The Bill (2011–14)

Chapter 7
The Bill (2011–14)

The issue of religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination … is not unique to any one faith tradition; but there are so many cases in Britain of Muslim women who are really suffering very severely from it … women really do suffer from differential access to divorce, from differential access in terms of child custody and from the condoning of domestic violence. My Private Members’ Bill was really an attempt to address some of the issues, especially by helping women to know what are their own rights in this country and how they can access these rights in this country (Baroness Cox, Book Launch 2103: 15).


From the mid-2000s, with growing concern about Shari’a (Chapter 2), there emerged, in Britain and elsewhere, a plethora of organizations opposed to its introduction in any form. Indeed, ‘Shari’a’ now figured prominently as the focal point of much anti-Islamic rhetoric, for example on banners in demonstrations against the proposed Islamic cultural centre in New York, and in proposals to ban its legal application.1 The pastor from Florida who advocated burning the Qur’an was one of many people railing against Shari’a, castigating its harsh punishments and patriarchal discrimination against women. Its recognition, opponents argued, would contravene the principle of one law for all, intrude religion into secular public space and create and sustain parallel societies, hindering integration. Muslims, like other immigrants, should accept and abide by the principles of their country of residence.

British opponents are discussed in detail in Chapters 811, but briefly they include street movements of the extreme right such as the English Defence League (EDL, created in 2009), right-wing parties such as the British National Party (BNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and neo-liberal or neo-conservative think-tanks and pressure groups such as Civitas or the Centre for Social Cohesion. They also encompass feminists (Muslim and non-Muslim) contesting Islam’s treatment of women, Christians, humanists against all religion as a matter of principle, secularists seeking to exclude religion from the public sphere and Muslim and ‘ex-Muslim’ opponents of Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim-majority countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia and in Britain itself. Foremost among these many dramatis personae is Baroness Caroline Cox.

Baroness Caroline Cox2

Born in 1937, Caroline Cox originally trained as a nurse, but graduated in sociology and economics and in the 1970s taught at the then Polytechnic of North London, where she was at odds with the left-inspired values of her colleagues. In the 1980s she was involved with the influential right-wing think-tank, the ‘Conservative Philosophy Group’, and in 1983 made a life peer as Baroness Cox of Queensbury in Greater London by the Conservative Government. In the Lords she was Government Whip 1985, Deputy Speaker 1986–2005, and Deputy Chair of Committees 1986–2004.3 In 2004, however, she advocated voting UKIP in the European elections, was expelled from the Conservative Party and now sits as an independent ‘cross-bencher’.4

Summarizing her views her biographer, Andrew Boyd, observed that she is ‘difficult to pigeonhole’ (1998: 404). She has at times supported Labour and Conservatives, as well as UKIP, but generally her long-term involvement has been with the centre-right, as may be judged from her House of Lords voting record.5 Apart from the plight of nurses, her political activities originally related mainly to what was happening in education in which she cooperated with conservative critics of mainstream policies. In that connection she became concerned about religious education, and what she believed to be the side-lining of Christianity and the Christian tradition6 and the promotion of a multi-faith ‘mish-mash’, as her ally Michael Nazir-Ali, called it.7 Inter alia she was an advocate of faith schools, including, it would appear, Muslim schools (Boyd 1998), and their incorporation (as voluntary-aided schools) within the state system, as happened after 1998. She has been closely involved with Christian and humanitarian causes in Africa and the Caucasus region, both of which she has visited on a number of occasions, and was, inter alia, founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART).8 She has also been active on issues such as contemporary slavery and FGM on which she has spoken in the Lords. Among other commitments she is a member of the advisory group of the anti-immigration organization Migration Watch,9 which has been described as a ‘xenophobic front group’.10 Her determination, commitment and courage cannot be gainsaid.

