Government Inquiry into " Sharia courts"
Written evidence submitted by One Law for All
One Law for All (company number 8122621) was launched on 10 December 2008, International Human Rights Day, to call on the UK Government to recognise that Sharia and religious courts are arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular and that citizenship and human rights are non-negotiable. Its report "Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights" published in 2010 documents its concerns with regards Sharia "courts". It has organised numerous conferences, seminars and rallies to highlight the inequities of religious arbitration, the most recent of which was a 30 April 2016 conference with author Elham Manea on her new book "Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK".
One Law for All has worked closely with several secular women’s rights groups and campaigners such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Centre for Secular Space, Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, and Southall Black Sisters for equality before the law, including in successful campaigns to secure withdrawals of guidance by Universities UK condoning gender segregation at universities and the Law Society’s practice note endorsing Sharia-compliant wills. Moreover, One Law for All and 200 other women’s rights campaigners and organisations are calling on the Theresa May inquiry into Sharia councils to be judge-led, impartial and human rights centred rather than theologically based.
One Law for All welcomes the opportunity to present oral evidence.
Whilst there is no one version of Sharia, any investigation into Sharia bodies should not be about "moderate" versus "extreme" practice but the discriminatory nature, intent and effect of Sharia bodies on women’s rights.
The voluntary nature of the "courts" is a sham given that many are pressured into going to them; also not abiding by their decisions or refusing to participate can be seen as tantamount to apostasy.
Sharia bodies are parallel legal systems though they misrepresent themselves as non-binding mediation bodies. They are set up as courts.
The Sharia "courts" grew out of an Islamist agenda with the first council being established in the UK in 1982 in Leyton and with clear connections with transnational Islamist groups. One Law for All’s submission aims to highlight some of the Islamist links.
Legitimisation of parallel legal systems normalises and privileges the Islamist/fundamentalist narrative with regards women’s status in the family. The law and not religion, however, must be the basis for securing justice for BME women.
1. Whilst there is no official Sharia law, its nature, intent and consequences are discriminatory against women in particular. This goes beyond a question of "moderate" and "extreme" practice. Under Sharia rules, for example, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim; a man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give justifications for requesting a divorce, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive; women who remarry lose custody of their children even if the child has not reached the preset age. Men/boys are entitled to inherit twice the share of women/girls and marital rape is not considered a crime.
2. Given the undue control and power the arbitrators have on women, many of whom are vulnerable or survivors of some form of violence, the voluntary nature of the courts are a sham. Testimonies gathered from women who have had to go to the "courts" show the pressures and coercion involved. Moreover, even if some women freely choose to go to the courts, it doesn’t mean that rights violations do not take place. Also, refusing to attend or abide by "court" rulings can be seen to be tantamount to apostasy making it all the more difficult for vulnerable women.
3. There is ample evidence to show that Sharia bodies impose fundamentalist/conservative judgements. The term Sharia itself means law. The bodies are set up as courts. Those presiding call themselves judges and issue what is often considered by the judges, women themselves and the wider community as binding religious law with regards family matters.
4. Sharia bodies are clearly parallel legal systems though they misrepresent themselves as non-binding mediation bodies. The existence of Sharia bodies in itself creates conflicts in law and gaps in human rights protection and undermines access to justice and the Constitution by endorsing the existence of parallel legal systems.
5. In "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism" (2013) Algerian American author Karima Bennoune speaks about the commonalities of various fundamentalists (also known as Islamists or political Islamists) as believing "in the imposition of ’God’s law’, something called the Sharia – their version of it rather than others’ – on Muslims everywhere, and in the creation of what they deem to be Islamic states or disciplined diasporic communities ruled by these laws”.
