Don’t believe the Lord Chief Justice any more than the Archbishop of Canterbury, say Stephen Schwartz and Irfan Al-Alawi
A senior establishment figure has once more raised the question of whether sharia law should be introduced as a parallel system of justice for British Muslims. Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, was following in the footsteps of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who in February suggested that the institutionalisation of unspecified aspects of sharia law is ‘unavoidable’.
Rowan Williams gave the appearance of mere cluelessness; discussing sharia in a vague, multiculturalist manner apparently intended to project warm feelings toward British Muslims. But Lord Phillips, in attempting to move from nebulous clichés to specifics, has done far more damage than the Archbishop.
For non-Muslim authorities to propose the introduction of sharia as a legal standard for Muslims in any non-Muslim land is not only absurdly patronising and discriminatory, but also violates the canons of traditional sharia law. Sharia has always held that Muslims emigrating to non-Muslim lands are obliged to accept the laws and customs of their new homes, and must not attempt to change them in an Islamic direction. Precedent for this goes back to the counsel of the Prophet Mohammed himself, when his followers, persecuted in Mecca, sought a temporary refuge in the nearby Christian kingdom of Ethiopia.
Iraqi Shia Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the world’s preeminent sharia authorities, teaches that, ‘If [a Muslim] has given [a non-Muslim government] a commitment — even if indirectly (as is implied in the immigration documents) — to abide by the laws of that country, it is necessary for him to fulfil his commitment.’ If they cannot do this, they should return to Muslim territory.
Soon after Archbishop Williams’s gaffe the Centre for Islamic Pluralism conducted a field survey of attitudes towards sharia in the main Muslim communities in Britain. We visited Birmingham, Manchester, Bolton, Bradford, Sheffield and Leicester, in addition to ongoing and extensive investigations in London’s East End. Interviewees included imams, muftis (legal authorities), spiritual shaykhs, British Muslim barristers and solicitors, social workers and rank-and-file mosque attendees. The full results will be published, with similar data from Germany, Holland, France and Spain, next year.
Our survey was made easier by Muslim debate over the Williams affair. The overwhelming majority of our sample — we estimate a minimum of 65 per cent — brusquely repudiated the imposition of sharia in Britain and even expressed resentment at the interference of individuals like the Archbishop in British Muslim affairs.
Unfortunately, the real beliefs of British Muslims are unlikely to get sufficient attention either from non-Muslim leaders or from most of the British media. For the elite, multiculturalism is the order of the day, and sharia must be offered, notwithstanding the utter ignorance of it among the non-Muslims who advocate it. In the tabloids, sharia is identified with such punishments as the stoning of adulterers — an issue Lord Phillips ineptly tried to address. Little sensible commentary may be expected from the public prints.
At the Madina Mosque in Bolton it was pointed out to us that tens of thousands of British Muslims practise as solicitors and barristers, and have no interest in surrendering their positions to sharia advocates. A parallel system of sharia law would be a disaster for the British Muslim community, producing legal chaos, according to the barrister Aseid Malik. British Muslim legal professionals observe that Islamist radicals prefer to enter the scientific and medical professions, because there they can avoid participation in the British ‘unbeliever’ state required of solicitors and barristers.
Maulana Mufti Ayoob Ashrafi, a leading British Muslim traditional jurist, opposed the introduction of sharia, asking why Islamic law must be introduced in non-Muslim societies when it does not function in the majority of Muslim countries. At present, only Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and some remote areas of Africa and south-east Asia grant precedence to sharia over European-originated civil law — another surprise, no doubt, to most non-Muslims.
We conducted a significant part of our survey in Bradford, the city widely known as ‘Little Pakistan’. Sayyid Irfan Shah, a jurist known as ‘the Lion of Bradford’, who maintains a girls’ school, also rejected the intrusion of sharia in Britain. He declared that Muslim opponents of the introduction of sharia are much more sophisticated in their understanding of the distinctions between private and public law than many non-Muslim critics of Islam in Britain.
Tasleem Ahmed, a Muslim woman employed at the Bradford Advice Centre, administers community programmes to assist Muslim women with economic and social problems. She observed that women seldom attend mosque services or apply at mosques for help with their problems, and that, failing to gain support in their families, homes, and local communities, they may go to informal sharia courts for assistance in marriage and divorce cases, even though the latter tribunals — the most notorious functioning in east London — charge thousands of pounds for decisions that are almost always improvised and may not even conform to traditional Islamic law. Ms Ahmed said that because British Muslim women do not know their British civil rights, they have an incentive to turn to sharia.
Lord Phillips sought to mitigate the fear of the British non-Muslim public regarding sharia punishment for moral and criminal offences by arguing that it would be limited to the financial and marital areas. But the experience of British Muslim women with the sharia divorce courts demonstrates just how dangerous this seemingly anodyne proposal is. The sharia divorce courts are in the hands of radicals who use them to promote extremist ideology while making money. The same outcome would be likely if sharia courts were granted authority for mediation of financial disputes.
Nearly everywhere we went, Muslims rejected the idea of incorporating sharia into British law. In Sheffield, Muhammad Islam Qadri, a prominent religious activist, declared ‘the demand for sharia is a political slogan from which the Sunnis will not benefit’. In Leicester, Britain’s main centre of radical Islam, local leader Mohammed Ramzan asked, ‘Who is Rowan Williams? His comments were unimportant; he is not a political leader like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.’ He also criticised the British authorities for supporting ‘dialogue’ with Islamic fundamentalists and stated that the problem facing British Muslims is terrorism, not a lack of sharia. According to our findings, Lord Phillips’s speech will be seen by most British Muslims in a similarly disapproving light.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 12, 2008