Regarding Islam, Baroness Cox intervened in questions and debates in the Lords relating to Shari’a on 20 occasions between March 2000 and January 2013, more than any other member. They included observations on what was happening about Shari’a law in Canada (2009, 2010), Egypt (2012), Indonesia (2002, 2003, 2005), Nigeria (2003, 2004, 2005, 2009) and the Sudan (2002, 2004, 2005, 2011).11 In 2005 she declared that ‘by its nature Islamic Sharia law violates fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – such as the principle of equality before the law and freedom to choose and change religion’,12 and in a debate on forced marriage and honour-based killings she commented that in ‘traditional Islamic Sharia law’, ‘there is no equality between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims. This makes women especially vulnerable in cases involving sexual issues, where they are disadvantaged in a Sharia court, or where the family takes the law into its own hands’.13

As her biographer confirms, until the early 2000s, Baroness Cox’s principal engagement with Islam, and the ‘colonialism of the jihad’ (Boyd 1998: 9), related mainly to what was happening elsewhere, notably in the conflict between the Muslim North and Christian South of the Sudan, and in Nigeria. Nonetheless, perhaps because of her personal experience in Indonesia, Sudan and the Caucasus, she became increasingly concerned about the global threat of Islamism in Europe, and ‘the creeping implementation of Sharia law’,14 which she discussed in a book on The West, Islam and Islamism (Cox and Marks 2006). In 2005, Lord Pearson, a close colleague in the Lords said that ‘she has done more than anyone else in your Lordships’ House to warn of the growing danger that militant Islamism poses to western society and the wider world’.15 Lord Pearson, a long-standing critic of the Soviet bloc, accompanied her on visits to Moscow and Nagorno Karabakh (Boyd 1998), and in 2009 joined her in inviting the Dutch right-wing, anti-Islamic MP, Geert Wilders, to the UK. Wilders, who was initially denied entry by the then Home Secretary, was subsequently allowed to address a meeting at the Lords where his controversial film Fitna was shown.

Her position on Shari’a must be situated in her views on politics in general and Islam in particular, expounded in numerous articles, speeches and media appearances. In April 2010 she gave a keynote speech at a ‘Mission Conference’, held in North Carolina, organized by New Wineskins, an online magazine dedicated to the ‘spiritual seeker interested in broadening the understanding of contemporary culture and learning as impacted by issues of faith from the Judeo/Christian perspective’.16 Speaking on ‘Resurgent Islam and the Gospel’, she argued that ‘strategic, political, militant Islam is the greatest threat’ facing the free world. ‘Militant Islam is thinking strategically and we are not’, she contended, and a country like Britain, where she claimed some aspects of Shari’a law have become established, was unable to stand up to this threat as a result of ‘aggressive secular humanism’ and ‘misplaced multiculturalism’.17

These views were developed in an address to a ‘Restoration Weekend’ conference, in the USA in 2011. This is an annual event organized by a US conservative, David Horowitz,18 which ‘brings together leading intellectuals for a series of discussions to better prepare the public for the world of tomorrow’.19 That held in Florida in November 2011 (described in the Spectator as a ‘refreshing weekend of real conservatism’20) included a panel on ‘Islam vs Islamism’, where after a ‘tribute to those who paid the price for our freedoms in previous generations’, Baroness Cox outlined the challenges ‘from within and without’ that faced the UK, contending that ‘Britain has lost its soul’:21

Some of the indicators, some of the – if you like, the sort of symptoms of that and the causes behind it – aggressive secular humanism. You find that in many of our political leadership, in the media – as it stands – aggressive secular humanism, and misplaced multiculturalism, and extreme relativism. Anything goes. There’s nothing in any culture which is better than any other culture which therefore we should resist or be critical about as something that’s incompatible with our own cultural heritage, a very serious ignorance of our spiritual, cultural and political heritage; an education system that has not really taught our history for decades, and the onslaught … of the Marxist-Leninist era. And divisions within the Christian churches … But amongst those contributing factors, the extreme relativism, the hedonism, or the flower power of the swinging ’60s – some of you may be young enough to remember the swinging ’60s – and the Marxist-Leninist influences in United Kingdom, and in Europe in general, in the ’70s and in the ’80s.

In a lengthy passage Baroness Cox explained her earlier struggles with Marxist-Leninists in higher education. ‘What was going on’, she said, was

what we called the drip effect – working with students, undermining any appreciation of what was precious in our political and cultural heritage, and actually injecting hatred, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and a real hatred of our society, and a deep, deep cynicism. And of course, they were the ones who got the good degrees. And we’re reaping the whirlwind now. Because they are now in key places in teacher education, in the media, in politics. And that is the legacy.

