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Why critics of the Home Office’s Shariah Law Review are wrong

The critics fail to understand that people's behaviour is governed by their personal religious beliefs, in addition to being governed by civil law.

Summary

31 July 2016

On 26 May 2016, the Government announced the details of a review into the operation of Shariah law in Britain. While Muslims have said relatively little about the review, it has been attacked by a number of non-Muslims even before it has started detailed work, let alone reported.

These attacks drove me to write a piece for Conservative Home. You can read it below.

Mohammed Amin: Most critics of the Home Office’s Shariah Law Review have missed the point

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

On 23 March 2015, the Coalition government’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, gave an important speech on extremism. One of the key announcement paragraphs is reproduced below:

“There are some areas where – like in the application of Shari’a law – we know enough to know we have a problem, but we do not yet know the full extent of the problem. For example, there is evidence of women being “divorced” under Shari’a law and left in penury, wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because Shari’a councils say a husband has a right to “chastise”, and Shari’a councils giving the testimony of a woman only half the weight of the testimony of a man. We will therefore commission an independent figure to complete an investigation into the application of Shari’a law in England and Wales.”

A fortnight later I wrote a piece on Conservative Home generally supporting the speech. On the Shariah law review, I emphasised the need for a credible independent figure:

“If the “independent figure” Theresa May mentions in her speech does not have credibility with British Muslims, then the entire exercise will be a waste of time. In my view the independent figure must be a Muslim; why would most British Muslims give credence to a non-Muslim on fundamental matters of Islamic doctrine? Furthermore the individual needs to be seen as knowledgeable on Shariah which requires somebody who is qualified as an Islamic scholar. If Mrs May selects a Muslim like me who does not have the appropriate credentials, (I am not available) the exercise will also fail to convince.”

The launch of the enquiry

Government initiatives often take a long time. The Home Office finally launched the enquiry on 26 May 2016. It said the following about the composition of the panel (hyperlinks added by me):

“The review will be chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, an internationally renowned expert in Islamic and inter-religious studies who was appointed OBE for her services to inter-faith relations. Professor Siddiqui will lead a panel of experts that includes experienced family law barrister Sam Momtaz, retired high court judge Sir Mark Hedley and specialist family law lawyer Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC.

The panel will be advised by 2 religious and theological experts – Imam Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi and Imam Qari Asim. They will ensure the panel has a full and thorough understanding of the religious and theological issues relating to specific aspects of sharia law, and the way it is applied.”

I am delighted by the composition of the review team. Led by a highly respected academic, it combines deep expertise in English law with a proper understanding of Shia and Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Accordingly, I look forward to eventual publication of the findings of the review.

Muslim criticism of the review

A good sign that the Home Office got it right with the composition of the review team is that Muslim criticism has been pleasantly muted. When I searched, apart from the odd tweet, the only substantive thing I found was a mainly descriptive article on 5Pillars which quoted Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission as saying that the review was “an outrage” while disparaging the team. Reading Shadjareh’s criticism leaves me wondering if he had bothered to see who the team were before attacking them.

While I cannot find Muslim organisations praising the enquiry, either, in my opinion the Home Office can take the general silence as constituting widespread acceptance that the review team is credible in the eyes of British Muslims.

Non-Muslim criticism of the review

Far right groups such as Britain First, who are no friends of Muslims, have of course been venomous about the review. They merit no response.

More significantly, the website sister-hood.com describes itself as spotlighting “the voices of women of Muslim heritage” who of course may or may not currently be Muslims. It has published an “Open letter to the Home Secretary: The law and not religion is basis of justice for citizens” which has 197 signatories, both individuals and organisations. A review of the signatories suggests that many of them are not, and never have been, Muslims. The open letter does not purport to be written from a Muslim perspective, which is why I have categorised it in this section.

One of the signatories, Maryam Namazie, who describes herself as an ex-Muslim and is, I believe, an atheist has also written about her concerns on Sedaa.com.

What the non-Muslim critics fail to understand

As I have written on Conservative Home, Muslim women do get a raw deal from the asymmetric divorce rules in Islam. There are clear remedies, mentioned in my article, but they need better publicity and more take up. However, ignoring the importance of religious belief, as the 197 signatories do, means that their prescriptions are simply unable to engage with the real problems.

As a simple example from another religion, one of my Roman Catholic friends had a failed marriage. Obtaining a civil divorce was straightforward. However, he was unable to get married to the Roman Catholic woman who is now his second wife until the Church had formally annulled his first marriage. The British state had no power to give him that annulment, and no amount of feminist complaining that it is not fair that the male-dominated RC Church has the power to decide such issues would make any difference. Religious beliefs matter, because the people who hold those religious beliefs think they matter.

Simply wishing that Muslim men and women did not hold religious views that influence their behaviour, which is clearly the implicit (though not explicit) position of the 197 signatories results in their complaints being frankly vacuous.

Conservative Home readers' comments

The piece attracted a large number of comments. These can no longer be read due to the site's housekeeping.

Some comments were favourable, but most were hostile.

The critical commenters were almost all guilty of the same mistake as the non-Muslim critics I mentioned in the main piece. Specifically, they fail to understand that religious people's behaviour is not just governed by the civil law; it is also governed by their personal religious beliefs, even if those personal religious beliefs have no legal force.

After reading a number of mistaken comments along the above lines, I wrote a consolidated response which I have reproduced below:

Having read all of the comments preceding this response, I believe that many (but not all) of those commenting have failed to understand that they are required to think about two separate frameworks.

The first framework is the civil law, in other words the law of the land, enforced by the state. In England & Wales it is English law. (For simplicity I ignore Scotland and Northern Ireland.) While there are some Muslim extremists who would like to replace English law in whole or in part with Shariah, I am not one of them, and the review is not looking at that.

The second framework is the religious beliefs of individual citizens. Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism all have rules that their adherents are expected to follow. There are no temporal sanctions from failure to follow those rules, apart possibly from social ostracism, and there is no question of the state enforcing those rules. However those rules often cause real hardship.

Knowing the Jewish community well, I am acutely conscious of the problem of "agunot" (chained women) whose marriages have failed but whose husbands will not give them a "get" (Jewish religious divorce), without which the woman cannot remarry under the Jewish religion. She can of course have a civil wedding, but to a religious Jew that is insufficient, as it is for a religious Muslim.

Until one is able to think in these two independent frames of reference, at the same time, one will fail to understand the problems that the review team is investigating.

Further reading

In addition to the pages linked in the main piece, there are some other pieces on this website which also address the problems of religious marriages and divorces, which I have listed below:

A detailed review of Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill [HL] 2015-16

Why shorter explanation of why Baroness Cox’s "Shariah Law" Bill is misconceived

Marriage tips for Muslim women (and men)

While not about marriage, some of the issues on Shariah in the UK are also discussed in my reflection on the "Shariah wills" hysteria.

 

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