West London Humanists and Secularists

" Sharia in the UK "
A Talk by Anne Marie Waters - Spokesperson for One Law for All - Meeting 18/10/12

One Law for All is an organisation which opposes the introduction of Sharia law into the UK and says that there should be just one legal system which applies to everyone in the country. Its objections are specifically based on Human Rights grounds. They do not campaign against religion as such, but religion in the law, and have worked with and have followers and supporters who consider themselves Muslims.

Anne Marie started by defining the core of Sharia as the legal system based on the Koran and the Hadith (sayings and actions of the Prophet Mohammed). Sharia law is supplemented by sharia jurisprudence.

A distinction was made between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are Islamic states under sharia, and countries with a Muslim majority such as Indonesia and Malaysia (however Indonesia is experiencing Sharia on some of its islands, leading to a reduction in human rights there). In the former, Sharia is the legal system and is followed rigorously. In the latter countries, the legal systems are largely secular and strict Sharia punishments and penalties do not apply.

Sharia criminal and family law involves many things which One Law for All opposes. Some of the most abhorrent are:

  • Apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality and adultery are all punishable by death, often in a very cruel manner.
  • Women have the status of property and in a Sharia court, their testimony is considered to have only half the weight of a man's. Unlike male divorce applicants, women are requested to bring along two Muslim, male witnesses to corroborate their testimony.
  • A woman claiming to have been raped must have four male witnesses supporting her. Without this she will be considered to have committed adultery.
  • Women have no property rights on divorce
  • A man may unilaterally divorce his wife and may only need to 'declare' the divorce three times in private to do so. By contrast, a woman faces more stringent conditions, perhaps including permission from her husband, payment of money and application to a Sharia 'court'. Moreover, a divorced man is entitled to re-marry. If a woman remarries, she will lose custody of her children. Women may only marry Muslim men.
  • When marriages break up, custody of children aged seven or over is always given to the husband.
  • In Sharia courts, judges will often not speak directly to women, but to those they deem their male representatives. This can be the husband against whom the woman is trying to act. A woman is not even allowed to be present if she is having a period.
  • Sharia does not admit the possibility of marital rape. Indeed, the very suggestion of marital rape is deemed to be an insult to the husband as the Koran states that a married woman should be sexually available to her husband at all times.
An example of the injustice that this creates is the fact that 70% of women imprisoned in Afghanistan are there because they were raped.

Successive UK governments have consistently consulted certain Muslim organisations that purport to be representatives of broad and moderate Muslim opinion in the UK. Two particular bodies (Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain have been given special access to government over and above others, including Muslim women's groups, even in matters of domestic law and women's rights. Two Muslim bodies favoured by successive UK governments have been allowed to set up bodies with charitable status that are aimed at supplying advice and expert arbitration to Muslims who are engaged in domestic disputes.

In the UK the Islamic Sharia Council and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal are the main and largest organisations dealing with disputes and giving judgements according to Sharia Law but there are undoubtedly others, and single mosques. A total of around 85 sharia courts are suspected to exist but it is impossible to know for sure due to the secrecy surrounding it. Although the more extreme Sharia punishments cannot be imposed by these courts, it is inevitable that they are frequently grossly unfair to women given the principles listed above and the fact that the vast majority of the cases they deal with are domestic, covering divorce, child custody and domestic violence. The Koran is also quite clear in encouraging husbands to beat their wives so that, although some judges may be kinder than others, the scene is set for some serious injustice.

Worst of all, the nature of the Muslim community in the UK is that many Muslim women are persuaded that they do not have access to UK law and must go through the Sharia courts/tribunals. Muslim ghettos are leading to a fear that parts of UK will become little caliphates, and some say that Tower Hamlets is well on the way to this. Indeed a judge in the Islamic Sharia Council was recorded in the Channel 4 programme "Undercover Mosque" saying that the goal was the "political dominance" of Islam in the whole of the UK. The police accused the programme makers of inciting race hatred but later withdrew this claim. Although most Muslims would probably never want "Sharia UK", there appears to be a large (and growing) number who do and they are becoming increasingly bold. It was Anne Marie's belief, supported by statements from some Muslim representatives, that the overall aim of the Sharia Tribunals is to remove all domestic disputes involving Muslims from the jurisdiction of UK civil and criminal courts.