This is perhaps, she added, why ‘many of us feel [the BBC] is extremely biased, extremely partial’, and she expressed concern (aurally it comes across as disbelief) that ‘the head of religious broadcasting on the BBC now – religious broadcasting for the BBC – is now a Muslim’

The ‘communist onslaught’ had led to an ideological vacuum ‘liable to be filled with alternative ideologies, belief systems and role models’:

One alternative belief system which is introducing beliefs and practices inherently incompatible with the principles and values of our political and cultural heritage is political and militant Islam, or Islamism. And this is my bottom-line statement – strategic, political, militant Islam is, I believe, the greatest threat today to our economic, political, spiritual and cultural heritage, certainly in the United Kingdom; I would suggest, certainly in Europe; and I would also suggest, certainly in your nation [Applause].

Shari’a law entered the UK, ‘without any public debate, without any parliamentary debate [This is] utterly unacceptable, as it violates the fundamental principles on which the British legal system is based’. ‘Political Islam’, she concluded, ‘is using the freedoms of democracy to try to destroy the democracy and the freedoms it enshrines’.

Foremost among Baroness Cox’s concerns is her belief that Islamic principles and practices discriminate against women. In a Lords debate on honour killings (in 2005),22 she contended that:

this kind of violence is derived from deeply held values, long-established cultural practices and, ultimately, belief systems in which we find the genesis of much which we hold to be good but also, sadly, much which we in this country cannot condone … In addressing these questions I began to discern the fundamental importance of a profound difference between aspects of beliefs, values and practices of what we may call the contemporary ‘western’ value system and those cultures which sanction or require honour killings. The former is theologically and culturally grounded in concepts of ‘right’, ‘wrong’, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and, in theological terms, redemption and salvation; or, in secular terms, ideally in rehabilitation, restoration of relationships and reintegration into society. By contrast, some other cultures are premised on concepts of honour and shame – particularly with regard to sexual relationships and perceptions of honour or defilement of women. Once honour has been defiled, it is deemed in those cultures to be irredeemable. Moreover, it casts a stigma over the whole family. The only way to try to restore the honour is to punish and destroy the source of shame – hence the violence so often associated with honour killings and other forms of violence. Similar responses may be associated with the shame caused by conversion to another faith or the perception of blasphemy causing offence to adherents of a particular religion.

She cited a paper on ‘Izzat Honour’, by Mussurut Zia, who worked with the Lancashire Constabulary,23 which, she said, explained that while honour-based violence was a cultural practice found in other religions, it was ‘most prevalent in Muslim communities across the world’, and Islam’s stance therefore needed closer scrutiny. It was linked, she continued, ‘to traditional Islamic Sharia law, where there is no equality between men and women, between Muslims and non-Muslims’:

This makes women especially vulnerable in cases involving sexual issues, where they are disadvantaged in a Sharia court, or where the family takes the law into its own hands … Cultures that are based on concepts of shame and honour tend to have norms and practices conducive to violence, especially domestic violence. They are rooted in traditional beliefs which do not see people primarily as individuals whose value lies in their individual characteristics and achievements. Instead, their value and status are derived from conformity to predetermined roles which, in the case of women, have traditionally been rooted in domestic responsibilities, deference to men and sexual obedience.

Her point about honour (and its counterpart, shame) was reiterated in her intervention at the Temple Church, London:

Talking as I do to so many of these women who really are suffering and to many of the women’s organizations who try to help them, I would like to put to the panel the fundamental and deeply cultural problem of community and family pressure, pressure from those who try to deter women from seeking help outside their communities because of the danger of shame. Women come to me in real fear, saying, ‘I cannot go outside my family or my community. It’s going to bring shame on my family and my community’ (Book Launch 2013: 15).

It is in this context that Baroness Cox regards herself as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ (Telegraph, 22 April 2014).

Launching and Briefing

This, then, is the ideological background to Baroness Cox’s Bill which had its First Reading in the Lords on 7 June 2011. A Second Reading was held on 19 October 2012, after which it should have gone for detailed examination ‘in Committee’, but failed to reach that stage during the parliamentary session, and was dropped. It was reintroduced in slightly amended form in 2013–14 with another First Reading in May 2013, but again failed to make further progress.24 It was reintroduced a third time in 2014. The following sections mainly cover interventions around the debates in 2011–12.

The Bill was launched with press release, information sheets and statements of support from leading Christian organizations (including Christian Concern,25 The Way26 and the Christian Institute27), and from the NSS, the British Humanist Association and One Law for All. A video with Christian and secularist supporters explaining the purpose of the Bill was made available on the Christian Institute website,28 there were many articles in the media and the Bill elicited the backing of the New York-based, neo-conservative and anti-Muslim campaigner, Pamela Geller, in her blog ‘Atlas Shrugs’29 (the title of a novel by the influential right-wing author, Ayn Rand).