6. Across the UK, Sharia bodies have links with Islamism, including Ahl Al Hadith (ideologues of Lashkar e Taiba), Jamaat e Islami, Tabligh Jamaat, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Deobandis, and Barelwis with the common message of separation and intolerance. For example, the Deobandi movement has a strong influence in the Birmingham Sharia Council and controls almost half of the mosques in the UK, together with the Tablighi. According to Elham Manea, the author of "Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK", the Sharia "courts" grew out of an Islamist agenda with the first council being established in 1982 in Leyton with clear connections with transnational Islamist groups. She says:
"For example, according to its website, the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton was founded by several organisations that have known affiliations with political and societal Islamism: Jamaat-e-Islami (UK Islamic Mission), Muslim Brotherhood (Muslim Welfare House), and global Wahhabi Islam (Muslim World League). Some of those working in the council as ‘judges’ belong to Salafi Islam (such as Haitham Al Haddad) and to Ahl Al Hadith, the Salafis of South Asia (such as Dr Suhaib Hasan). According to the 1995 Channel 4 Dispatches documentary War Crimes File, the head of this council, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, was a senior member of the Al-Badr Squad – a paramilitary offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami – which served as Pakistan’s death squad in 1971 during Bangladesh’s War of Independence".
7. On his blog, Suhaib Hasan, a co-founder of the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton (and father of Khola Hasan, herself a Sharia judge there), writes:
"Our house, as a beacon of Jamat, used to have the first-hand knowledge of all such world movements with which Jamat shared their thoughts and ideologies. My father, in his beliefs, was a strict follower of the Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought... My father was given the task to organise for the members of Jamaat, a system of spiritual training (Tarbiya). To meet this purpose, he compiled a collection of Ahadith, all speaking about the character building of a true Muslim. This collection, known as Intikhab-e-Hadith, became a major source of inspiration for the members of Jamaat".
8. Suhaib Hasan has also said:
"Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society. This is why in Saudi Arabia, for example, where these measures are implemented, the crime rate is very, very, low".
In this regards, his daughter and Sharia judge Khola Hasan says: "His statement was made more than ten years ago, and was in the context of an academic discussion on classical Islamic law. He categorically denies that he would promote the introduction of Sharia law in Britain." Clearly, though, this is quibbling over semantics: Suhaib Hasan promotes Hudud ordinances in countries under Sharia rules.
9. Suhaib Hasan has been filmed in a 2013 Panorama documentary telling a woman complaining of domestic violence:
"I think you should be courageous enough to ask this question to him. Just tell me why are you upset huh? Is it because of my cooking? Is it because I see my friends huh? So I can correct myself".
10. Suhaib Hasan is a member of The European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) chaired by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ECFR is an integral part of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe (FIOE), an umbrella group of more than 30 Muslim Brotherhood organisations in Europe. According to Qaradawi, domestic violence is permissible in dealing with a disobedient wife.
11. An ECFR fatwa by Qaradawi states that the question on challenging the applicability of Sharia "relates to one of the issues that need to be clarified, not only for non-Muslims, but for Muslims who have been completely brainwashed by Western ideas and dogmas". He insists that Sharia must be followed without question:
"...we should not give those who are irreligious any chance to violate the boundaries regarding certain religious matters that are firmly established in Islam such as penalties. Those well-established matters are considered the core of the practical, intellectual and creedal unity of the whole Muslim Ummah. They also act as a safety valve for the whole Ummah, in the sense that they protect the Ummah from being led astray and roaming about aimlessly in the darkness.
"Hence, it is not allowed for us Muslims to show any leniency towards those who tend to turn that which is well-established and certain into a mere possibility, who tend to alter that which is clearly-defined into a doubtful matter.
"Those people have gone to extremes to the extent that they blatantly criticize the fixed Islamic rulings such as male and female shares of inheritance. Those misguided people cudgel their brains in finding out lame arguments that tend to give both males and females equal shares of inheritance..."
12. Maulana Abu Sayeed, chairperson of the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, has said that marital rape should not be prosecuted because "sex is part of marriage". He considers it "not Islamic” to classify non-consensual marital sex as rape and prosecute offenders and that prosecution of marital rape is due to misguided Western values. He says calling it rape is a major aggression “Because within the marriage contract it is inherent there that man will have sexual intercourse with his wife. Of course, if he does something against her wish or in a bad time etc, then he is not fulfilling the etiquettes, not that he is breaching any code of Sharia – he is not coming to that point. He may be disciplined, and he may be made to ask forgiveness. That should be enough”.
Khola Hasan, a Sharia judge at the Islamic Sharia Council has legitimised his statement and said "Maulana Abu Sayeed is a highly respected scholar. He was quoting the traditional Islamic discussion regarding rape within marriage". Again, quibbling with semantics.
