15 December 2017

Bill to tackle Sharia Courts

ranoA new Bill has been introduced at Westminster to tackle the problem of Sharia courts in England and Wales. The Private Member’s Bill was introduced in the House of Lords in June by Christian campaigner Baroness Cox.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill aims to deal with Sharia courts that set up a parallel legal system to address matters of criminal and family law. Under the Bill, it will become a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to falsely claim legal jurisdiction over criminal or family law.

The Bill has been introduced at a time when politicians and the public are increasingly concerned about the influence of Sharia law in the UK. Earlier this year a Government inquiry into the rise of Sharia councils was abandoned after the Muslim courts refused to co-operate.

The failure of the investigation into the UK’s alleged 85 Sharia courts was disclosed to MPs by Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly. He informed Tory backbencher Kris Hopkins that the previous Government commissioned, “an exploratory study of Sharia councils in England with respect to family law.” However, because the limited findings could not be regarded as a representative assessment of the operation of Sharia councils, the Ministry of Justice decided not to publish them.

Lady Cox has stated that, “my Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or ‘quasi-legal’, systems taking root in our nation.” Her briefing on the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill has highlighted a series of concerns in relation to Sharia councils:-

Firstly, some Muslim tribunals that deal with legitimate areas of arbitration are operating discriminatory procedures. It is alleged that some are giving a woman’s testimony less weight than a man’s, or automatically giving women fewer property rights than men.

Arbitration Tribunals applying Sharia law are operating outside their legitimate remit and deciding cases relating to family law (e.g. divorce or the custody of children) and criminal law (e.g. cases of domestic violence).

It is widely believed that Muslim women are being coerced into agreeing to arbitration or mediation at Muslim tribunals, when this ought to be voluntary. Some are being intimidated during proceedings and pressurised into withdrawing allegations of domestic violence after they make them. There are fears that Police are failing to properly deal with such incidents when reported by Muslim women.

Lastly, many Muslim women are in marriages that are not legally recognised by British law or are living in polygamous households. There are concerns that these women are being misled as to their legal status and are therefore vulnerable.

Lady Cox’s Bill attempts to address these issues and make clear that laws against sex discrimination apply to arbitration tribunals, thereby outlawing the practice of treating a woman’s testimony as worth half that of a man’s.

In recent months, Islamic extremists have been calling for the imposition of Sharia law within the UK. In July the fundamentalist campaign group Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) publicly called for towns such as Bradford, Dewsbury, and the London borough of Tower Hamlets to be turned into independent Islamic states.

MAC’s report states that, “we suggest it is time that areas with large Muslim populations might declare an emirate delineating that Muslims within this area are trying to live by the Sharia as much as possible, with their own courts and community watch and schools and even self sufficient trade.

Likely areas for these projects might be Dewsbury or Bradford or Tower Hamlets to begin with. In time we can envisage that the whole of the Sharia might one day be implemented starting with these enclaves.”

Earlier this summer posters were displayed in the London borough of Waltham Forest declaring it to be a Sharia controlled zone where Islamic rules will be enforced. The posters were later removed by the local council.

The Bill has received scathing criticism from the Islamic Sharia Council, which claims that Lady Cox has, “regurgitated common myths about the role of women in Islam.” However, Lady Cox is supported by a wide range of Christian organisations and secular groups.

The Christian Institute is backing the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill. The Institute’s Deputy Director, Simon Calvert LLB said, “the rise of Sharia courts in our nation is something that concerns a lot of people.

Justice and equality under the law are precious values and we shouldn’t take them for granted. This Bill is timely and it is welcome.”

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, has publicly endorsed the Bill. The Bishop, who grew up in Pakistan, warned that, “the problem with Sharia is that it is inherently unequal for certain kinds of people. Muslims and non-Muslims are treated unequally. Similarly, men and women are treated unequally.”

Many non-Christian organisations have welcomed Lady Cox’s Bill too. Cassandra Balchin, co-founder and chair of the Muslim Women’s Network-UK, said that in her work with Muslim women she had found anecdotal evidence of gender discriminatory arbitration. She argued that some Muslim women have a tougher time in Britain than in many Muslim countries. Keith Porteous-Wood of the National Secular Society has also voiced support for the Bill, highlighting the problems of operating a parallel legal system in the UK.

The concerns expressed by Lady Cox have been justified by findings from other western nations such as Australia. Research recently published by legal academics at the University of New South Wales warns that Sharia law has become a shadow legal system within Australia, endorsing polygamous and underage marriages.

Briefing materials and the latest news concerning the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill are available from The Christian Institute: www.christian.org.uk/issues/2011/arbitrationbill.

Callum Webster

*Sharia law is Islamic law derived from the Koran.