There had been earlier calls for legislation to curtail the activities of Shari’a councils (Chapter 2), and organizations such as One Law for All were already working on this: in October 2010 its website reported that ‘A suggested amendment to the Arbitration Act is being formulated and sent to women’s, children’s, and human rights groups across the UK requesting their endorsement’.30 The Baroness herself revealed an interest in legislation in a question on Shari’a law to the Minister of Justice in the Lords in June 2009:

Is the Minister aware that Sharia family courts and councils were introduced into Canada at the request of local Muslim community leaders, but were subsequently withdrawn and proscribed when women were allowed proper consultation? Many of those women argued that they had gone to Canada precisely to flee Sharia provisions. Will there be opportunity for similar adequate and comprehensive consultation with all women on the issue in this country.31

The findings of a Civitas pamphlet (Green 2009) that publicized the estimate that there were 85 Shari’a councils and similar bodies operating in the UK, a figure endlessly repeated, was also influential.

Alan Craig, when asked, said that ‘one lawyer wrote the Bill’ (Islam Channel 2012), but a number of people and organizations had a hand in it, and a parliamentary department, the Public Bill Office, which gives advice on drafting also assisted. Associated with the advisory team were lawyers from the Christian associations, including Sam Webster, In-House Solicitor with the Christian Institute,32 representatives of the NSS and Charlotte Proudman. She researched and drafted the Equal and Free? brochure (2012a), published for the Bill’s Second Reading (see below), and had an important role in Panorama 2013. She describes herself as having been a Senior Parliamentary Advisor to Baroness Cox with a role in ‘drafting amendments to the Bill, advising on strategy, and providing policy advice’.33 Additionally, Tehmina Kazi, an activist with the BMSD is also described as advising on the Bill,34 while Daniel Greenberg, who wrote a section of Equal and Free? on the implications of the Bill for Jewish institutions (see Chapter 10) includes ‘legislative drafting practice for legislation in the UK and abroad’35 among his activities.

For the First Reading a series of videos with Baroness Cox and others outlined the Bill’s rationale. Thus:

I’m bringing this Bill before Parliament for four reasons. First because in this country we have a commitment to equality [and] to combat any forms of gender discrimination, gender inequality, and Shari’a law is inherently discriminatory against women, so it does not actually have a place in this country, in family matters particularly. Secondly, women are really suffering as a result of the provisions of Shari’a law, for example polygamy. In Shari’a law a man can divorce a wife very easily. This happens quite frequently. Women are just divorced, and left, if they haven’t had a civilly registered marriage, without any legal redress. The husband goes and marries another wife, brings her back to this country, and enjoys that relationship, and divorce again. And then a third marriage, a third divorce. We don’t allow bigamy in this country, why are we allowing polygamy, and women are suffering, and that’s the second point. Thirdly, I’m in Parliament, and as a parliamentarian I think we have a responsibility to make sure that the laws of our land are upheld and that people do not suffer, and in this case that women do not suffer systematic discrimination. Fourthly, we have a very precious heritage in this country of freedom and equality before the law. It’s a heritage of liberal democracy, it’s a heritage for which many people have lived and died to keep that heritage of liberal democracy, freedom and equality before the law. And we’re just letting that go, and someone has to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. It is time now to raise this issue, have public debate about it, and to bring in Parliamentary redress to prevent this continuing systematic discrimination against women in our land.36

Another video37 opens with a standard view of the Houses of Parliament from Parliament Square, and a voiceover explaining that a Bill was being introduced ‘to tackle the problem of Shari’a courts in England and Wales’, and ‘the discrimination suffered by women within Shari’a systems’ [images of women in hijabs] ‘It will also deal with Shari’a courts which attempt to set themselves up as parallel legal systems dealing with criminal and family law’. The Bill includes a measure to

outlaw discriminatory treatment against women within arbitration tribunals. It also creates a new criminal offence of falsely claiming legal jurisdiction on matters that ought to be decided by criminal or family courts. The Bill does not attempt to interfere in the internal theological affairs of religious groups, but it does support the principle of equality under the law for all British citizens.