Anne Marie then talked to us about the problems of combatting the Sharia problem under four headings:
Choice - Islamists and politically-correct sympathisers, including successive UK governments, claim that Sharia should be allowed because we should be tolerant of other cultures and let people choose how they want to live. This sounds plausible until one asks "Should people have the choice of disobeying the law of the land with impunity?". Also, the women who are deceived into thinking they have no other choice but Sharia are being denied choice and so too are the children who are subject to dubious custody decisions. So far these arguments have not been as successful as one would have hoped, but more traction is now being achieved over the issue of child brides. Just this year a Muslim cleric allegedly offered to marry a 12-year-old girl to a man in his 20s. Imam Mohamed Kassamali is said to have told a Sunday Times undercover reporter posing as a father that he could carry out a ceremony for his school-aged daughter but advised "Tell people it is an engagement, but it will be a marriage".
Disbelief - Some of the things that are happening here in the UK are so shocking that many people just don't want to believe them. In particular it is felt that, if it were true, the government would do something. Audience members sometimes accuse One Law for All of exaggerating or overestimating the scale of the abuse.
Left wing alliances - Certain left-wing organisations have felt it right or expedient to support aspects of the call for Sharia in the UK in order to demonstrate their multiculturalism. Both the Socialist Workers Party and the Stop The War Coalition have held meetings encompassing gender segregation with the women sitting at the back of the hall. This is heart breaking when it is from the left that one would expect strong support for human rights.
Fear - Anyone who opposes Sharia in the UK is likely to receive claims that they are racist and even death threats. Certainly the spokespersons of One Law for All have received both. The intimidation is very widespread however, affecting anyone who wants to speak publicly.

So far opposition to Sharia in the UK appears to have been a slowly losing battle. Some encouragement should be taken from the introduction in the House of Lords on 7 June 2011 of the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill by Baroness Caroline Cox. The bill was up for debate on 24th October 2012 and seeks among other things to make it illegal to falsely claim legal jurisdiction.

Discussion This excellent talk led to some very lively discussion. There was unanimity in believing what Anne Marie had said but additionally a need to better understand why the UK government is doing so little about it:
  • It was agreed that most parties probably thought they would gain more votes by showing support for Sharia but that they were probably mistaken in this. Even in such places as Tower Hamlets, Anne Marie felt the majority of Muslims strongly disapproved of the introduction of Sharia, particularly the women who always clapped the loudest after her speeches.
  • Similarly there might be a fear that coming out strongly against Sharia could encourage anti-Muslim mobs to come out on the streets. Anne Marie felt there was no excuse for this kind of thinking as it should not be difficult to make a clear distinction between being against a legal code and being against a people.
  • It was also suggested, and unanimously agreed, that a major factor was the financial power of Saudi Arabia. The influence it buys in UK mosques and the value of its orders from the UK defence industry make its Wahhabi version of Islam as powerful as it is hard line.
  • It was pointed out that, in the UK, both the Christian and Jewish religions were allowed to hold "courts" for certain matters and that banning Sharia would mean having to ban these as well. One Law for All opposes all religious courts as they work against the equality and rights of women.

It was suggested that in all religions there must surely be some wisdom from which we could all benefit and some interest was specifically shown in knowing more about other parts of the Sharia legal code including guidance on financial matters. When asked to suggest some such nuggets of wisdom in Islam, Anne Marie said she thought there were none that not could exist independently of religion. It was further suggested that many of the nastier things that are associated with Islam, such as female genital mutilation, are tribal traditions that are not part of Sharia but are often thought to be. While Anne Marie agreed that FGM was not part of Sharia law, she said that it was often understood as being an Islamic requirement because it has been alleged by imams that the Prophet Mohammed declared his approval of it - the Muslim Brotherhood for example quotes Mohammed on FGM as endorsing the practice.

Philip Veasey, Oliver Murphy 28/10/2012