On 26 May, as part of the British government’s counter-extremism strategy, an independent review into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales was launched by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, now Prime Minister. There is evidence that some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way, seeking to legitimise forced marriage and issuing divorces that are unfair to women and contrary to the teachings of Islam. The terms of reference set out the review’s intention to explore whether, and to what extent, the application of Sharia law may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales. It will examine the ways in which Sharia may be being misused, or exploited in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values and cause social harms.
At the time, Mrs May said, “A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern. There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen.”
The review is being chaired by University of Edinburgh’s Professor Mona Siddiqui OBE, the first person in UK to hold a chair in Islamic and Interreligious Studies. Her research areas are primarily in the field of Islamic jurisprudence and ethics and Christian-Muslim relations. In 2014, she spoke on religion and politics at the World Economic Forum in Davos as she is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Faith for the World Economic Forum. In 2015, Siddiqui was named in the Debretts top 500 list of the most influential people in the UK. Siddiqui will lead a panel of experts that includes experienced family law barrister Sam Momtaz, retired high court judge Sir Mark Hedley and specialist family law lawyer Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC. The panel will be advised by two religious and theological experts — Imam Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi and Imam Qari Asim. Razawi is an expert in Islamic Sciences, History, Comparative Philosophy and Law; he chairs the external-policy wiFreappng of the Shia Council of Scholars Europe, an umbrella organisation for European Shia Muslims. He also advises on policy regarding religion, integration and counter-terrorism. Imam Qari Asim MBE is senior Imam at Makkah Mosque in Leeds, which was voted UK’s Model Mosque in 2008. They will ensure the panel has a full and thorough understanding of the religious and theological issues relating to specific aspects of Sharia law and the way it is applied.
On 4 July, Siddiqui appealed online for evidence based witnesses: “Many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit from the guidance they offer. Some religious communities also operate arbitration councils and boards which seek to resolve disputes. There is, however, some evidence that Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory manner… I am writing today to invite your views and experiences of Sharia councils in England and Wales. I would like to hear from you if you have relevant knowledge, expertise or experience on the use of Sharia law, and especially if you: * work or have worked as part of a sharia council in the last 5 years, * have used a sharia council in any capacity in the last 5 years.”
All this is presently very topical. Last week, in an open letter to Theresa May, women’s human rights organisations and campaigners warned against a further slide towards “privatised justice and parallel legal systems”. They expressed concern and disappointment with the terms of reference and appointments to May’s independent review on Sharia councils and arbitration forums in the UK. The letter was signed by, among others, Diana Nammi, Director of Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, UK and Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, UK.
A 2009 report by Dr Denis MacEoin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a former lecturer in Islamic Studies for the think tank Civitas, is being referenced by media and interested elements. MacEoin argues against the wider use of Sharia law. He alleges that Sharia
rulings contain great potential for controversy and may
involve acts contrary to UK legal norms and human rights legislation. David Green, director of Civitas, says in his introduction to MacEoin’s report “equality under the law, regardless of race, gender or religion, is the bedrock of Western civilisation: take it away and you disrupt the whole edifice.”