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Posted on Mon 4 July 2016

In Response to the Government’s Independent review into Sharia Law

Written evidence submitted by Rt Revd Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

1. Summary

1.1 People in this country are free to practice whatever faith they have. At the same time, we have a very long tradition of people being equal under the law.

1.2 The problem with Sharia is that it is inherently unequal for certain kinds of people. Muslims and non-Muslims are treated unequally. Similarly, men and women are treated unequally.

1.3 If Sharia is recognised in anyway in terms of the public law, it will introduce a principle of contradiction in the body of the law, which will cause enormous problems.

1.4 The Home Office’s current review of Sharia councils is deeply flawed. The terms of reference disproportionately emphasise the application of Sharia law, as opposed to its nature and content.

1.5 What is more, the review panel does not include non-Muslim experts on Islam, nor human rights experts. As an Open Letter from various human rights organisations has stated, the review must be led by a high court judge, not a theologian.[1]

2. Meeting in Parliament

2.1 On 14 July 2016, Baroness Cox hosted a meeting of Peers to discuss questions about the Home Office’s review. I spoke at the meeting alongside legal scholar Dr Machteld Zee.

2.2 During the meeting, I referred to three key themes: the nature of Sharia law; the nature of the Home Office review; and inequalities within Sharia councils.

3. The nature of Sharia law

3.1 Sharia law is often reduced to personal and family issues but it shouldn’t be seen like this. One has to view it as a whole. Sharia law covers politics, finance, war, personal, and social issues.

3.2 There are three fundamental inequalities in Sharia law: the inequality of Muslims and non-Muslims (for example non-Muslims cannot inherit from Muslims); the inequality of men and women; and the inequality of slaves and free (in terms of liabilities and compulsory punishments etc.).

3.3 Western law, by contrast, embraces the fundamental principle of equality of all people before the law. This is based on Christianised Roman law, originating with Theodosius and Justinian, and the medieval canonists. Thus, there is an immediate incompatibility between sharia law and English law in this basic respect of equal treatment of all people under the law.

3.4 In stating this, it should be evident that Muslims should be free to practice Sharia in their private lives. However, the practice of Sharia should not be recognised in public law in this country. If there is further recognition of Sharia law this will, in practice, lead to further segregation of communities that are already to some extent segregated in this country. This is also the case with Sharia finance which also leads to increased segregation since it requires that capital should be raised and applied in particular ways and that judgements should be in compliance with Sharia. Such segregation is undesirable when we need more integration and social cohesion in our society.

3.5 These councils are operating under the Arbitration Act, but can there be systematic discrimination under the arbitration act when such discrimination is clearly contrary to our legal system and to specific laws.

4. The nature of the Home Office review

4.1 There are questions to be raised about the nature of the review which the Government has commissioned. The review is concerned only with the application of Sharia law. The Government’s statement says that the review will seek to “explore whether, and to what extent, the application of sharia law may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales”.[2] The question then is whether the application of Sharia is incompatible with English law, not whether Sharia is itself incompatible with English law. It asks for examples of best practice rather than asking whether such councils should exist at all. It essentially starts from the wrong point and asks the wrong questions.

4.2 There is a trend of modern Islamist interpretations of Islam being taken as normative by our government and other institutions in this country. For example, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt said that ‘riba’ in the Qur’an is not interest. But our government has promoted Islamic finance which is based on a modern Islamist interpretation of ‘riba’ as banning interest. This Grand Mufti also said that apostasy is not punishable in this life. Such mainstream interpretations are not taken into account by the UK Government or financial institutions. We appear to be accepting modern Islamist interpretations as the official Islamic position. In this way, we may end up with a more powerful form of Sharia law here in this country than exists in many Islamic countries. For example, Pakistan has regulated family law so that Sharia is not the only system used.

4.3 Questions must be asked about the membership of the Government’s review. It does not include a non-Muslim expert in Sharia, Islam, or the Islamic world on the review body. There is also no human rights lawyer. There is no one with the international experience who can compare what happens here with what happens in other countries. It would be far more appropriate if the inquiry is led by a high court judge. There should be both Muslim and non-Muslim expertise in sharia law on the panel. The issue should be whether the provisions of Sharia law are compatible with English law, not about the application of Sharia law.

5. Inequalities within Sharia councils

5.1 Sharia councils manifest inequality between men and women, most obviously in the area of divorce which is much harder for women than for men, but also in the area of custody of children.

5.2 I was duty in the House of Lords when a ruling was made about the deportation of a woman to Lebanon. The Lords ruled that the woman could not be deported because under Sharia law operating in Lebanon, the child would be taken off the mother and given to the father. This was ruled to be against human rights, showing how Sharia law has already been determined to contravene English law.

5.3 There are also concerns about rulings relating to the age of consent, which is understood by Islamists to be the age of physical puberty. Such individuals have resisted every attempt to introduce an appropriate age of consent in Islamic countries.

5.4 In relation to marriage, Islam permits polygamy – even if in some Islamic countries polygamy is not now permitted. 5.5 Are women free agents when they appear before sharia tribunals? How do we ensure that justice is carried out? Is the Government able to confirm that every area of the country is policed equally? If not, does that mean there is no equal protection for all?

Rt Revd Dr Michael Nazir-Ali- Former Bishop of Rochester

[1] OpenDemocracy.net, 4 July 2016, see https://www.opendemocracy.net/pragna-patel-gita-sahgal/whitewashing-sharia-councils-in-uk

[2] Home Office, Independent review into sharia law launched, 26 May 2016, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/independent-review-into-sharia-law-launched as at 22 July 2016