Sharia law

Sharia law Sharia law

At Wanstead Library this month, local solicitor Sadikur Rahman will lead a discussion on Sharia councils and tribunals in the UK. Paul Kaufman, chairman of the East London Humanists, reports.

Sharia councils and tribunals have come under increasing scrutiny in the UK. There is an ongoing Home Office review, whose remit is to look at "best practice" and a Select Committee review, which is taking a broader look at how such councils operate in practice.

Sadikur sits on the Council of the National Secular Society (NSS). The NSS campaigns for a secular legal system, which is one where the concerns of the state and religion are kept separate. This means that the state should not interfere with religious practice, provided it causes no harm to others. By the same token, the religious should not enjoy any special privileges, including picking and choosing from their own legal menu rather than the law of the land. Sadikur is concerned the government may decide to recommend some form of accommodation of Sharia law. This could be through decisions of Sharia councils being given legal validity by UK judges or through state regulation.

Sadikur also seeks to dispel any scaremongering. At present, it remains the case that decisions of Sharia councils have no legal validity and are not legally binding, particularly when it comes to marriage, divorce and custody of children. They also only concern civil issues, not criminal matters where there is, in this country, no recognition or call for Sharia law practices. However, he warns that the prospect of separate legal systems for different religious communities represents a very real risk to our secular legal system. One area of concern is discrimination by Sharia councils towards women, such as the weight given to their testimony, their right to custody of children and views on domestic violence. Another is the lack of certainty as to what Sharia law is. Islamic jurisprudence and modern attempts at reform have thrown open interpretations of the discriminatory rules relating to women, although they still remain at its root.

Sharia law is not codified and is open to as many interpretations as there are Sharia councils. There may be differences between the four schools of Islamic law and more differences between Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi and other sects. Consequently, if the government seeks to condone a liberal interpretation as "best practice", it will be choosing sides in a complex and controversial theological debate. Even if some councils are deemed "good", there will be nothing to prevent those with more fundamentalist views from setting up their own.

Sadikur argues that, ultimately, a secular state where all religions and beliefs are equal under the law remains the best guarantee of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

Sadikur will be speaking at an East London Humanists discussion at Wanstead Library on 22 May from 7.30pm (visitors welcome; free). Visit wavidi.co/elh


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