For, Against, in the Middle: Muslims, Jews and Others

Chapter 10
For, Against, in the Middle: Muslims, Jews and Others

Supporters and opponents of Baroness Cox’s Bill include both Muslims and Jews, and there are others, of various faiths and none, who are critical of religious councils and their predominantly elderly male leadership, but recognize their significance for devout men and women. Seeking to distance themselves from the strident anti-Islamic voices, they prefer the path of education and reform rather than prohibition and criminalization. I characterize them as ‘critical friends’.1

Against: Muslims and Ex-Muslims

Among the critics of Shari’a councils is the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB),2 which is allied to the Zentralrat der Ex-Muslim based in Germany, with branches in several countries.3 The CEMB is closely associated with One Law for All through Maryam Namazie who had a foundational role in both;4 the two share office space but maintain distinct identities.5 The British branch was launched at a meeting in June 20076 with speeches by, among others, Maryam Namazie and Mina Ahadi, who, like Namazie, is an Iranian-born activist and member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran.7 (A celebratory sixth anniversary lunch in June 2013 was addressed by Kenan Malik, Gita Sahgal and Maryam Namazie.) To coincide with the launch, a group of some 20 MPs proposed an Early Day Motion in the Commons: ‘This House supports the human right to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to change one’s religion and welcomes the launch … of the [CEMB], an organization dedicated to speaking up for the rights of those raised as Muslim but who have now left that religion’.8

The Council’s manifesto states:

We, non-believers, atheists, and ex-Muslims, are establishing or joining the [CEMB] to insist that no one be pigeonholed as Muslims with culturally relative rights nor deemed to be represented by regressive Islamic organizations and ‘Muslim community leaders’. Those of us who have come forward with our names and photographs represent countless others who are unable or unwilling to do so because of the threats faced by those considered ‘apostates’ – punishable by death in countries under Islamic law. By doing so, we are breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism. Whilst religion or the lack thereof is a private affair, the increasing intervention of and devastation caused by religion and particularly Islam in contemporary society has necessitated our public renunciation and declaration. We represent a majority in Europe and a vast secular and humanist protest movement in countries like Iran.9

While Shari’a in Britain is a major concern, the CEMB also supports ex-Muslims in apostate cases, child abductions, honour crimes and forced marriages in the Middle East and South Asia (CEMB Newsletter, 5 July 2013).

Specifically regarding Shari’a, in October 2007, under the heading ‘One law for all’ the Council noted ‘with concern’:

the Islamist campaign to give legal weight to Sharia law within British law. The campaign seeks to influence family and legal practitioners into dealing with particularly children of Muslim parents in accordance with Sharia law. Universal principles and laws must apply to all, and practitioners must understand that no section of the population should come under the jurisdiction of religious laws under the guise of multiculturalism and legal pluralism. It is discriminatory and unfair to have different and separate standards and norms for ‘different’ people. Children in particular must be given full protection, rights, and equality. Priority must be given to the welfare of children not religion.10

A year later it organized a conference in London on ‘Political Islam, Sharia Law, and Civil Society’,11 attended by some 300 people, with speakers including Maryam Namazie and Mina Ahadi, philosophers and secularist campaigners Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling and Terry Sanderson and Keith Porteous Wood of the NSS.12 ‘Ex-Muslim Conference attacks Sharia Law proposals’, said one report; conference delegates ‘called repeatedly for the banning of sharia law in Britain [and] criticised the proliferation of religious schools and the spread of veiling among Muslim women’.13 In December 2008 the Council joined One Law for All’s campaign against Shari’a,14 and subsequently lent its name to lobbying activities on behalf of the Cox Bill: in July 2012 it was represented at the meeting with the EHRC, ‘to raise our concerns about sharia courts in Britain’,15 and in 2013 endorsed the Central London Humanist Group’s Secular Europe Rally.16 It also remained active on issues such as the freedom to criticize religion and defend human rights in Muslim-majority countries.17

Other organizations which have supported the anti-Shari’a movement include the IKWRO which ‘provides advice and support to Middle Eastern women and girls living in the UK who are facing “honour” based violence, domestic abuse, forced marriage or female genital mutilation’.18 Baroness Cox drew attention to their evidence when asking questions in the Lords on government policy concerning ‘honour’ crimes19 (see also IKWRO 2014). In an online statement, IKWRO urged the government to ‘investigate bodies involved in providing Islamic divorce services without delay and to take rapid steps to address discriminatory practices within them’,20 and its founder and Executive Director, Diana Nammi, has appeared in the media voicing support for the Bill. In a YouTube video,21 she explained that in Islam women were considered second class citizens, and experienced much domestic violence (which Shari’a councils failed to recognize) and had great difficulties in getting a divorce. There were problems of child abuse (child marriage), child custody and inheritance. She recorded that in 2010 her organization had had over 1,700 calls from women or professionals seeking advice on behalf of clients, and over 500 had come for face-to-face meetings. The majority of cases related to violence, especially domestic violence, including forced marriage.

