Lecture to Conway Hall Ethical Society
by Anne Marie Waters
9 June 2013
The official number of sharia tribunals and councils in the United Kingdom is 85; this is a figure reached in a Civitas report in 2009. The real figure is likely to be far higher and it is a figure that should trouble all of us who believe in human rights and secular democracy.
This is a controversial issue, and one which must be taken in both a wider national and an international context. The words “sharia law” invoke certain images: images of beheadings and amputations and a monstrous treatment of women and girls. However, as Maryam Namazie writes “the image of sharia is draconian because the reality is draconian”.
It is not propaganda or prejudice to describe sharia law as including many human rights violations, that is simply the reality in places where sharia law is practised. It is important of course to distinguish between Muslim majority countries and those run under sharia law: these are not the same thing. Not all Muslim majority nations are nations under sharia law, but the threat of sharia is spreading: a case in point being the country of Indonesia. Indonesia has long been recognised as a peaceful and “moderate” country where democracy and Islam live in harmony side by side. However, in recent years, sharia law has begun to take hold. Laws have been passed on the island [sic] of Aceh for example which prohibit women from riding motorcycles. Stoning has been introduced as a punishment for adultery and women are being forced to veil.
Terror in Mali
Mali, a previously stable African democracy, has in the past twelve months experienced terror at the hands of sharia-advocating Islamists. According to a Human Rights Watch researcher, “Stonings, amputations and floggings have become the order of the day in an apparent attempt to force the local population to accept their world view. In imposing their brand of Shariah law, they have also meted out a tragically cruel parody of justice and recruited and armed children as young as 12.” Smoking, drinking, mixed-sex socialising — previously entirely acceptable — are now being met with severe punishments in that country.
Across the more established sharia-based countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the picture is just as bleak. In Saudi Arabia, which describes its constitution as sharia-based, blasphemy and apostasy carry the death penalty. Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter certain cities and women are the legal property of men. In Iran, where apostasy and blasphemy also carry the death penalty, women are stoned to death for adultery. Homosexuality is a capital offence and homosexuals have been hanged in public squares. Young women accused of “acts incompatible with chastity” have faced the same fate. In Pakistan, a supposed democracy, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2009. Her sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court which stated it was implementing sharia law.
We cannot ignore these basic truths, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.
It is not just sharia law’s criminal codes, outlined above, which should uniquely concern us. Sharia family law is growing in Britain and is being practiced in the 85 (or more) tribunals and councils described in the Civitas report. Sharia family law has been disgracefully defended by Rowan Williams and others and is often described as “private” or defended as “only civil matters so what is the problem”? Here is the problem: sharia family law treats a woman as the property of her husband who has no right to divorce and little right over her children. Sharia tribunals are creating a de facto parallel system of family law and the men who run the institutions admit that they seek jurisdiction over family matters, as well as “smaller” criminal matters.
The MAT and the ISC
The two main bodies of sharia family law in Britain are the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) and the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC). The ISC has at its helm Suhaib Hasan. Hasan has not only called for the “political dominance” of Islam in Britain, but he advocates stoning and amputations and seeks the introduction of these punishments to the UK’s legal systems. Another senior figure is Haitham al-Haddad who is on record as saying “a man should not be questioned why he hit his wife”. At the MAT, we have Faiz ul-Aqtab Siddiqui who is calling for exclusive jurisdiction over domestic violence cases (“an alternative form of resolution”) and even told the BBC that he was in negotiations with the Crown Prosecution Service with regard to this. The CPS denies any such discussions have taken place.
In sharia family law, custody of children goes to fathers at a preset age, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences. The ISC describes this as the end of the “period of female custody” when children no longer need their mothers. From that point onwards, the father can decide a mother may never see her children again.
In sharia family law, a woman’s word is worth half of a man’s. According to the ISC, this is because “a man would be fully occupied with the task he is involved with; he may not be distracted by anything else while being engaged in his activity”.
Divorce is the right of husbands only. Again, according to the ISC: “the right of divorce is vested in the hand of the man while she is allowed to ask for divorce. Why? Women are kind-hearted human beings who are governed by their emotions. . . On the other hand, man is governed by his mind more than his emotions. He would think twice . . . before uttering the word ‘talaq’ (divorce).” A man may divorce his wife by uttering “talaq” three times. She has no right of reply, no property rights, and no child custody rights.
Their Vicious Misogyny
Perhaps of even greater concern than the vicious misogyny of the men who run sharia in Britain, is the “marriage” of young girls in the name of sharia up and down the country. Haitham al-Haddad, a senior cleric at ISC, has said of a minimum marriage age: there is “no particular age from an Islamic perspective. But, as you know, the earlier the better, especially for girls.”
Mohammed Kassamali, an imam in Peterborough who was secretly filmed arranging an under-age marriage by a Sunday Times reporter, stated: “under sharia there is no problem. It is said she should see her first sign of puberty at the house of her husband”.
This is the truth; the verifiable and objective truth. No amount of denial apology, or “political correctness” can change it.
What is needed is to confront this truth. What is needed is to stop the denial of the truth and instead decide how to respond. What is needed is to stop treating misogyny, rape and violence carried out in the name of sharia as if it is somehow different or more acceptable than misogyny, rape and violence in any other name. It is not different; the girls and women who suffer are not different.
One Law for All is calling for the complete abolition of sharia family law in Britain and the outlawing of its practice. Arbitration and mediation are perfectly legitimate forms of legal practice, but they should not be used as an excuse to practice mediaeval and brutal forms of injustice.
This is a serious human rights, gender equality, and race equality issue and we must defend the concept of one law for all without apology or equivocation. A good place to start would be to support the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill introduced to the House of Lords by the brave Baroness Caroline Cox and currently making its way through Parliament. This Bill will outlaw many of the misogynist practices of sharia tribunals and emphasise the basic principle of human rights — that these belong to all humans, regardless of race or colour or religion.
From the Ethical Record (London), 118 (6), July 2013: 15 – 17.
Proceedings of the Conway Hall Ethical Society www.conwayhall.org.uk