Britain grapples with role for Islamic justice
By Elaine Sciolino
International Herald Tribune
Published: November 19, 2008
LONDON: The woman in black wanted an Islamic divorce. She told the religious judge that her husband hit her, cursed her and wanted her dead.
But her husband was opposed, and the Islamic scholar adjudicating the case seemed determined to keep the couple together. So, sensing defeat, she brought our her secret weapon: her father.
In walked a bearded man in long robes who described his son-in-law as a hot-tempered man who had duped his daughter, evaded the police and humiliated his family.
The judge promptly reversed himself and recommended divorce.
This is Islamic justice, British style. Despite a raucous national debate over the limits of religious tolerance and the pre-eminence of British law, the tenets of Shariah, or Islamic law, are increasingly being applied to everyday life in cities across the country.
The Church of England has its own ecclesiastical courts. British Jews have had their own “beth din” courts for more than a century.
But ever since the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, called in February for aspects of Islamic Shariah to be embraced alongside the traditional legal system, the government has been grappling with a public furor over the issue, assuaging critics while trying to reassure a wary and at times disaffected Muslim population that its traditions have a place in British society.
Boxed between the two, the government has taken a stance both cautious and confusing, a sign of how volatile almost any discussion of the role of Britain's nearly two million Muslims can become.
“There is nothing whatever in English law that prevents people abiding by Shariah principles if they wish to, provided they do not come into conflict with English law,” the justice minister, Jack Straw, said last month. But he added that British law would “always remain supreme,” and that “regardless of religious belief, we are all equal before the law.”
Conservatives and liberals alike many of them unaware that the Islamic courts had been functioning at all, much less for years have repeatedly denounced the courts as poor substitutes for British jurisprudence.
They argue that the Islamic tribunals' proceedings are secretive, with no accountability and no standards for judges' training or decisions.
Critics also point to cases of domestic violence in which Islamic scholars have tried to keep marriages together by ordering husbands to take classes in anger management, leaving the wives so intimidated that they have withdrawn their complaints from the police.
“They're hostages to fortune,” said Parvin Ali, founding director of the Fatima Women's Network, a women's help group based in Leicester. Speaking of the courts, she said, “There is no outside monitoring, no protection, no records kept, no guarantee that justice will prevail.”
But as the uproar continues, the popularity of the courts among Muslims has blossomed.
Some of the informal councils, as the courts are known, have been giving advice and handing down judgments to Muslims for more than two decades.
Yet the councils have expanded significantly in number and prominence in recent years, with some Islamic scholars reporting a 50 percent increase in cases since 2005.
Almost all of the cases involve women asking for divorce, and through word of mouth and an ambitious use of the Internet, courts like the small, unadorned building in London where the father stepped in to plead his daughter's case have become magnets for Muslim women seeking to escape loveless marriages not only from Britain but sometimes also from Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Other cases involve disputes over property, labor, inheritances and physical injury. The tribunals stay away from criminal cases that might call for the imposition of punishments like lashing or stoning.
Indeed, most of the courts' judgments have no standing under British civil law. But for the parties who come before them, the courts offer something more important: the imprimatur of God.
“We do not want to give the impression that Muslims are an isolated community seeking a separate legal system in this country,” said Shahid Raza, who adjudicates disputes from an Islamic center in the West London suburb of Ealing.
“We are not asking for criminal Shariah law chopping of hands or stoning to death,” he continued. “Ninety-nine percent of our cases are divorce cases in which women are seeking relief. We are helping women. We are doing a service.”
Still, there is ample room for clashes with British custom. Three months ago, for example, a wealthy Bangladeshi family asked Dr. Raza's council to resolve an inheritance dispute. It was resolved according to Shariah, he said. That meant the male heirs received twice as much as the female heirs.