Following pictures of a veiled woman, Lady Cox appears saying that vulnerable women will benefit from greater legal protection, and the voiceover tells us that the Christian Institute also backs the Bill, with spokesman Simon Calvert declaring: ‘The rise of Shari’a courts in our nation is something that concerns a lot of people. Justice and equality under the law are precious values and we shouldn’t take them for granted. This Bill is timely and it’s welcome’. NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood also offers support:

Laws should not impinge on religious freedom, nor should courts judge on theological matters. But by the same token, democratically determined and human rights compliant law must always take precedence over the law of any religion. … Religious arbitration has already been outlawed in two Canadian provinces, and under this new Bill the Arbitration Act would not be able to determine family or criminal matters nor agreements that are discriminatory against women. A nation could be defined by those subject to one law. This Bill aims once more to give every citizen equal protection by the same just law.

There were many articles immediately after the launch which synthesized or reproduced extracts from briefing materials and/or included statements from the leading protagonists,38 often backed by pictures of veiled women. In one article (reprinted in the Ottowa Citizen), the Sunday Telegraph reported: ‘Critics claim that the spread of Sharia law is creating a parallel legal system that opposes equal rights’, but the Bill would outlaw Shari’a courts ‘where they conflict with the British legal system’.39 It quoted Baroness Cox saying the problem had become more acute since the Archbishop’s speech in 2008:

My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or quasi-legal, systems taking root in our nation. There is widespread concern that some tribunals applying Sharia are going well beyond their legal remit, and some rulings are being misrepresented as having the force of UK law. Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for the English courts alone.

On the other hand, Islamophobia Watch observed that Baroness Cox (with Lord Pearson) had been responsible for inviting Geert Wilders to the House of Lords ‘to show his Islamophobic film Fitna – an event that prompted a supportive demonstration by the English Defence League’, and questioned whether she was really concerned for the rights of Muslims.40

The Baroness also participated in a discussion on Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio 4, 27 June 2011), with Aina Khan and Diana Nammi, founder and Executive Director of the IKWRO. The chair began by explaining that Shari’a ‘courts’ (sic, though she also referred to ‘councils’) have been operating in the UK for 30 years, ‘deciding on financial, family and custody matters according to Shari’a law … and since 2007, Shari’a arbitration tribunals have been making decisions enforceable by the UK civil courts’. Baroness Cox’s Bill aimed ‘to limit what she says are its discriminatory practices. Under Shari’a law a woman’s testimony has half the weight of a man and she has fewer property rights’. Diana Nammi interpreted Shari’a’s position on child custody, divorce, inheritance and polygamy, and stressed that the Bill was not anti-Muslim but anti-discrimination. The interviewer then asked the Baroness what led her to introduce the Bill. ‘Heartbreaking stories’, she replied. The Bill, she added, seeks to address the issue of two legal systems, ‘the British legal system of freedom for democracy for which many people have died, and a parallel legal system that is fundamentally incompatible in terms of … discrimination, inherent discrimination against women’.

Aina Khan now had the floor, explaining that her job was to ensure that women, men and children ‘get a just solution under whichever system can help them. Where English doesn’t meet the need fully, I need to bring in Shari’a law’. The reasons why a woman might wish to go to a Shari’a council include disputes over children where the English courts are overwhelmed with cases and are very expensive: it is ‘much cheaper and quicker’ to go the Shari’a council to get a dispute mediated. Indeed the English legal system is encouraging this. She stressed that Shari’a councils have ‘no enforcement powers under UK law’. Ninety per cent of those who turn to the councils are women applying for divorce, like the Jewish ‘chained wife’. There is an ‘overwhelming demand because of family breakdown’. At this the Baroness launched into an account of Islamic divorce practices which Aina Khan interrupted: ‘I believe there should be change and constructive criticism [but] to start writing off all the good work [the councils] do, and the testimonials I have seen from women that are glowing thanking for the good work that they do means that they take a defensive stance’. When asked what she would say to people who claim her Bill is anti-Islamic, the Baroness replied: ‘The Bill doesn’t mention Shari’a at all’ [Aina Khan interjected a forceful ‘Hah!’] ‘It is anti-discrimination. Shari’a is essentially discriminatory, that’s my concern, and women are suffering and that’s my fundamental concern’.

Prior to the Second Reading a Summary Briefing (Equal and Free 2012d) established the need for the Bill, with prominence given to reports concerning the activities of the Somali gar, and the MAT, including its alleged role in marital disputes, domestic violence and inheritance cases. The Briefing