Since the 1996 Arbitration Act, government ministers have allowed Islamic tribunals around Britain to rule on a range of financial disputes, provided both parties agree to accept the court's decision. But in recent years, these tribunals have developed into fully fledged Sharia Councils – allowed to settle new disputes, such as divorce, family law, and faith issues. These powers go well beyond the letter and spirit of the original legislation and whilst they provide new ways of dispensing cheap justice they do not always dispense fair justice.
By expanding the powers of Sharia Councils, ministers have set the scene for a breaking narrative which is fractious, discriminates against women, and, incrementally, is establishing a parallel legal system.
As Sharia Councils expand their powers and reach, ministers have unwittingly rolled the dice over a type of cultural snakes and ladders, all in the hope that such initiatives will increase inclusiveness and marginalise Islamic radicals. But all the evidence contradicts ministers' stated aims. Sharia rulings are more likely to create legal ghettos – undermining rather than improving social cohesion. And in so doing, ministers are found guilty of piecemeal legal vandalism and managing the gradual decline of English jurisprudence.
The replacement of legal precedence and common law with Islamic codification is also a gift to some extremist parties who have seized on the increasing numbers of Sharia Councils as more evidence of the demotion of hard fought for British cultural freedoms and laws. And despite the protestations of senior government ministers over recent BNP advances, ministerial alarm calls will ring deep and hollow as long the same ministers continue to advocate two Britains.
The views of the BNP are repugnant, but it should not take BNP electoral gains for ministers to wake up to the fact that social cohesion cannot be predicated on the reality, or the perception, of one rule for one community and a different set of rules for everyone else. Allowing different groups to apply different standards at variants with existing common and statute law is a recipe for resentment and suspicion. This legal dualism also strikes at the very heart the great British virtue of fair play – and all British subjects being united – under one nation.
And as ministers sleepwalk into further fragmenting communities, they still decline to answer the fundamental question: do Muslim women enjoy the same rights under Sharia jurisprudence as under English law? Ministers should not be allowed to obviate when challenged about Islamic teaching on the role, rights, and responsibilities, of women in society. Ministers may choose to evade this issue, but Sharia principles and practices are unlikely to progress the much needed emancipation of Britain’s Muslim women.
With Harriet Harman, the doyenne of Labour’s women’s rights movement, likely to lay the much-trumpeted Equality Bill before Parliament within months, Sharia Councils shine an embarrassing light on how ministers have increasingly relegated and downgraded thousands of Muslim women to de facto second class British citizens, perversely, in the name of tolerance and understanding.
The response of government proponents of Sharia Councils say those who choose to come before Councils do so on a voluntarily basis and that, according to the 1996 Act, parties are free to agree upon how their disputes are resolved. In reality, some Muslim women feel pressured into accepting the rulings of male-dominated Sharia Councils – mostly through fear of retribution and being ostracised – sometimes by their own families.
Women are also losing out in rulings over child custody disputes, which more often rule in favour of men. It is not unimaginable that, in the near future, people from other faiths – and no faith at all – will nominally or genuinely convert to Islam, in the hope of begetting a sympathetic custody hearing and paternal settlement compared to the maternal bias of some English family courts.
Speaking at a justice conference last October, Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, commented:
"There is nothing whatever in English law that prevents people abiding by Sharia principles if they wish to, provided they do not come into conflict with English law”.
Such conflicts occur throughout Britain every week, and with it, the shunning of basic rights for thousands of British Muslim women.
With Britain’s growing Muslim population, the sphere of Sharia Councils is likely to increase still further. This is something that must be resisted by those who believe in tolerance and mutual respect, and by those, including progressives in the Muslim community, who seek to champion the rights of all – including the equal rights of Britain’s female Muslims.