The influence of cowards and cultural relativists in the UK appears to have spread to the other side of the world. Australia, where sharia law has become a shadow legal system, has cited our apparent tolerance of polygamous and underage marriage amongst the Muslim community in a bid to justify its growing influence.
In 2008 I was one of many feminists and human rights defenders who was appalled at the remarks of the otherwise liberal and reasonable Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury when he said that the adoption of certain aspects of sharia law in the UK seemed "unavoidable".
He was supported by Britain's former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips who has argued that: "There is no reason why sharia principles or any other religious code should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution."
Dr Williams said at the time that the UK should "face up to the fact that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system". Had he been referring to radical Catholics threatening abortion clinic staff with violence, or Hasidic Jews throwing eggs at anti-Zionists his remarks would have been dismissed as ludicrous. But he was talking about political Islamists who wish to impose the worst possible system of patriarchy on its women.
Sharia law is the religious rule of Islam and deals with many topics addressed by secular law — for example crime and politics — but also marriage, divorce, sex, and child custody. In countries where sharia has official status, it is applied by Islamic judges — deeply conservative men with a vested interest in maintaining patriarchal power within Muslim communities. Under sharia, women and girls can be stoned to death for "adultery" if raped, and refused the right to divorce a violent and abusive husband.
A glance at the many "fatwa" websites, where imams respond to questions regarding the correct way for Muslims to behave, shows how women are treated under this appalling system. Wives are routinely commanded to comply with their husband's demand for sex; told they should accept a polygamous marriage; and celebrate their low status and men's superiority.
Dr Williams's rationale for the partial introduction of an archaic, deeply misogynistic sharia system that is in direct contradiction to Western values and law was that it would help maintain social cohesion. Muslims, he argued, could opt for marital disputes or financial matters to be dealt with in a sharia court and would not have to choose between the "stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
Australia is now following suit and, apparently inspired by Dr Williams's stance as well as the fact that so many non-Muslim Brits appear tolerant of the presence of "sharia lite" operating alongside our formal legal system.
Sharia has been tolerated in Britain for some time. In 1996 the new Arbitration Act was introduced which gave a boost to the incorporation of sharia law in the UK. It enabled the formal recognition of agreements reached in arbitration tribunals in civil courts that resulted in Muslim Arbitration Courts (MAC) setting up in 2007. There are currently five in existence in the UK, and plans to introduce more in the future. Decisions made at the MAC are binding in UK civil law.
The majority of cases brought to these kangaroo courts involve divorce and related issues, mainly instigated by women. In all cases of domestic violence heard to date, the judges ordered the perpetrators to take "anger management" courses and dealt no punishment or deterrent. Domestic violence is a criminal offence in both the UK and Australia, and yet is dealt with as a civil matter in the sharia courts.
There is also an underground sharia system in the UK, doubtless boosted by the formal validation of the MAC. In 2009 a report by think-tank Civitas estimated that there were 85 Muslim tribunals and courts in the UK, most of which have no legal status and operate from the back rooms of mosques. Proceedings are carried out in secret, and always presided over by male community leaders — the most traditional members of the Muslim community.
The president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), Ikebal Patel recently suggested in a journal that Australia will "compromise with Islam" and allow sharia courts to rule on certain civil matters, citing the British response to sharia law as a positive approach.
Although polygamy is illegal, the system in Australia officially tolerates Muslim men who arrive with multiple wives. Not all Muslims living in Australia have registered their marriages and rely on religious ceremonies, despite this being outlawed under the Marriage Act.
Under the disingenuous guise of helping Muslim women it is being suggested that sharia law be given priority over Australian divorce law. If enacted, this plan would prevent Muslims from obtaining a civil divorce unless they first divorce under Islamic law.
As a response to Patel legal academics Ann Black and Kerrie Sadiq wrote in the University of New South Wales Law Journal that sharia law had already become a "shadow legal system" in Australia, endorsing polygamous and under-age marriages that are outlawed under the Marriage Act. It will not stop there. Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable that sharia would be seen as anything other than barbaric by democratic nations.
We must support those Muslim women who are critical of sharia law to speak out against this growing trend in the West of placating political Islam. Sharia is in total contradiction to the quest for women's human rights. We also need to question why it is only sharia, and not any other form of religious law that is given preferential treatment in the UK.
As the brave and oft-derided critic of religious fundamentalism, Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in her important critique of Islam, The Caged Virgin: "I hope to be able to make a contribution to ending the degrading treatment of Muslim women and girls by using my knowledge and experience of the Muslim faith." We owe it to democracy as well as those women who are vulnerable to be judged under sharia law to ensure it has no place in Western society.
The Point is Standpoint's staff blog.
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