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Closure of Sharia councils not viable option, review finds

23rd Feb 2018

Hamed Chapman

Sharia councils are not quite the ogre they are as presented by sections of the media, certain agenda groups and even some politicians, according to a year-long review into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales.

“It is clear from all the evidence that Sharia councils are fulfilling a need in some Muslim communities,” said the review set up by Theresa May in May 2016 when she was Home Secretary. “We consider the closure of Sharia councils is not a viable option.”

In a forward to the report, Chair of the appointed review panel, Professor Mona Siddiqui, raised the spectre that the “rise of extremism was seen as evidence of a lack of social and political integration within many parts of the UK.”  The observance of Sharia, she pointed out, was “regarded by some as keeping many Muslims isolated, entrenched and with little social and psychological stake in wider British citizenship and civic life.”

Under May’s terms of reference, the review was to examine ways that “Sharia may be being used which may cause harm in communities”, the role of particular groups and Islamic authorities, the role of Sharia councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, the treatment of women and seeking out examples of best practice in relation to governance, transparency, and assuring compliance and compatibility with UK law.

Although the report was published on February 1 it was unable to establish how many Sharia councils there were for unspecified reasons other than there were “no accurate statistics”. It relied on estimates varying between 30 to 85. It also found there was “no clear definition of what constitutes a Sharia council.” It also suggested it was misleading to call them courts presided over by judges.

For the purpose of the review, they were defined as voluntary local associations of scholars who see themselves or are seen by their communities as authorised to offer advice to Muslims principally in the field of religious marriage and divorce. As such, it found both good and bad practices, including some that were seen as discriminatory and some even at the same council.

Although Sharia councils have no legal status and no legally binding authority under the civil law, they acted in a decision-making capacity when dealing with issues like Islamic divorce. In most of the cases (their evidence over 90%), it was women seeking advice to get a religious divorce. A key finding was that a significant number of Muslim couples did not civilly register their marriages and therefore there was no other avenue for obtaining a divorce.

Three major recommendations were made including the first proposing legislative amendments to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. This was to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony, bringing Muslims in line with Christian and Jewish marriage in the eyes of the law. Also included would be a short insertion in the law to bring Islamic divorce in line with that of the Jewish Get.

The second was the need to raise awareness campaigns about rights within the community as well not to also mention the availability of legal aid. The third was to call for the self-regulation of Sharia councils to design a code of practice that would be implemented, but this was not unanimously supported and would also require a one-off cost to the Government to establish the body.

The immediate response by the Home Office was to rule out the review’s recommendation to regulate Sharia councils. “Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws.”

“In Britain we have a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance, where many people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices and benefit from their guidance. The Government has no intention of changing this position.” The Home Office though would “consider carefully the review’s findings and its remaining recommendations.”

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