, evidence shows that many women in the Muslim community are pressured into submitting to Sharia courts by their families or the Islamic ummah (community). They are not really there on their own volition.
Second, Sharia courts treat men and women very unequally. For example, they typically award twice as much money to sons as they do daughters in inheritance cases. Additionally, they deem a woman's testimony to be worth half that of a man's. Therefore, two woman are required to testify in situations where one man would be sufficient.
Third, the UK has largely failed at assimilating Muslims into mainstream society. Sharia courts will make it more even more difficult for moderate Muslims to integrate into British life. It also makes it harder for Muslims to come to an understanding of Islam that is compatible with notions of tolerance and pluralism.
Some Muslims argue that because religious tribunals exist for Jews (Beth Din courts), Sharia courts must also be allowed. However, there are some important distinctions that should be noted. There is no evidence anywhere around the world that Jews are imposing their religious beliefs on others or adhering to a notion of Jewish supremacy. They do not preach their religion to non-Jews or attempt to persuade others to convert. Nor are they trying to supplant freedom with globalized Jewish law. On the contrary, they adhere to a rule which dictates that they must abide by the laws of the countries in which they live. Sharia law by contrast, does not separate mosque and state. It constitutes a way of life that merges the political with the spiritual. Though undoubtedly there are many freedom loving Muslims around the globe, there are also radical Islamist movements that seek to impose their political ideology wherever possible. Their ultimate goal is to supplant existing governments with Islamic theocracies. Their tactics are evidenced world-wide and take the form of terrorism, coercion, litigation, lobbying, and stifling free speech. Providing Sharia courts with the full force of British law is much more likely to be viewed by radicals as opening the door to achieving their ultimate goals, rather than as a final concession by the British government.
Many British politicians including Dominic Grieve, shadow home secretary, are deeply concerned about the creation of a parallel legal system vis-a-vis Sharia courts. Grieve has declared that it is imperative for British secular law to remain the absolute authority. He believes that backing Sharia rulings with British court enforcement is unlawful.
Even if Sharia courts are deemed permissible in civil cases, it is crucial that they not be allowed to rule on criminal matters. Civil cases are disputes between two or more private parties, often pertaining to torts or matters of money or property. The goal is to make the aggrieved party whole. Therefore, restitution is generally in order, and the remedy is usually financial compensation.
Crimes, however, are wrongs perpetrated upon the State. That is why in murder, theft, robbery or other crimes, no restitution to the victim is ordered. The penalty is imprisonment. The state holds the right to take away a convicted criminal's freedom, partly to punish him, but also to prevent him from committing further harm to society.
Therefore, if a man abuses his wife through domestic violence, he not only hurts her, but commits an affront to societal values. Sharia courts should not be allowed to divert authority away from the British criminal law system. Yet, when Sharia courts hear domestic violence disputes, they often merely order the husband to attend anger management classes and encourage the wife withdraw her police complaint. Sharia courts do not have the authority to jail criminals. However, their use in cases that would otherwise be deemed criminal, can dissuade victims of crime from utilizing the British criminal system.
Proponents of the No Sharia Campaign are requesting that the Arbitration Act of 1996 be amended to allow only one law for all -- a British secular law. They insist that it is inappropriate and undesirable for the British government to endorse any religious rulings by conferring upon them the power of British law enforcement.
The No Sharia Campaign is enthusiastically embraced by a wide range of renowned individuals as well as numerous human rights organizations. If the campaign achieves its goal, it will be a victory for human rights and the rights of Muslim women in Britain. It will also send the much needed message that Britain will not subordinate its values to Sharia law and refuses to incrementally relinquish its freedom.
Deborah Weiss is an attorney and a freelance writer.