Dr Martin Parsons: Conservatives should support Baroness Cox’s bill to ban shari’a courts in the UK

On Friday 22nd April Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) bill receives its second reading in the Commons, having already passed the Lords. Don’t be put off by the title, the bill aims to prevent the emergence of a dual legal system in the UK, where different laws apply to different groups of people – the ultimate form of identity politics.

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Section 6 of this bill would make it a criminal offence for anyone to “falsely purport to exercise any of the powers or duties of a court” with a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. In other words, it will ban shari’a courts that have sought to claim they have legal authority to operate under laws designed to facilitate commercial arbitration. Let me explain why this is so important. 

Shari’a is the codification of rules derived from the Qur’an and Hadith. It covers everything from what food you should eat, how you should pray, business contracts, to criminal law. Many Muslims have very romantic notions about shari’a, but often know relatively little about what it means in practice. Now if Muslims want to live by those aspects of shari’a that solely pertain to their lives as individuals, what to eat, how to wash, when to pray, and in a free society no one should attempt to stop them. That is an essential part of freedom of religion.  

But shari’a courts are by definition about shari’a enforcement – and that is another matter altogether. Shari’a enforcement is in many respects the touchstone of radicalisation. It is what Islamists aim at, whether they are jihadists who use violence to try to intimidate people into accepting it, or political Islamists who use the political process to try to increasingly align UK law with shari’a. 

Islamists will tell you they only want shari’a courts to deal with family law. That is a very disingenuous statement. With shari’a you cannot pick and choose some bits and ignore the rest. All four Sunni as schools of Islamic law as well as the Shi’a make clear that shari’a is a totality. As well as dealing matters such as family law (inheritance, marriage, divorce, child custody etc.), it sets out that Muslims should rule non-Muslims. It is incompatible with our historic national values such as one law for all, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and even parliamentary democracy as I will explain below; and as I have argued for several years, the year on year spread of shari’a enforcement around the world is the single greatest cause of increasing religious persecution in the world.  

Islamic government and shari’a enforcement is the ultimate goal of Islamists. They view shari’a courts judging family law matters as simply an initial stepping stone, the thin end of the wedge. So why would a Conservative government or for that matter any right thinking government, even want to consider allowing shari’a enforcement in the UK? 

So let me explain how we have ended up here. Before the British arrived in India a system of courts based on Hindu legal codes and shari’a courts operated. The British slowly introduced English law and tolerated though never officially recognised these existing legal systems. However, concerns about social justice led to the British parliament passing laws prohibiting various practices allowed by these legal codes. These included the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself 1833, slavery of non-Muslims being permitted by shari’a and the abolition of suttee (immolation of Hindu widows on their husband’s funeral pyre) in 1829. This process of Hindu and shari’a courts being unofficially tolerated for matters such as inheritance and family law, but never officially recognised continued at independence, but with the Indian constitution now setting out an aspiration for a single legal code for all citizens based on parliamentary law.  

A similar situation existed in many Muslim majority countries in the post-colonial era, where western based parliamentary law was supreme, but the operation of shari’a courts was tolerated. However, that began to change in the 1970s and 80s with the rise to prominence of modern Islamism. For a variety of reasons governments began to introduce shari’a. Often it was a means for corrupt or unpopular rulers to claim Islamic legitimacy. This was the case in Pakistan where in 1977 Bhutto and then the dictator General Zia sought to introduce shari’a. There followed the formal legal recognition of shari’a courts which judged not only family law, but also criminal law. Not only that, countries began to introduce shari’a clauses in their constitutions saying that no law could be introduced that was incompatible with shari’a and in countries such as Pakistan national shari’a courts were set up that could strike down any court decisions or parliamentary laws that the shari’a judges deemed to be incompatible with shari’a. In other words, while western based legal systems and parliamentary democracy continued to exist, shari’a now trumped both. 

This was actually a perfectly logical outworking of the nature of shari’a, which claims to be based directly on divine revelation. As such law is not something that is made in parliament, but is ‘discovered’ by theologians interpreting the Qur’an and Hadith. Parliamentary law is regarded simply as ‘administrative law’ to put shari’a based government into practice.  

There is a further problem with shari’a courts, which is the emphasis in shari’a that Muslims should rule non-Muslims, in practice tends to encourage and sometimes legitimises intimidation to achieve this. We already have a real problem with this in some UK cities where radical Muslims have attempted to declare that an area is a ‘shari’a compliant’ zone and enforce compliance. In countries where shari’a courts have been granted formal legal recognition, this level of informal, vigilante shari’a enforcement tends to very significantly increase. In fact, the origins of Nigeria’s Boko Haram go back to 1999 when the governor of Zamfara State was elected on a vague promise of introducing ‘religious reforms’. He then introduced shari’a courts, a move followed by other neighbouring states. Three years later Boko Haram (meaning ‘western education is forbidden by shari’a’) was formed and began using violence as they sought to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by shari’a. By March 2013, in a reversal of the earlier restrictions placed by western law on shari’a, Boko Haram reintroduced slavery, a move that was quickly followed by IS in Syria and Iraq. 

This, in a nutshell, is why we need to ban shari’a courts now. They are not only incompatible with the basic principle of British law - equality for all before the same law, they are also the start of a very dangerous, slippery slope. Yes, doing so may offend some Muslims. But that is actually the opportunity to explain why in this country our freedom of religion means you can, if you wish, choose to live by those aspects of shari’a that solely affect you as an individual. But, when it comes to the law, it is fundamental to our historic national values that we have one law for all and all are treated equally by the law, and that law is decided by our elected representatives in parliament – not by shari’a judges. Conservatives should support Baroness Cox’s bill.


Martin Parsons has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and has previously worked as an aid worker in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This work included negotiation with senior figures in a number of Islamist groups now designated as terrorists, including Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban. He is currently Head of Research and Director of Studies for an international aid agency specialising in helping victims of Islamist extremism, including Christians fleeing IS in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in West Africa.

 

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