Professor Mona Siddiqui will chair an independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales
(Photo: Creative Commons)
The Government has commissioned an independent Review into “Sharia law” as part of its Counter-Extremism Strategy.
The review is being chaired by Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Edinburgh University. The panel’s other three members are: Sir Mark Hedley, a former High Court Judge, Sam Momtaz, a barrister specialising in children’s cases, and Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC, a specialist family lawyer. Sitting as advisors to the panel are Imam Syed Ali Abbas Razawi, Director General of the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society and a freelance theology lecturer, and Imam Qari Mohammed Asim MBE, a chief Imam at Leeds’ Makkah mosque. The review was commissioned on May 26 and will continue until 2017.
The Muslim News approached the Chair and advisors to the panel with some questions about the review. We asked why Sharia law is being investigated as part of the Government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, why religious practices are being equated with extremism, and how much the Government intends to interfere with how religion is practiced by Muslim individuals and communities. None of these questions were answered.
Instead, the Home Office answered on their behalf, merely pointing us towards proposed Counter-Extremism policy. When we asked the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, what the Counter-Extremism Strategy had to do with Sharia law, she refused to answer.
The Government’s own Joint Committee on Human rights has expressed concerns about this strategy and how it will impinge on freedom of religion, freedom of speech and “focus predominantly on Muslims”.
According to the former Home Secretary, Theresa May, the review will be conducted by a “panel with a strong balance of academic, religious and legal expertise”. However, there are no people of religious expertise sitting on the panel. The two Imams involved in the review are only ‘advisors’, and have been told to go through the Home Office channel if they want to voice an opinion on the review.
When the so called independent Review was launched, May said: “A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern. There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen.”
However, for the Government, this one rule of law doesn’t apply to everyone. If you belong to another faith, that is not Islam, you are still allowed to use a religious legal system that does not comply with the British Legal System. Since the 1600s there have been Beth Din courts (Jewish religious courts) operating in Britain. These courts have the authority to litigate on marriage, divorce and even business matters.
An Orthodox Jewish woman seeking a divorce from her husband must obtain a ‘Get’, which is essentially written permission from him. Without it, she cannot get a divorce, and therefore remarry in an Orthodox Synagogue. In the absence of the Get, a wife who remarries will be considered an adulterer even if she has a civil divorce. Any children she has will be considered religiously illegitimate and cannot marry a fellow Jew. Their status of illegitimacy will also be passed on to their children.
Given the seriousness of the consequences of not getting a religious divorce in Jewish law, the Divorce Act 2002 provides that a civil decree absolute can be withheld until a Get is obtained. There has even been a case in which a religious divorce was recognised under English civil law. In this case the wife was a British citizen but the couple sought arbitration from the New York Beth Din.
The English court stayed proceedings in London to allow the couple to go through arbitration in New York. Once an agreement had been reached through the New York Beth Din, the British High Court approved it. The judge in this case acknowledged that for this couple, arbitration in the religious courts was preferable to litigation.
The Muslim News asked the Home Secretary why one religion’s laws are being investigated and not others’. But she refused to respond to this question, and instead only directed us to the Government’s proposed Counter-Extremism legislation once again.
David Frei, a Registrar to the London Beth Din, has noted the inconsistency in the Government’s approach to religious courts. When it comes to the application of Talmudic Law in the Beth Din, Frei is adamant that the Government would not be allowed to intervene. He told the International Business Times: “I think the state has got to be very careful when it starts intervening in matters of individual religious conscience. Nobody is compelled to observe our religion. If a woman cannot get a Get from her husband – and many, many women can’t – they can go off and marry whoever they want [at] Reform, or Liberal, [or a] registry office.”
On June 24, the Home Affairs Committee launched a Parliamentary Inquiry into “Sharia Councils” which will be considering evidence on “the basic tenants of Sharia law with reference to family, divorce, domestic violence and children.” The Inquiry aims to uncover the extent to which “Sharia law is compatible with the principles of British law”. This is like asking whether any kind of religious system of laws is compatible with a secular Government’s judiciary.
People of all religious backgrounds accept that the law of this country supersedes anything they might believe in, but targeting Sharia law specifically only serves to further alienate Muslim communities.