The use of Sharia courts – those driven by Islamic law - in Great Britain is far more widespread than previously believed, and it raises troubling questions about human rights and equal protection under the law, according to a new study by Civitas, an independent British think-tank.
Five Sharia courts – in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford, and Nuneaton -- are generally acknowledged to exist in the country today. But Civitas researchers found that there are another 85 such courts operating largely out of mosques. The study concludes that such courts or tribunals are issuing rulings that breach basic principles of British law and calls for removal of their formal legal recognition under Arbitration Act 1996 (c. 23), one of the nation's most important legal statutes.
"The reality is that for many Muslims, Sharia courts are part of an institutionalised atmosphere of intimidation backed by the ultimate sanction of a death threat," Civitas Director David Green writes in an introduction to the report. "It cannot be accepted that Sharia councils are nothing more than independent arbitrators guided by faith." The reality, Green adds, "is that for many Muslims, Sharia courts are part of an institutionalised atmosphere of intimidation backed by the ultimate sanction of a death threat."
One major problem is that Sharia reflects the practices of male-dominated Asian and Arabic cultures, while Britain's legal system provides for equal rights under the law regardless of race, religion, or gender. Because Sharia court records are not widely available, it is difficult (if not impossible) to obtain information about specific cases and rulings. So the report examines fatwas put on popular online sites by Islamic religious leaders to get an idea of what Sharia courts are up to. The report concludes that their rulings "walk a very fine line between legality and illegality," adding that "If put into practice, they would undermine UK law by allowing a single community to play fast and loose with British law and customs."
According to Civitas, some of the rulings "advise illegal actions" and others "transgress human rights standards as they are applied by British courts." For example: A Muslim woman should not have fertility treatment; she may not under any circumstances marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts to Islam; and she may be coerced by her husband into having sex. Moreover, a man can divorce his wife without telling her about it (so long as he does not attempt to sleep with her) and he is permitted to have up to four wives. Other examples include: Sharia must override the judgments of British courts; taking up residence in a non-Muslim country is generally forbidden; and a Muslim attorney must act contrary to British law where it contradicts Sharia.