An Islamic Sharia law court has been established in Antwerp, the second-largest city in Belgium.
The Sharia court is the initiative of a radical Muslim group called Sharia4Belgium. Leaders of the group say the purpose of the court is to create a parallel Islamic legal system in Belgium in order to challenge the state's authority as enforcer of the civil law protections guaranteed by the Belgian constitution.
The Sharia court, which is located in Antwerp's Borgerhout district, is "mediating" family law disputes for Muslim immigrants in Belgium.
The self-appointed Muslim judges running the court are applying Islamic law, rather than the secular Belgian Family Law system, to resolve disputes involving questions of marriage and divorce, child custody and child support, as well as all inheritance-related matters.
Unlike Belgian civil law, Islamic Sharia law does not guarantee equal rights for men and women; critics of the Sharia court say it will undermine the rights of Muslim women in marriage and education.
Legal experts say the Islamic court will also undercut the state's ability to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of so-called honor crimes. In 2007, for example, Belgium outlawed the practice of forced marriage. Those convicted of forcing someone into marriage by violence or coercion face a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to €2,500 ($3,500). This law is likely to be undermined as Muslim marriage disputes come under the jurisdiction of the Sharia court.
Sharia4Belgium says the court in Antwerp will eventually expand its remit and handle criminal cases as well.
The Sharia4Belgium group consists of Islamists who are committed to bring everyone living in Belgium (including all non-Muslims) under the submission of Islamic Sharia law.
Although Sharia4Belgium's website recently was shut down by the Belgian authorities, a partial archive of the site can be found at the WayBack Machine. There Sharia4Belgium issues an invitation-cum-threat calling for all Belgians to convert to Islam and to submit to Sharia law or face the consequences. The text says:
"It is now 86 years since the fall of the Islamic Caliphate. The tyranny and corruption in this country [Belgium] has prevailed; we go from one scandal to another: Economic crises, paedophilia, crime, growing Islamophobia, etc."
"As in the past we [Muslims] have saved Europe from the dark ages, we now plan to do the same. Now we have the right solution for all crises and this is the observance of the divine law, namely Sharia. We call to implement Sharia in Belgium."
"Sharia is the perfect system for humanity. In 1300 years of the Islamic state we knew only order, welfare and the protection of all human rights. We know that Spain, France and Switzerland knew their best times under Sharia. In these 1300 years, 120 women were raped, which is equal to 120 women a day in Europe. There were barely 60 robberies recorded in 1300 years."
"As a result, we invite the royal family, parliament, all the aristocracy and every Belgian resident to submit to the light of Islam. Save yourself and your children of the painful punishment of the hereafter and grant yourself eternal life in paradise."
A cache of the background image for the Sharia4Belgium website has the black flag of jihad flying above the Belgian Parliament. Up until recently the Sharia4Belgium Youtube page (also shut down) was used to incite Muslims to Jihad, or Holy War. The group had posted videos with titles like, "Jihad Is Obligatory," "Encouraging Jihad," "Duelling & Guerrilla Warfare," and "The Virtues of Martyrdom."
Sharia4Belgium is linked to Anjem Choudary, a Sharia court judge based in London. Choudary, who was the leader of a group called Islam4UK before it was banned by British anti-terrorism authorities, believes in the primacy of Islam over all other faiths and has long campaigned for Islamic law to be implemented in all of Britain.
Choudary is also a leader of the British Islamic Emirates Project, a campaign to turn twelve British cities – including what he calls "Londonistan" – into independent Islamic states. The so-called Islamic Emirates would function as autonomous enclaves ruled by Islamic Sharia law and operate entirely outside British jurisprudence.
The guardians of European multiculturalism say Choudary is harmless and, in any event, does not represent the majority of Muslims living in Europe. But he has a considerable following in Britain and elsewhere, and his views on the role of Sharia in Britain are far more popular than many will admit.
For example, at least 85 Islamic Sharia courts are now operating in Britain, almost 20 times as many as previously believed, according to a study by Civitas, a London-based think tank. The report shows that scores of unofficial tribunals and councils regularly apply Islamic law to resolve domestic, marital and business disputes, and that many Sharia courts are operating in mosques. It warns of a "creeping" acceptance of Sharia principles in British law.
In an interview with the Belgian newspaper De Standaard (English translation here), Choudary said he would help launch Sharia4Belgium to prevent Muslim immigrants from integrating into Belgian society. "Belgium has an extensive Muslim population, especially in the cities. I therefore plan to come to Belgium myself in the coming weeks, or send a delegation to establish a branch of the organization," he said.
When asked if he wanted to convince Belgians to convert to Islam and to implement Sharia law, Choudary replied: "The implementation of Sharia will happen in one of the following four ways: either the majority of the population converts to Islam; or a foreign Islamic power conquers the country; or there will be a rebellion against the oppression of the Muslim people; or the Muslims will overthrow the ruling regime. Society will be united by Islam."
In November 2010, Belgian police arrested three members of Sharia4Belgium in a counter-terrorism sting operation. The suspects were using the Ansar al-Mujahideen Jihadist website to plan an attack on Belgian soil.
Muslims make up around 10% of Antwerp's population, and the city has long been a hotbed of radical Islam. According to some estimates, more than half of the mosques in Antwerp are controlled by Muslim extremists groups, including the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, which promotes Jihad and hatred for Western society.
Vlaams Belang, a conservative political party that rejects multiculturalism and wants strict limits on Muslim immigration, has demanded that Belgian authorities shut down the Sharia court in Antwerp.
In an interview with Het laatste Nieuws, Belgium's most popular newspaper, Vlaams Belong leader Filip Dewinter says the Sharia court "is yet another step toward the Islamization of Antwerp." Dewinter says the constitution gives the secular courts a monopoly on settling disputes. "You certainly cannot have a parallel system of Sharia courts developing judgements based on principles that are at odds with the values of our constitutional democracy," he says.
Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.