The Bill was also backed by the BMSD, whose aims are:

Raise awareness within British Muslims and the wider public, of democracy particularly ‘secular democracy’ helping to contribute to a shared vision of citizenship (the separation of faith and state, so faiths exert no undue influence on policies and there is a shared public space). Encourage religious understanding and harmony, respect for different systems of beliefs, and encourage an understanding and celebration of the variety of Muslim cultures, values and traditions which are present in British society.22

Its trustees include the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament. It has campaigned against radical Islamists,23 contesting their claims to represent Muslims in Britain, but has also opposed those mobilizing against the supposed Islamization of Britain. In November 2009, in an open letter to the organizers of a Stop Islamisation of Europe [SIOE24] demonstration against the extension of a mosque in Harrow (North London), the BMSD wrote:

We are a group of Muslim democrats who are committed to the values that define the British state, including legal and constitutional equality for all, equal rights for women and minorities, and religious freedom, including the right to be free of faith. We take such pride in these virtues that we actively seek to defend them against any individual, political group or organised religious outfit which seeks to impose their religious beliefs upon others (thereby infringing the right of all people to practice any religion or to be free of any religion) … you believe that, ‘Muslims are attempting to make Islam the dominant theocratic-political system across the world and are actively eradicating democracy, non-Islamic cultures and all other religions’. To counter this assertion, we would like to point out that just like the majority of law-abiding British Muslims and non-Muslims, we too are extremely concerned about the rise of extremism and political Islam in Britain, which has been used to justify or demand non-democratic practices.25

The BMSD expressed concern both about the French ban on face-veiling in public (Penny 2010), and the activities of Shari’a councils. Tehmina Kazi,26 BMSD director since 2009,27 who had been drawn into the campaign through a connection with Alan Craig with whom she had collaborated in opposing the London ‘mega-mosque’, spoke about the Cox Bill to a North London newspaper:

Ms Kazi claims the controversial bill, which has been opposed by some parts of the Muslim community, would give Muslim women greater clarification on their rights. Ms Kazi, a law graduate of the London School of Economics, said: ‘There is a gap in the system for Muslim women due to the prevalence of Sharia councils. They don’t have any legal power and are completely informal so very hard to regulate and they rule on things such as divorce in Muslim communities. We want to educate women so they know what their rights are’. The campaigner said she is concerned about the number of women who don’t have marriages registered under civil law as some Muslims have the religious ceremony of Nikah, which is not valid as a legal marriage under UK law, therefore don’t have the same legal rights if the couple decides to separate. The former student of Park High School in Stanmore and Harrow Weald College said: ‘Sharia tribunals operate under a clause in the Arbitration Act 1996 and, as with all arbitration, their outcomes are legally binding (as long as all parties agree to this). Unlike these tribunals, Sharia councils have no legal status and could potentially be set up in someone’s front room. Problems arise when they falsely claim a legal status that they do not have, and this kind of posturing is exactly what the Arbitration Bill seeks to criminalise’. She added: ‘It is a pioneering proposal, because the onus is on the Sharia councils to clarify for existing and potential clients that their decisions have no legal weight, before any mediation can take place’.28

Equal and Free? (2012a: 41) says of Kazi that she ‘regularly contributes to a wide variety of media outlets on issues relating to British Muslims’ civic engagement, including the role of Muslim women in public life’. She is described as applauding the Bill ‘for its multi-pronged approach to tackling gender discrimination’, and for making it ‘incumbent on front-line public sector professionals e.g. health visitors and GPs, to explain to women what their rights are under civil law’. At the Restoration Weekend Baroness Cox praised Kazi as ‘a very courageous girl [who] is prepared to speak up and speak out on this’.

