by Stephen Schwartz
07/09/2008 12:00:00 AM
THE INCOHERENT DEBATE over sharia, or Islamic law, continues in Britain. The main culprit: multicultural confusion among non-Muslim leaders. In February, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argued that the introduction of sharia as a separate legal system for British Muslims is “unavoidable” (see this article). Williams’s comments produced widespread alarm and condemnation, so Britain’s Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers then stepped in. (He’s the rough equivalent of our Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but with more latitude for public tomfoolery.)
Phillips declared early this month that family and business disputes can be submitted to sharia mediation in Britain. He was careful to specify that “hudud” punishments for moral and criminal charges, such as flogging, stoning of adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, and capital sentences should not be imposed under sharia in Britain. But even his language regarding marital and commercial matters was off the mark.
At first glance, letting religious courts handle family and business disputes through voluntary mediation might seem harmless, and radical Muslim advocates of using sharia in Western countries often cite the precedent under which a Jewish religious court, or beth din, will settle such disputes between commmunity members who agree to have them so settled. But this assumes a lack of coercion and free recourse to the civil justice system as an alternative, conditions that don’t prevail when dealing with some powerful and well-funded radical Islamic clerics.
In Britain, for instance, the problems of Islamic family relations have already spawned a “Muslim marriage mafia.” Because numerous British Muslim women are wed in Pakistan or India in a religious ceremony, and their nuptials left unregistered in Britain, they cannot obtain divorces in British civil courts. They are therefore drawn to notorious sharia courts operating in East London under the domination of adherents of the fundamentalist Deobandi interpretation of Islam, which produced the Taliban. The clerics running the East London divorce racket extort thousands of pounds from poor Muslim women to grant them divorces. Their decisions are guided only by personal whim, so long as money is handed over.
Submitting financial disagreements to sharia tribunals in Britain would probably produce a similar dominance by radical clerics. Worse, it would support a growing sense of segregation between the broader, non-Muslim country and the Muslim minority. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to Westerners, many British Muslims immigrated because of Britain’s superior legal and social systems, and they are not inclined to give up their access to these in the name of alleged Islamic purity. Indeed, traditional sharia calls on Muslims immigrating to non-Muslim countries to accept the laws and customs in place in their new homes. After the Williams outburst, several local Muslim leaders in Britain noted to me that the demand for sharia tends to be an ideological slogan to mobilize young Muslims. Often, the targeted audience has no idea what sharia is. In a visit to a mosque in Bolton, England, I was surprised when a discussion of Williams elicited a simple question from a young man who had just finished his prayer: “What is sharia?” The young Muslim’s bafflement was unfeigned.
The fixation on sharia is more common, in my observation, among members of the British Muslim elite than among ordinary worshippers. Sharia agitation has become a prominent topic among Muslim medical students in Britain, some of who now refuse to attend classes on alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, and other problems produced by practices banned in Islam. Some even refuse to wash up with alcohol–the use of which for cleaning purposes was never prohibited by sharia.
Jurists like Lord Phillips, no less than his clerical counterpart, Archbishop Williams, should heed the voices of the many British Muslims who reject sharia and other Islamist penetration into their community life. In the name of sensitivity, non-Muslim advocates for sharia are only making things worse for both Muslims and non-Muslims on this island.
Meanwhile, German authorities are going down the same misguided path. They have announced that a new marriage law, to take effect at the beginning of next year, will permit religious weddings to be solemnized without civil registration. But marriages in churches and mosques, if not registered civilly, will exclude the parties from recourse to the courts for divorce, rights of inheritance, and other civil remedies. A young German Muslim of Moroccan background, interviewed at the Islamic Center of Aachen, once considered a vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood but now apparently a fortress of moderation, warned that such changes in marriage law, and encouragement of mosque-only weddings, would obviously open up Germany to the same iniquities seen in Britain today. German Muslim women married only in religious ceremonies who seek divorce would be forced into sharia courts, for divorces subject to the whims and financial shakedowns of clerics.
Worst of all, the young man said, “Nobody asked the Muslims if we wanted this change in the law. Nobody consulted with us. They simply did it, and now we are trying to figure out how to respond. We don’t want such problems in our community.” The treatment of European Muslims as subjects who should be pleased to be handed sharia measures for which they never asked is emerging as an abusive pattern across the continent.
Stephen Schwartz’s latest book, The Other Islam, on Sufism, will be published in September by Doubleday.
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