13. Abu Sayeed denies allegations made in The War Crimes File, a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4, that he was involved in violence in during the 1971 war in Bangladesh. An eye witness in the documentary said they had seen him in a torture centre and another said that he had signed a fatwa which encouraged mass killings of civilians in Sylhet.
14. Haitham Al-Haddad, who used to sit as a judge on the Islamic Sharia Council until recently is a Salafi and now runs Reconcile. On domestic violence, he says:
“A man should not be questioned why he, OK, hit his wife because this is something between them. Leave them alone. They can sort out their matters among themselves. And even they said that the husband, the father of the daughter, she is married to a man, he should not ask his daughter why you have been beaten or hit by your husband. Why? Because al-Islam is looking for the bigger picture in order to keep the relationship between the husband and wife together”.
15. In 1997, women’s rights campaigners from 18 countries warned that "[F]undamentalist ideologies and movements can transform themselves from a mere presence in a society – appearing as but one of the many ’options’ for religious observance or affiliation - into a source of compulsion and, ultimately violation". This is the situation we find ourselves in today.
16. In "Realities of Religio-Legalism: Religious Courts and Women’s Rights in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States", Marie Ash and Anissa Helie argue that for many decades, BME feminists "perceived that, given the strong male control over interpretation of texts in all religious traditions, the expansion of religions’ power – accomplished in part by law and policy – would further privilege male conservative and fundamentalist leaders and would enable their further discrediting of progressive, feminist and secular voices". Those arguing for Sharia bodies are seen to be "authentic" representatives of a falsely homogenised "Muslim community" whilst secular BME women’s rights campaigners are seen to lack authenticity.
17. The promotion of "group" or "community" rights via Sharia bodies evidence a capitulation to religious and conservative forces who wish to ensure that the needs and identity of minority women are addressed only through the prism of conservative religious values of which they are the sole arbiters. it hands power to Islamists/conservative religious forces to manage and control women and limit their rights. Because of the existence of Sharia bodies women’s human rights are seen to be secondary and subservient to group rights imposed by an Islamist narrative of women’s place in the family and society at large. In effect, rather than being treated as independent persons with citizenship and human rights, minority women are regarded as members of their so-called religious communities who are assumed to be subjected to religious codes.
18. As mentioned in the open letter to the then Home Secretary, any investigation into Sharia bodies must look at the full extent of women’s rights violations they condone and/or promote. Some examples are: women’s testimony being worth half that of a man’s, marital rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse, the age of consent, guardianship, forced marriage, honour based violence, ritual abuse, child custody and child protection, polygamy, divorce, sexuality, inter-religious relationships, female dress codes and abortion. Broader issues such as the treatment of religious minorities including minority sects in Islam, decisions pertaining to apostasy and blasphemy must also be examined to understand the full range of threats faced by people affected by religious laws, and indeed, by the State promoting these laws. Also the reasons why Sharia councils and other religious arbitration bodies have operated with impunity for so long need to be carefully examined. A key question is to what extent have local councils, police, or departments of government developed working relations with Sharia councils and whether these relationships have undermined protection principles laid out in key legislation on discrimination and the rights of women and children and/or shielded them from adequate scrutiny. Has the goal of preventing violent extremism actually led to strengthening relations with fundamentalist networks and individuals?
1. Dismantle all forms of religious arbitration in family matters and uphold one law for all.
2. Fully investigate Sharia bodies, including their discriminatory nature and intent, examine how Sharia systems of arbitration in family matters contravene key human rights principles of equality before the law, duty of care, due diligence and the rule of law. Any inquiry must be clearly framed as a human rights investigation not a theological one.
3. Investigate the links of Sharia bodies to Islamism/transnational fundamentalist networks in promoting Sharia law in different countries and their role in Britain.
4. End government endorsement of religious arbitration, including removing charity commission status.
5. Ensure that BME women are treated equally before the law and can access justice through legal aid.
The law and not religion is the key basis for securing justice for all citizens. We urge the Government to do the right thing to ensure that the same principles of human rights, equality before the law, duty of care, due diligence and the rule of law are applicable to all British citizens.
Maryam Namazie, Co-Spokesperson of One Law for All