Other groups supporting legislation have included the Federation of Muslim Organisations,29 its Leicester-based spokesperson, Suleman Nagdi, saying:

We welcome any bill that would protect the most vulnerable in society and especially anyone who is being denied their fundamental rights in this country … If people believe the councils have legal powers and if they are putting pressure on people to forego their legal rights this needs to be stopped and for them to be given their due rights.30

Nagdi is a controversial figure (see Bowen 2014: 25–7) who sought to dialogue with the EDL when it proposed to demonstrate in his city.31 In 2012 he was an independent candidate for the post of Leicester shire’s Police Commissioner, coming third. In April 2014, under his chairmanship the Federation organized a visit to Leicester by Baroness Warsi in her role as Minister for Faith and Communities.

Also critical of Shari’a councils is Faith Matters,32 whose director, Fiyaz Mughal,33 described them as run by elderly men ‘who don’t have a clue what happens in life in this country [and] will give you an autocratic, dictatorial line’.34 Mughal himself had been involved in a Labour Government initiative to combat extremism (PREVENT Working Groups 2005). The relationship between Muslims opposed to Shari’a and groups and individuals co-opted into programmes differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, creating representative bodies through which to regulate Islam, is beyond the scope of this book (Birt 2006, 2010; Briggs 2010; Cesari 2013; Maer 2008; Malik 2008a; O’Toole et al. 2013).

Muslim Feminist Critics

‘Right from the beginning we wanted to hear the voices of Muslim women’, said Alan Craig (Islam Channel 2012), and Baroness Cox herself claimed that her Bill had the strong backing of Muslim women’s organizations (Book Launch 2013). Not unexpectedly anti-Shari’a legislation was of particular concern to Muslim feminists, notably WLUML and its then spokesperson Cassandra Balchin. The WLUML, an international solidarity network founded in 1984, ‘provides information, support and a collective space for women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam’.35 It is very active internationally regarding women in Muslim-majority countries, but is also concerned about Shari’a councils in Muslim-minority countries such as the UK.36

Balchin, who belonged to the International Advisory Group for Musawah (‘for equality and justice in the Muslim family’37), and was a founder member of the Muslim Women’s Network-UK (to ‘share knowledge, connect the voices, and promote the needs of diverse Muslim women … provide a channel between Muslim women and government’38), contributed to many Islamic and feminist causes and had backed the Muslim Marriage Contract (as did Tehmina Kazi39). Already in 2006 she had expressed alarm that mediation through Shari’a councils worked to disadvantage women, and concern about ‘how much choice the weaker party would have in submitting to the governance of these alternative forums’.40 In a later Guardian interview, in 2007, she voiced her belief that the councils ‘promote a highly conservative interpretation of sharia that overemphasises the rights of the husband’:

They don’t seem to recognise the multiple forms of divorce that are available to women … There are usually no women involved, whereas in a lot of Muslim countries you can have women judges involved in family courts. They are bringing the husband in and saying, can he please release her. [But] if the husband has violated his wife’s rights within the marriage, Islam gives the wife the right to divorce irrespective of his consent. The woman is left with this feeling that she is powerless and that she has to beg for everything. This is a very conservative interpretation … [Additionally, they] seem to imply that their decisions would be valid in some other legal context … but that, in fact, is not the case.41

When the Cox Bill was launched, she welcomed legislation which would ‘bring clarity where considerable confusion reigns: In my work with Muslim women, like many others I have anecdotal evidence of gender discriminatory arbitration being conducted under the 1996 Arbitration Act, including in family matters which ought to be beyond any arbitration tribunal’s jurisdiction’.42 However, while welcoming legislation penalizing councils which ‘misleadingly imply their mediated decisions carry some legal weight’, she also recognized its limitations:

It cannot address the dangers for women of alternative dispute resolution forums such as those envisaged under the [Arbitration Act]. While ADR works fine for the powerful, even the most ardent supporter of the privatization of law – the World Bank – acknowledges that ADR doesn’t work for women in contexts where discrimination prevails. Secondly, in the case of Muslim women, what is needed are not so much legal solutions because the problems are not at their root legal but social. Laws can provide a framework but they cannot fix discrimination. For that, investment is needed in those many grassroots groups working with women in Muslim communities to strengthen the women’s understanding of their rights and their capacity to make choices in accordance with their needs.43

Moreover, ‘Bill or no Bill, the Sharia councils will no doubt continue. The real question is whether they will respond more rapidly to pressure from within the community to move in line with understandings, including among Muslims, of equality and justice that require gender equality in family matters’. This guarded response is representative of a middle ground of opinion explored below.

