Top Ex-Bishop Slams UK Gov’s Sharia Courts Review

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The former Bishop of Rochester lambasted the British government over its review of sharia law. Ordered while current Prime Minister Theresa May was still home secretary, the review assesses the role of sharia councils and courts in the UK.

The Right Rev Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, who was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, said that sharia is incompatible with the British justice system and therefore the review is a waste of time.

The review’s stated goal is “to explore whether, and to what extent, the application of sharia law may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales. It will examine the ways in which sharia may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values and cause social harms.”

Nazir-Ali objected to the reviews focus solely on application, rather than focusing on sharia in general.

“It asks whether the ‘application’ of sharia is incompatible with English law, when it should be asking whether sharia itself is incompatible with English law,” he said in written evidence submitted to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.  

“If sharia is recognised in any way in terms of the public law, it will introduce a principle of contradiction in the body of the law, which will cause enormous problems,” he added. 

His comments mirror the objections of other groups such as the “One Law For All” campaign, which lobbies for the abolition of faith-based arbitration courts in general and sharia courts in particular.

Yet there is an issue with the approach taken by such campaigners, outlined eloquently by Mohammed Amin, a prominent British Muslim commentator.

In criticizing a private members bill put forward in the House of Lords by anti-sharia campaigner Baroness Cox, he writes the following:

When a Shariah council (or an individual religious scholar) gives a ruling that a particular woman’s religious marriage has ended, despite her husband not having given her a religious divorce himself, that body is engaged in a function that is purely religious. The ruling is not given any recognition by the state, just as the religious marriage itself was not recognised by the state. The ruling derives any effectiveness that it may have purely from the willingness of the woman, her future husband, and their Muslim relatives and friends to regard it as having some religious significance. It means that the woman and her intended husband can have a religious marriage and then engage in sexual intercourse without committing a sin.

The Arbitration Act 1996 is irrelevant to the operation of the Shariah council in this case, just as all other state law is irrelevant. The state can no more tell such a Shariah council how to give its religious opinions than it can instruct a Roman Catholic priest whether he should forgive a particular sinner in the confessional booth.”

In other words, in the eyes of the state, sharia law is not something that exists in the UK. If individuals agree to bind themselves by a certain code, of any kind, and the people who arbitrate that code have no means beyond social pressure to force people to obey, then legally the state has no ability to prevent that from happening. Nor would it make any sense for the state to have that power.

In the eyes of the British government, a sharia marriage is no more a marriage than a simple verbal agreement between two people who say they are married. The only rights the sharia courts have are as arbitration courts, which require the consent of those going to them and function as any other arbitration courts.

Calls to ban sharia courts, therefore, are foolish and impractical.

Yet abuses clearly are taking place, which the government acknowledges. How exactly to deal with that and what changes (if any) the government will make to existing laws remains to be seen.

A more detailed analysis of the issues surrounding sharia in the UK is covered in Dr. Elham Manea’s excellent book Women and Sharia Law, which specifically looks at some of the human rights problems relating to sharia councils in the UK.  

The government’s review is expected to be published in 2017. 

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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