Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the Telegraph’s religion correspondent spends time observing the workings of shari’ah councils in Birmingham and London. He reflects on the case of a woman seeking dissolution of her marriage from an abusive husband and goes on to cite detractors who see the councils as abominations promoting gender inequality.
Among those whose criticisms of Shari’ah councils are invited are Councillor Alan Craig, Bishop Nazir-Ali, Baroness Catherine Cox and Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
The former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, says “To understand the impact of Sharia law you have to look at other countries,
“At its heart it has basic inequalities between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between men and women.”
Which makes little sense in the context of the actual parameters of shari’ah councils since they adjudicate on civil and nor criminal matters and are superseded by English common law, enabling those who prefer not to accept their decisions to seek redress of grievance elsewhere.
It also ignores the fact that Muslim women make substantial use of the councils negating the assumption that they are discriminated against.
The article then goes on to publicise the ‘Sharia-controlled zones’ notion recently announced by Islam4UK with little regard for differentiating between the jurisprudence based work of the councils in adjudicating on shari’ah principles and the provocations dreamt up by the misfits of Islam4UK.
The article invites the opinion of Councillor Alan Craig (who spearheaded the campaign against the mosque complex in Newham) who goes on about the lack access to non-halal meat and pavements which are ‘crowded’ with women wearing the niqab in east London.
Wynne-Jones also quotes Jim Fitzpatrick MP, who sparked outrage among his constituents last year when he insensitively grumbled about a Muslim couple who chose to segregate guests at their wedding reception. Fitzpatrick said, “I’m concerned that they [sharia councils] are creating a stranglehold over their communities and leading to the Islamification of our society”.
Does Wynne-Jones ask Fitzpatrick to substantiate the claim of “a strangehold” or of “Islamification” or take him to task for remarks that run dangerously close to the sort of scaremongering and alarmist fantasies one finds in the diatribes of the EDL or BNP? No.
And yet needless to say, the Jewish counterpart to shari'ah councils- Beth Din courts, have never received the level of ‘special’ attention which shari'ah courts solicit and their existence has never provoked a debate about the ‘Judaisation’ of Jewish communities in the UK.
Wynne-Jones also covers the bill introduced in the House of Lords by Baroness Cox, iterating that “Islamic courts would be forced to acknowledge the primacy of English law”. Cox seems have missed the fact that the Arbitration Act makes clear that agreements which conflict with English Law will not be endorsed, and that “English law will always remain supreme, and religious councils subservient to it.”
To his discredit, Wynne-Jones chooses not to explore the question of the councils’ own reactions to the Baroness’s bill and her insistence that shari’ah councils engage in gender discrimination.
Moreover, in giving voice to the claim by Bishop Nazir-Ali that “The problem with Sharia law being used in tribunals is that it compromises the tradition of equality for all under the law,” the article fails to bring attention to the fact that the issue of ‘equality under the law’ conflicting with freedom of religion, as is often spoken about in regards to Islam, pertains not just to Islam but to other faiths too. Take for example the Catholic adoption agency, Catholic Care, which is fighting a legal battle to preserve its right to deter same-sex couples from using its adoption services
The article does however give voice to reasonable individuals. In the words of Amra Bone speaking about sharia courts and gender equality,
“Sharia courts in Britain were initially set up to help women because they wouldn’t – or couldn’t – go to the civil courts. Sharia courts therefore offered the only way for them to get on with their lives. The Koran gives you principles, but you don’t have to take everything literally. You have to interpret it and apply it to the community you live in, and for us, that means treating men and women equally.”
The feature in the Sunday Telegraph was an opportunity to add to the debate on shari’ah councils in an informed manner as demonstrated in the Guardian’s special report of 2007. Pity the Telegraph regurgitated much of the same hyperbole leveled at shari’ah councils than add something intelligent to the debate.
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