Government inquiry into ’sharia courts’
Written evidence submitted by the British Muslims for Secular Democracy
SUBMISSION BY BRITISH MUSLIMS FOR SECULAR DEMOCRACY: registered charity (no.1122730).
After a brief introduction to our organisation and the importance of secular democracy, we outline our reasons for opposing any importation or state sanction of the shari’a into the U.K., as a parallel system of justice. We outline the problems and give examples of instances of breach of human rights and obfuscation of the law.
1. British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD):
In 2006, a group of Muslims, proud to belong to their faith, set up BMSD, in the belief that progressive Muslim voices were being drowned out by more obscurantist individuals and groups.
Some members of our group have lived as practising Muslims in this country for more than five decades.
Post the debacle surrounding the Satanic Verses, the media tended to club Muslims either as self-loathing libertarians or book burning fundamentalists.
BMSD brings together Muslim men and women from diverse Islamic sects, ethnic and social backgrounds, who celebrate the variety of Muslim traditions and the rich cultural diversity at the heart of Muslim communities across the world.
We encourage an understanding and respect for different systems of beliefs.
Our work aims to help build understanding between individuals and communities and a shared vision of citizenship within British Muslims and the wider public.
In the current context British Muslims are among the most disadvantaged members of our society, we address the democratic deficit in certain sections of Muslim communities, promoting the value of civic engagement. BMSD works alongside several organisations, across the countries of the U.K., and abroad in Europe, north America, north Africa and South Asia.
The case for secular democracy:
We believe that for democracy to prevail it is imperative for all citizens to have equal rights, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, faith, economic or political class.
Undeniably, across the world and here in the U.K we find that quality before the law is blurred in societies with multi-tiered or parallel systems of justice.
BMSD’s idea of secularism is not one where religion is disregarded; rather we advocate a separation of faith and the state, so that faith exerts no undue influence on public policy, education and the law.
This means that individuals and groups have the freedom to practice their own faith, but that all religious and cultural practices must be in accordance with the law of the land.
Duty of care:
Few would deny that the state has a duty of care towards all its citizens; particularly the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.
A critical safeguard is the law; and the state must ensure that every citizen has equal protection before the law.
While there are problems with access because of resources, the state should not apply different standards of the law for different citizens and communities.
Importantly, the state cannot turn a blind eye when the rights of its citizens, particularly women and orphans, are diminished in the name of religion.
There is ample evidence that this is happening across the U.K within several faith communities – in the name of religion, while the state abrogates its responsibility.
Freedom to practice their religion:
We understand that British citizens should be free to practice their religions.
The law in Britain has not prevented us from upholding the five pillars of Islam: the creed, the five daily prayers, charity, fasting and the pilgrimage to Mecca. We shall turn to this matter below, but there is NO consensus on important matters between the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence and shari’a.
Furthermore, there is promotion of social, cultural and religious practices, based upon interpretations of the shari’a, that collide with the basic principles of equality afforded to citizens by British law and international law.
For example, Muslim men tend to believe they have divine sanction to have four wives, but the law in the U.K., forbids polygamy. There are others who think it is a husband’s right/duty to chastise (to the extent of beating) an erring wife. The law in this country does not condone domestic abuse. Similarly, some Jewish communities may well believe that death is the correct punishment for homosexuality – but homosexuality is not a criminal offence in the U.K.
Freedom from discrimination:
We recognise the argument set forward by some Muslims that if Beth Dins exist, why can Muslims not have shari’a councils and tribunals. In the continued presence of Beth Dins, a sanction on shari’a councils and tribunals is construed as discriminatory. We would argue that Beth Dins and other religious organisations dispensing justice need to be investigated, but here we are dealing with the matter of shari’a councils.
BMSD supports a coalition of groups that asks for ‘One Law for All’ - a legal system that does not allow for religious or cultural practices or parallel systems of justice that diminish the rights afforded to citizens under British law.
We are concerned that over the years shari’a councils have crept into the legal fabric of this country. In part, this has happened in the context of the U.K transforming from a multi-cultural into a multi-faith society. Like many Muslims all over the world this is a matter of great alarm for us – particularly those of us who are from South Asian backgrounds, for we have seen bloodbaths ensue due to the merging of religion with statecraft.
Transparency and clarity in the law:
We as Muslim citizens demand clarity and consensus in the discussions around shari’a law.
