Christina Patterson: Two legal systems, and two choices. Which do we want?

A big chunk of our population waits for the edicts of men schooled in a medieval interpretation of a 1,500-year-old religion

Christina Patterson
Wednesday 03 August 2011 00:00

We all know people who are going through it. We all know people who can no longer bear to share the same house, or bed, or air, with someone they might once have loved. We all know people who would do pretty much anything to get away from their partner, but pretty much anything to stay with their child. We all know people who are trapped in the agony of love gone stale, and love they can't bear to lose.

But at least those people we know who are going through it can make their own decisions about what to do. In some countries, you can't. In Iran, for instance, you can't just sit down, and have a chat, and work out where your child spends his weekdays, and where he spends his weekends. In Iran, you have to go to a special court, and tell a man with a beard about your problem, and he'll tell you what you have to do. And if, for example, you have an argument with a neighbour, or someone who's doing some work for you, you will also go to that man, and he will listen to the neighbour, or the person who did the work for you, or the husband of the person who did the work for you, and decide who is telling the truth, and who isn't. And who goes to prison, or pays a fine.

In A Separation, which is one of the best films of the year so far, set in present-day Tehran, the couple who are in the process of separating start off, and end, in court. In between the two hearings, they spend a lot of time waiting in a corridor, surrounded by people shackled in chains. Sometimes, they're called back into the court, and told about other things they're accused of, other things that have nothing to do with their marriage. And they know that the man who will decide whether they did the things they're accused of, will be prosecutor, judge, and jury. A prosecutor, judge, and jury certified in Islamic law.

This is what happens when you have a "law of retribution", assembled by scholars who take a literal reading of a 1,500-year-old text, and use it as the law of the land. This is why you get women like Sahineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who spent five years in prison, and was given 99 lashes, and this time last year was nearly stoned to death, because a man with a beard said she had sex with someone she wasn't married to. This is why you get women like Ameneh Bahrami deciding, before she changed her mind on Sunday, that the man who poured sulphuric acid on her eyes, and blinded her, should have sulphuric acid poured on his.

This doesn't, thank God, Allah, or whoever, happen here. In this country, you can't get sent to prison (at least for more than a few months) without a judge and a lawyer and a jury. In this country, you can't have a man with a beard deciding that if you've had sex with someone who isn't your husband, you can be stoned to death, or flogged. In this country, you can't have a man deciding that the hand that stole a Mars Bar should be cut off. But in Saudi Arabia, which funds a lot of our mosques, and schools, and cultural centres, you can. And in this country, quite a lot of people, and in particular quite a lot of young men, don't want us to have the legal system with the lawyers, and the judges and the juries. They want us to have the legal system with the whips, and the beards, and the stones.

In this country, we don't have Sharia courts – courts which turn a religious code for living into an actual legal system – but we do have at least 85 Sharia councils. And we have a growing number of people who are trying to turn whole areas, like Waltham Forest, into "Sharia controlled zones", and who are sticking stickers saying things like "no alcohol, no gambling, no music or concerts, no porn or prostitution, no drugs, no smoking" in shop windows, and saying that they will patrol the streets to enforce the Sharia code. And we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who thinks it might be a good idea for some of those Sharia councils to become, in certain areas, for example to do with money, or marital disputes, Sharia courts.

At the moment, the Sharia councils are, according to Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the former general secretary of the Muslim Council of Great Britain (and a kind, intelligent, peace-loving man), "a place where people go for advice". They are, he told me, "not legally enforceable". It is, he says, like "personal counselling", and all about "individual choice".

Dr Bari is right that they are not, at the moment, legally enforceable, and he's right that they're meant to guide, and not to force. But I'm not sure that all the people who use them, and particularly the women who can't speak much English, and have never been near a real court of law, and who might go to a Sharia council, and be told that they should stay with their husband, who may be hitting them, know this, too. And I'm absolutely sure that those councils are not all run by highly educated, moderate Muslims like him.

Most of them, according to Fiyaz Mughal, the Muslim director of an organisation called Faith Matters, are run by men over 60 who "don't have a clue what happens in life in this country" and "will give you an autocratic, dictatorial line". Sharia, he told me, "was never meant to be an imposition on communities". Young Muslims, he said, need to be given the opportunity, "to revive the 500-year-old Muslim tradition of healthy debate".

God (or Allah, or whoever) only knows how we've got ourselves into this position, where a big chunk of our population waits for the edicts of men schooled in a medieval interpretation of a 1,500-year-old religion, with medieval views on freedom of expression, homosexuality and women's rights. Some of it, clearly, is a result of a Labour government which thought it didn't matter what you believed as long as you were sincere, even if that sincere belief meant wanting you dead.

Most of the Muslims now fasting for Ramadan in this country just want to live, and work, and worship, in peace. They are happy to live in a country which allows them to do this, and which protects their rights, as people, or women, or workers, when things go wrong. They don't want Sharia courts, or Sharia law, or Sharia "zones". We have given far, far too much power to the people who do.;

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