Defending Shari’a Councils

There was outright opposition to the Bill from the councils themselves and those close to them, though council members made relatively few written public contributions to the public debate. There are reasons for this, and important exceptions: Zaki Badawi in the past, and more recently Amra Bone, from Birmingham, Khola Hasan of the ISC, Shaykh Siddiqi of the MAT and others discussed below have made significant interventions in the media. But the voices of the councils and their users, especially devout Muslim women, are often muted in the public arena.

Writing in The Guardian,44 Musleh Faradhi, headmaster of an independent Islamic school, member of the Islamic Forum Europe,45 and associated with the East London Mosque, argued that the Bill was based on a ‘false premise’: ‘Sharia tribunals do not seek, or have power, to impose decisions over and above the existing law of the land’. Moreover, ‘Just as any Jewish woman who wishes to be free from the religious ties to her husband would approach the Beth Din, likewise many Muslim women want religious points answered in their potential separations. What can possibly be wrong allowing these women to have answers to their religious questions?’ He added:

Sharia teaches Muslims that they are religiously bound by the contracts they enter into and are morally obliged to fulfil them. In other words, sharia tells Muslims that they, as legal citizens of the UK, are bound to abide by and respect the laws here because that is the social ‘contract’ that they have consciously entered into by virtue of residing here. This presumes, by the way, that freedom of religion exists so that Muslims are not prevented from carrying out their basic religious duties. Therefore, paradoxically and in contradiction to the common myth, instead of conflict we have a situation where Muslims are actually more faithful to sharia when they are abiding by the laws of the land they reside in. Even many Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, remain ignorant of this crucial fact.

Not surprisingly the ISC, the target of much media attention, vehemently opposed the Bill, and sought to refute the assumptions behind it:

Lady Cox has made no attempt to understand the workings of the shariah councils. She repeats the modern mantra that shariah law ‘is an inherent discrimination system which is causing real suffering to women’. Perhaps she could then explain why 90 per cent of clients of these councils are women. It is totally incorrect to suggest that shariah councils consider their judgements to be superior to the English Legal System. At the Islamic Shariah Council, we are concerned only with the religious aspects of divorce, such as the settlement of the dower [mahr] … The religious marriage and divorce satisfy the religious needs of the community and do not encroach on the work of civil bodies. In many cases Muslim couples do not register their marriages and in the event of divorce, the wife is then left in an incredibly vulnerable position with no recourse to the law. Shariah councils are in the position to dissolve this marriage. Domestic violence is just as condemned in Islam as it is in the English Legal System. If a woman suffers from such abuse and approaches the Islamic Shariah Council, she is in a strong position to obtain the divorce she seeks. The ISC does not advise abused women to return to their husbands. In child custody issues, we advise clients to approach family courts to settle them. If both clients sign their agreement to hear the advice of the ISC, we will certainly offer such advice. It is however not a binding judgment. In most cases of divorce, it is the mothers who receive custody of their minor children anyway unless there is very strong evidence against her ability as a mother and primary carer.46

The ISC affirmed that the Council had no jurisdiction in matters where a woman’s testimony would be treated differently from a man’s and concluded: ‘Lady Cox has regurgitated common myths about the role of women in Islam in an effort to undermine the work of the shariah councils’.

The Quilliam Foundation subsequently arranged for Baroness Cox to visit the ISC when she ‘discussed her bill, the operation of the Council and issues around women’s rights and gender-equality with … two senior religious scholars who provided a summary of the history and work of the Council’.47 Alan Craig’s account of the meeting was cited earlier (p. 164). A detailed pamphlet by Khola Hasan (2012) later set out the grounds for opposing the Bill, noting the ‘superb ignorance’ of its supporters.

Other Shari’a councils have rarely intervened publicly and officially on the Bill. The MAT has never issued a statement, considering it unlikely that the Bill would become law. Amra Bone, of the Shariah Council of the Birmingham Central Mosque, who had previously told the Coventry Telegraph that ‘We cannot work against the law of the land and we don’t work as independent courts’,48 did, however, comment on the Bill at the time of the Second Reading, in a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday religious affairs programme49 with the journalist Kevin Bocquet and Kalsoom Bashir of Inspire, who had written of the ‘humiliating and daunting’ experience of women attending meetings with Shari’a councils in Equal and Free? (2012a: 27).

Asked by Kevin Bocquet why we need Shari’a courts [sic], Amra Bone, said to be the only woman to sit on a Shari’a council in the UK, replied that the councils [sic] were set up to help women resolve their marital problems and explained that many women did not have a civil marriage and did not realize that their nikah