The Big Question: How do Britain's sharia courts work, and are they a good thing?

Why are we asking this now?

Civitas, an independent research organisation, has issued a report saying that there are many more sharia courts operating in the United Kingdom than we thought. It was known that there were such courts operating in London, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham and Nuneaton, but no-one knows how many there are. By examining online fatwa sites, the author calculated that there at least 85, most operating out of mosques, but some located in cafes or Muslim schools across the country.



What is a sharia court?

The Muslim writer Tariq Ramadan lamented that "In the West, the idea of sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam ... Many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word."

Sharia is linked with another word, "fatwa", which first entered British public's consciousness courtesy of Ayatollah Khomeini's pronouncement that Salman Rushdie should be killed for writing his novel Satanic Verses. Actually, "fatwa" is a traditional word for a sharia legal judgement or opinion and need not have such negative connotations, and in the UK sharia courts are a means of settling marital or financial disputes between Muslims without the expense of going to court.

How was the figure of 85 reached?

A network called the Islamic Sharia Council, run from a converted corner shop in Leyton, operates 13 tribunals in the UK. The Association of Muslim Lawyers runs another three. There are three other formal councils, making 19. But there are other informal councils dotted around the country whose existence can be imputed from online fatwa sites – at least 66, if Civitas is correct, though the fact is that no one knows exactly how many there are.



Are sharia courts legal?

The existence of these courts is controversial, and some rulings recorded on fatwa sites clearly conflict with British law – for instance, that a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts, and if she does, her children should be taken away from her; or that a wife should normally obey a man's summons to have sex; that a divorced wife has no property rights; or that homosexuality should be severely punished.

But if a married couple choose to take their marital problems to a religious leader, or if Muslim businessmen appeal to a cleric to settle a financial dispute, that is their affair, assuming that both parties are there voluntarily. In such cases, the issue is not whether a fatwa issued by a sharia court is against the law but whether it has any force in law.



Why should any British court recognise a fatwa?

In 1996, Parliament passed the Arbitration Act setting out rules under which parties in a dispute have the right to go to an impartial tribunal to get justice without expensive litigation. Muslims lawyers interpreted this as meaning that sharia courts could act as arbitration panels under the Act, they began in 2007, and their decisions are legally binding.



Why did the Church of England back sharia courts?

In February last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, caused a storm of protest when he said during an interview on BBC Radio 4, that "certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law." He was accused of advocating a parallel legal system for British Muslims, but Lambeth Palace insisted that he was simply saying that to achieve social cohesion in this country, we should recognise that thousands of Muslims want their affairs settled under sharia law. Five months later, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Philips, shocked a many people when he backed the Archbishop, saying: "There is no reason why principles of sharia law, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution."



Why should Muslims get this special treatment?

One argument is that they are not the only ones. Jewish Beth Din courts have operated in this country for centuries, used mainly by Orthodox Jews, and are recognised under the 1996 Act. Both parties in a case have to be Jews, and have to agree to have their cases heard by the Beth Din court.



What is wrong with sharia courts?

On International Women's Day, in March, there was a huge demonstration in London, backed by feminists, supporters of gay rights and others – including a substantial number of Muslims – who marched under a banner saying: "No sharia and faith-based laws – one law for all." They claimed that the supposedly voluntary nature of the courts is a sham, because many Muslim women are pressured into accepting their rulings, and that sharia courts dispense cheap injustice. Denis MacEoin, author of the Civitas report, argues: "Women are not equal in sharia law, and sharia contains no specific commitment to the best interests of the child that is fundamental to family law in the UK. Under sharia, a male child belongs to the father after the age of seven, regardless of circumstances." The Muslim Council of Britain says that this talk is "scaremongering".



What do the courts' defenders say?

Sheik Sayeed, president of the Leyton-based Islamic Sharia Council told the BBC earlier this year that the majority of the cases they handle are divorce cases, mainly involving women wanting to escape bad or forced marriages. "What we do is, we try to make their guardians, their parents, understand the Islamic position, and also we tell them what is the position of British law on marriage," he said. According to Najma Ebrahim, a former coordinator with the Muslim Women's Helpline, it is vital for some women's religious faith and peace of mind that they get this reassurance from a cleric.



Are there any other aspects of British life where sharia law applies?

It might surprise many people to know that the Treasury enthusiastically supports the spread of sharia-compliant banking, which now has 40,000 customers. Mortgages were a problem for Muslims, because they involve paying interest – until the banks devised sharia-compliant equivalents. These attracted double stamp duty, until the Treasury altered the Stamp Duty Land Tax in 2003 to benefit Muslim homeowners.



Is there any objection to sharia-compliant banks?

It might seem wholly reasonable that banks should devise ways of doing business that do not offend their customers' beliefs – but in the current issue of the conservative magazine Standpoint, the writer Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens sounds a warning: "It has one effect that is strong and unmistakable: it reinforces the perception of mutual incompatibility between the West and Islam. Muslims and Western governments alike have a duty to weigh this dangerous quality against sharia banking's highly dubious religious and economic credentials."

Should sharia courts play an active role in British society?

Yes

*Everyone, including devout Muslims, should have the right to settle personal disputes in front of the tribunal of their choice

*Many Muslim women feel the need for a cleric's reassurance that they can break a forced marriage

*They give Muslims a facility already available to Orthodox Jews

No

*Sharia law does not recognise women's equality, or gay rights, or religious freedom

*Though participation is supposed to be voluntary, women in particular are likely to be pressured into accepting sharia law

*Sharia courts unnecessarily exacerbate the divisions between Muslim and western societies

a.mcsmith@independent.co.uk

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