Do Sharia Courts Have a Role in British Life?

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It doesn't take much to whip up Britain's irascible press: "Secret courts imposing draconian Islamic justice operate across Britain," read one paper's front-page splash last week, following a BBC report suggesting that observance of Sharia law is spreading in the U.K.

The papers pounced on the case of Aydarus Yusuf, a young Somalian who told the BBC's Law in Action program that he helps convene an unofficial Somali court, or gar, in southeast London. Controversially, one trial involved a stabbing in the community — a criminal matter over which the British court system has sole jurisdiction.

But the papers didn't listen very carefully to the radio program — if they listened at all. The gar doesn't use Sharia law, says Yusuf. "It's not Islamic, it's not religious; it's just a cultural thing." And one the BBC reporter later conceded the case was a "rare oddity," which had been taken out of context by the papers crying foul.

Yet the episode highlights the hair-trigger sensitivity to Islamic issues in Britain today. While the presence of parallel legal systems in ethnic communities may alarm the British, it's the perceived growth of a parallel Islamic culture that causes most concern. Hence, the slightest suggestion of Sharia law on British turf hits the headlines in a flash, and the debate over Muslim women wearing the veil rumbles on. (A poll this week found one in three people would support a ban on face-covering veils in public places.)

The growing phobia over manifestations of Islamic identity reflect the anxieties of a public still trying to comprehend how Britain could have spawned four home-grown suicide bombers, who killed 52 people in last year's attack on the London Underground. And Britain's domestic security services warn that some 200 Islamic extremist networks — involving around 1,600 individuals — continue to plot and plan on British soil.

Yet, far from furthering segregation, some respected commentators suggest Sharia law courts could actually help social harmony. Nor are they all that unusual: Muslim communities in Britain have long turned to the Sharia council to settle such civil matters as property disputes and divorce battles, though their rulings are not legally binding. The system is much like that used by observant Jews, who regularly take civil matters to a Beth Din rabbinical court in north London, where they are resolved according to Jewish law.

"There's something to be said for having English law working in tandem with the Sharia council," says Aina Khan, a London solicitor who specializes in finding solutions under English law that are compatible with Islamic law. "It's faster for the court and would save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of pounds of taxpayers' money." The average cost of hearing a case through a Sharia council is a mere $200. Complainants appeal separately to the council — a group of imams and solicitors — who decide on a resolution to suit both parties either by consensus, or by majority vote if necessary.

The system is especially beneficial for women who are legally divorced but cannot obtain a divorce under Islamic law if the husband refuses to consent — he is allowed more than one wife, so is free to marry again, while she cannot. Far from the gruesome tales of women's rights abused that the British public might typically associate with Sharia law — Taliban-style sentences of death by stoning, for example — Khan says a Sharia council will always grant a woman a divorce whether her husband accepts it or not. He will comply, too, because to dispute or refuse to follow the decision of community elders is a shameful act in Muslim society.

The value of Sharia courts, say advocates of the system, lie in the fact that their religious legitimacy gives them a degree of cultural authority in the community that British courts might not have. For civil matters, Sharia law supporters argue that what counts is a resolution that both parties adhere to — and one that eases pressure on Britain's notoriously overburdened legal system and avoids the grievances that occur if ethnic minorities feel they have been judged unfairly. In fact, very few people — and certainly not all those who sit on the Sharia councils — believe the courts should stray into criminal matters or particularly sticky disputes. All they would like, say Sharia law supporters, is to be officially recognized as a court of arbitration, like the London Beth Din Jewish court.

"There is a [criminal law] system working perfectly in this country and we should not be creating conflict between the laws of the land and religious law," says Mohammed Raza, imam and executive secretary of London's Shariah Council. "That would lead to further conflicts, misunderstanding and confusion which is not going to help in developing an integrated society where we all wish to live peacefully and respectfully."

That sentiment is a vital ingredient for a debate that is barely simmering, but which could easily boil over if stirred by tabloid sensationalism. In a more sober form, it's certainly a debate worth having.

With reporting by Jumana Farouky/London