Groundbreaking research on Sharia councils in Britain was presented at a debate in the House of Lords on 12th January. Chaired by Labour MP George Howarth, and hosted by the Henry Jackson Society, Dutch academic Machteld Zee spoke on her new book "Choosing Sharia? Multiculturalism, Islamic Fundamentalism and Sharia Councils".
From evidence garnered on Sharia councils in London and Birmingham, Machteld argued that these were leading to 'marital captivity' - an important new addition to the legal lexicon - and called on the UK government to enact Dutch-style laws that allow women whose husbands refuse to grant religious divorce, to undertake civil or criminal proceedings. The crossbencher Baroness Cox has proposed a bill which makes it illegal to treat the evidence of a man as worth more than that of a woman - which is the norm in Sharia councils and Muslim arbitration tribunals.
Also speaking was Dutch legal scholar David Suurland who pointed out that in 2003 and 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that 'Sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy'. He further argued that a laissez faire attitude to Muslim communities had allowed for Salafist and Islamist dialogues to operate beneath the criminal court in the Netherlands. The Dutch solution to this has been the monitoring of all Salafi organisations, in particular of rigorous checks on the sources of funding of new mosques from outside of Netherlands.
It was refreshing to witness two young Dutch scholars making powerful presentations to British parliamentarians, the press, and other interested parties at a packed event, and calling on the UK government to follow the lead given by the government of the Netherlands with respect to these unsavoury phenomena.
In my presentation, I tried to explain the reasons for the appeal of Sharia jurisdiction among some British Muslims. What is being demanded seems to be pretty minimal - restricted to family law focusing on marriage, divorce, and maintenance. There is certainly no call for Sharia laws being applied to criminal matters such as theft, violence, and murder, so that there is no question of punishments that are rife in some Muslim countries, such as amputations of limbs for theft, beheadings, crucifixion, lashes, and stoning to death for various criminal offences. That said, in a 2008 Channel 4 documentary 'Divorce Sharia style', the Secretary General of the Islamic Sharia Council, Suhaib Hasan, averred that if Sharia law was implemented in Britain: 'then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief's hand is cut off nobody is going to steal. Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all. We want to offer it to the British society'.
But why are some Muslim citizens of this country, living under a legal system that ensures equality before the law, choosing for Sharia? Remember that this is a legal code that systematically discriminates against women, children, apostates, blasphemers, non-believers (infidels), adulterers, and homosexuals. My argument is that such separatist demands stem from the problems that have become entrenched in our supposedly multicultural society. The origins of this view actually have good intentions: in a free society, people should be free to lead lives as they wish without government restrictions. This was also meant to be anti-racist whereby the cultures and religions of newly-settled ethnic minorities should be shown respect.
But, sadly, many a road to hell is paved with good intentions. Under multiculturalism and its successor, multifaithism, this separatist dynamic has been allowed free rein. Britain like other West European countries has generally accommodated to Muslim demands - the latest example is of changing the exam schedule during the Ramadan fasting month. So there has been little need for Muslims to integrate into an increasingly irreligious mainstream society. Unsurprisingly, the result is that we are living in a country with high levels of segregation of Muslims and of other religious-ethnic communities. But it does seem to be especially true of large numbers of Muslims. At its extreme, some have become 'psychically detached' from the rest of society so that even though they are geographically located in the UK and Europe, their mode of thinking, belonging, and living is rooted elsewhere: that is, their alienation from the host society is such that they might as well be living in another land. They have values, beliefs, and practices that are profoundly different to those of mainstream society. Because of segregation, they have few interpersonal relationships with those who are not Muslim and they show little identification with the host society. Indeed, for radicalised Muslims, who wish to fly the banner of jihad, the rejection of the host society can reach violent, terrorising, levels.
So given this reality, it is not surprising that there are demands by some Muslims for aspects of Sharia as an alternative to the law of the land. The danger is that this can be a slippery slope to a parallel legal system, what is known as legal pluralism. Rather than a universal legal system, we risk different laws for different people.
There has been far too much concern that rejecting separatist demands from Muslims - which in reality are privileges - is seen as racist or Islamophobic. But it is no such thing. There is mounting evidence that in Britain and in other west European countries, the population at large is very much concerned by what has come to pass. For example, two opinion polls last year (by Survation and YouGov) found that only 22% of the population think that the values of Islam are compatible with the values of British society. Similar attitudes exist in other EU countries. In Germany, a survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation in January 2015 found that 57% of Germans considered Islam "very much" or "somewhat" of a threat and that 61% believe that Islam is "incompatible with the western world". In France, an opinion poll conducted by IFOP in October 2012 found that 60% of respondents consider the influence and visibility of Islam in France are too high, and that 43% of French believe the presence of a Muslim community in France is a threat to the French identity; only 17% consider this is a source of enrichment. Given the events in Paris last year, these poll numbers will have undoubtedly worsened.
Therefore, in the interests of the better integration of Muslims and of a more socially cohesive society, the government must stop acceding to Muslim pleas for special treatment. They should pay heed to the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and to follow the example of Dalton McGuinty, the premier of Ontario, Canada who gave the following assurance in September 2005 when confronted with the same issue: "There will be no Sharia law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians. Religious family courts threaten our common". Precisely the same approach should be applied in the UK.