While the term shari’a is bandied about, there is a lack of transparency whereby the general public and Muslim citizens do not know what system of shari’a our government supports.
There are fundamental differences between Shi’a and Sunni law on matters of inheritance and divorce among other matters.
Furthermore, there is no single body of Sunni shari’a: there are differences between the four main schools, the Hanafi, Malaki, Shafie and Hanmbali.
Importantly, many Shi’a and Sunni do not recognise Ahmadiyah Muslims as members of the faith, and consider it right to kill them. X
In this scenario, will the government and Parliament abrogate responsibility and hand over the weakest members of Muslim communities to a secretive and inquisitorial system of (in)justice?
Training of imams and Muslim officers of the law:
Unlike Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, Islam does not have a tradition of an official clergy.
Any respected member of the congregation is permitted to lead prayers.
Yet again, it is not a requirement for an imam to preside over or conduct a marriage ceremony. A Muslim marriage is a contractual agreement between two consenting parties in the presence of competent witnesses.
The strengthening of political Islam since the mid-19th century is in part responsible for the increasing powers of Muslim clerics, who for the most part are self-appointed. In much literature and poetry in Muslim communities, the mullah was and remains the butt of satire.
Muslim citizens in the U.K., are told that the government authorises shari’a law, through councils and tribunals, we are not informed of the qualifications of the imams.
Who are these men? Is there a national register?
There is complete darkness about the training of imams in the U.K.
What are their educational qualifications?
Where have they trained?
What are their views on different matters such as evidence, inheritance and domestic violence?
Is there a corpus that is written down for scrutiny and study by jurists and by Muslim citizens?
Was it debated in Parliament?
Do our democratically elected representatives know what they are condoning?
Regulatory framework and compliance:
Officers of the law and jurists should be trained in such matters and their practises should be regulated.
Judges in this country have to maintain high standards of probity and are subject to rigorous vetting procedures.
Who looks into the selection of imams?
Many imams enter the country without passing the language test, because there is no such requirement.
Is there a register of imams that lists their qualifications?
Are all of them cleared by the police?
We have heard members of our communities, say that they consult imams, as trusted holders of high office with social and moral authority, because the state has authorised their working practices.
Clear instances where shari’a can collide with British law:
Like any religion or faith, Islam has evolved over the years with different interpretations of laws and ethics. Many Muslims rely on the letter of the law, while others embrace the spirit. Nevertheless, there are some instances, where families, communities and mosques put pressure on individuals to comply with their interpretations.
We list a few instances where shari’a discriminates against women:
(i) Under Sunni law Muslim women do not have equal rights of inheritance as men. Both, daughters and wives inherit less than sons and husbands.
(ii) Islam does not recognise adoption and shari’a law can often take away from adopted children property they have inherited under British law.
(iii) A Muslim man is allowed to take four wives.
(iv) A Muslim man can divorce his wife, by repeating the word, ‘talaq’ three times. There is no consensus about the duration of the interval between the three pronouncements; with some schools coming down on the side of three months as good practice.
(v) Importantly, in financial matters in particular, the evidence of two women is necessary, as opposed to that of one man.
Supporters of BMSD include, first, second, third and even fourth generation Muslims. We believe that the only way to achieve real justice and equality is to be committed to the idea of secular democracy.
10. Two Case studies:
Case Study: Shari’a conflated with custom in Forced Marriage and divorce:
A young Muslim woman from Luton was forced to marry her cousin: here is her testimony in her words. ‘Imam Saab told me that it was my duty to obey my parent and marry my cousin, because my parents knew what was best for me. I went to Pakistan, got married and came back. He joined me. He was a drug addict and used to beat me. He began to smuggle drugs and asked me to help him. When I told my parents, they consulted Imam Saab, who called me and spoke to me. He told me, “divorce is a bad thing; you have to be obedient to your husband.” I said, “Imam Saab, he wants me to smuggle drugs.” He said, “Perhaps, he needs money; he does not have a job. Be patient. This is not a good reason for a divorce.” I said, “My husband is very violent; he beats me a lot, sometimes with a belt.” Imam Saab said, “He is allowed to beat you if you are disobedient and you were disobedient, but he should not beat you with a belt. I shall speak to him.” The beatings continued and I ran away from home to a shelter. Imam Saab has advised my family that I do not have a good reason to leave my husband. My family have stopped meeting me.’
The young woman was also sent to mediation, after which she went back to her husband and suffered more violence.
