What is Sharia and what should be our attitude towards it? These questions, which have intermittently swirled around Britain in recent years, have just re-erupted thanks to a recent story in the Sunday Telegraph.
The story revealed that The Law Society -- the body which represents and advises solicitors in England and Wales -- has drawn up guidance for its members on how to draw up wills in accordance with Islamic law. The document can be seen here. As the Telegraph pointed out, High Street solicitors in England and Wales will now be assisted in drawing up documents that refuse women an equal share of inheritance and that discounts the potential inheritance of non-believers entirely. Nicholas Fluck, president of The Law Society, told the Sunday Telegraph that the document, which would be recognised by the national courts, would promote "good practice" in applying Islamic principles. The paper claims that this document effectively enshrines Sharia law in the British legal system for the first time.
Since this is such an important matter it is crucial to note what is right and what is wrong about this story. First the good news: this is not the first entry of Sharia into British law. Now the bad news: it has happened a lot already. This is just one in a string of such developments.
The first opening that adherents and advocates of Sharia law were given in the UK came from the 1996 Arbitration Act, which allowed civil disputes to be settled by any means of arbitration to which both parties consented. So, for instance, if two parties wished to have a dispute voluntarily arbitrated by a religious or other social arbiter, they could.
The point was that so long as the arbitration did not run contrary to, or above, the rest of the law of the land (and this is an important distinction to keep in mind), then the arbitration would get the stamp of state approval. This condition was apparently intended to save the courts' time and satisfy the religious demands of some groups.
The result, of course, was to leave an opening for advocates of Sharia.
Five years ago, stories began to emerge of some of these "arbitrations." It turned out that not only had they overstepped the confines of the law, but strayed far beyond it. They strayed, for instance, into and above family law, when Sharia courts were found to have advocated steps -- such as non-cooperation with police and forcing a wife to remain with her husband even if he had abused her -- perversions of justice that should have been of immediate interest both to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. Yet nothing happened. No arrests were made, and the various Sharia "arbitration" tribunals were allowed to grow and keep growing.
Several years ago, there were said to be 85 such courts in operation in the UK. In reality the number -- as most are informally put together -- is doubtless much higher. The Muslim preacher, Anjem Choudary, mentioned during an interview several years ago, that he runs his "Sharia court" via his van and his mobile phone. All the issues that came along with this and similar stories were ignored by a society intent (after the first shocks) to look the other way.
The question, for instance, of what constitutes "voluntary" remains. Could the state ever have confidence that a woman whose marital problems were put in front of a Sharia court actually "volunteered" for this process, or avoided it, or would have any say whatsoever in accepting the court's judgement? The legal -- and indeed religious -- authorities claimed that they could know this. In reality, the woman never stood a chance.
Before this latest eruption, we had already come across the case of Sharia wills. In 2010, in the Times of London, a piece (by this author) appeared that focused on a known case of a Muslim British man who had died without leaving a will. The dispute over his estate was arbitrated -- and the estate disbursed -- according to the principles of Sharia as overseen by a local Sharia court. The daughters got half of the inheritance of their brothers, and so on.
So, to this extent, the Law Society's advice is not so much the opening of a flood-gate as another drip in the slow drip-drip by which Sharia principles are beginning to flood through the body of our Common Law tradition.
The movement of Sharia principles into -- and over -- Family Law is just one example. Other cases cover a huge variety of areas. There is, for instance, the UK government's perpetual desire -- whether Labour or Conservative -- to make Britain a center for Islamic Sharia finance. This includes the issuing by the British government -- the first in a non-Muslim country -- of Sharia-compliant bonds [sukuk]. All these financial decisions, and the decisions on the probity of investments, will be made by a team of Islamic scholars. Whether their idea of reputable investment is what the average UK citizen regards as being reputable investment we shall have to see. But by pushing people towards investing with them, the British government is supporting the growth of investment in Sharia funds and thus strengthening such funds and the people who promote them.
"I want London to stand alongside Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the great capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world." — UK Prime Minister David Cameron, addressing the World Islamic Economic Forum in London on October 29, 2013. (Image source: 10 Downing St. Facebook page)
The strangest thing of all about this is not the slow erosion of the principle of one law for all. It is not even the offering up of an increasing number of parts of British life to an extremist ideology. It is the ease with which it is all done. "This is not chopping off hands," Sharia's defenders say, scoffingly. "It is not chopping off heads or lashing people," they continue. Some people already complain that critics of Sharia are giving Sharia as a whole a bad name, lumping in the "bad" Sharia with the "good" Sharia. In reality, of course, Sharia law, officially adopted just this week by Brunei, apparently complete with amputations and stoning, is not compatible with law as we have been practicing it for over 2000 years in the West. The short-term political gains for the political leaders who support it hardly seem worth the long-term losses that will befall our society if we continue incorporating this system of law into our national life. If we are indeed seeing the beginning of this process, we are far from seeing what lies at the end of it.