The imam in this case misinterpreted Islamic law, or chose the most conservative and anti-women interpretations of the law. Furthermore, he withheld from the girl another option provided in the Qur’an: that of a khulā. Although, the option of khulā would strip her of her right to ‘mehr’ under Islamic law. There is lack of clarity on ‘mehr’. Is it maintenance? But giving up her right to ‘mehr’ takes away from the woman a right to maintenance that she might have under British law.
Case Study 2: Sharia and Inheritance:
Mrs. Y had joint ownership of a home with her husband, who was a GP. When he died, she became the sole owner. The couple had two sons and a daughter. Both the sons were educated and working, one as an engineer and the other as a doctor. Here is her testimony: ‘My sons came to me with a respected imam, who said to me, “Your ownership of the house is un-Islamic. You are not allowed to inherit this house. You cannot inherit the house, you should get only an eighth; the rest goes according to the Holy Qur’an to your daughter (an eighth) and the rest goes to your sons.” I was very distressed and went into a depression because I thought I was going against the principles of my religion. My daughter contacted a law centre – and the English lawyer told us that the law of inheritance did not apply to me, because I owned the house; and did not inherit it.’
The above testimony demonstrates that if Mr. Y had died intestate, his wife and daughter would not have inherited according to British law.
Women of BME communities are not the only women in the country who suffer indignity and inequality in property matters. Estates of the aristocracy are an example of how patriarchies work in this country while the state turns a blind eye. Are these the systems of inheritance and justice that we wish to perpetuate?
11. Shari’a and Custom:
There are many instances where there is a blurring of shari’a and custom. This impinges particularly on the education of women, women in employment and forced marriage of the young.
A very important aspect of parallel economies of justice is how they can fuel alienation and ghettoization.
In democracy workshops that we have run with young persons, we have heard saying, ‘But imam sahib says, “don’t meet white people; they are evil.”
Indeed, some of us have heard these views expressed in mosques.
Furthermore, parents have reported their concerns about children being brainwashed in mosques.
Are these the same individuals who are adjudicating at the shari’a councils?
Arguably, old customs and practises are difficult to overthrow. But what possible reason can there be to import into the U.K., inequitable and fuzzy systems of justice that are being challenged in many Muslim countries.
We have seen Islam transform abroad and here in the U.K. Many British Muslims are from Pakistan, where the imposition of the repugnant Hadood Laws in Pakistan, by the military dictator Zia ul Haq, curtailed the rights of women and minorities. Furthermore, this was the time when foundations of the current jihadi networks were laid. The foot soldiers of the jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan have connections with British Muslims. In an environment where terrorist acts (increasingly carried out by young Islamists) are almost an every day occurrence, surely we need to strengthen democracy and pluralist values.
It cannot be right to strengthen men, women and institutions that propagate practices whereby gender inequality, homophobia and acceptance of violence inhere.
All too often, we hear imams exhorting the young against the ‘west’ and its values. Are these the same men who will sit on shari’a councils and tribunals?
We the public and Muslim citizens of the U.K must know their names, and have access to information about their training and their views.
In setting lower standards of probity and due diligence we believe that the state is failing in its duty of care towards the most vulnerable members of BME communities.
By promoting shari’a councils and tribunals, there should be no doubt in anybody’s hearts and minds: the state is agreeing to discrimination against women, adopted offspring and homosexuals.
Do Muslim lives matter less than those of other British citizens?
Why are state and Parliament abrogating responsibility and diminishing the rights we have as British citizens?
Shari’a councils and tribunals will not enhance our rights to practice Islam.
On the contrary, they will perpetuate a hidden system of justice.
We have lived as practising Muslims in the U.K without shari’a councils and tribunals.
Sadly, we see this as a move by the government to tell us that our lives matter less because we are from communities where patriarchies remain entrenched. This inverted form of racism can be interpreted as the government saying to Muslim communities, ‘Ah, Muslim’s…well, you are not like us and therefore not worthy of being treated like us. You don’t need the same protection and the same rights: we therefore relegate you to the world of shari’a where you can look after their own. Our courts are too busy to handle your outmoded practices.’
Why must Muslims be treated as though we are living in a theocratic state?
British Muslims for Secular Democracy
 Innes Bowen, Medina in Birmingham Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, London, C. Hurst & Co., 2014.
 Elham Manea, Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the U.K., Library of Islamic Law, 2016.