The Bill’s Supporters: Christians and Secularists

Chapter 8
The Bill’s Supporters: Christians and Secularists

As previous chapters have shown, and Chapters 810 will document, arguments against Shari’a and Shari’a councils include:

• The thin end of the wedge of Islamism which threatens Judaeo-Christian values and heritage;

• Councils breach gender equality and human rights legislation; discriminate against women and subject them to patriarchal authority; collude in forced and underage marriages and other criminal practices;

• Women are constrained to consult the councils by families and communities;

• Council defenders reveal a misplaced sense of ‘political correctness’, and/or moral or cultural relativism and/or reluctance to criticize ‘other’ cultures and practices for fear of being called racist;

• Multiculturalism constructs communities around ‘faith’ with consequent collusion between a neo-liberal state and religious fundamentalism;

• Religion and state must be kept separate;

• Human rights trump freedom of religion.

Supporters of the Bill are, however, a coalition sharing a common concern, but not speaking with a single voice. The following chapters review their different positions on Shari’a.


On Friday last week I sat in the cramped wooden Clerks’ Box in the House of Lords – alongside the comfortable padded red leather benches of the Peers and just three metres from the large glittering golden throne of the Monarch – and watched a bit of history being made. For nearly two years I’ve been working in Parliament with inspirational cross-bencher Baroness Caroline Cox to develop legislation that tackles the gender discrimination inherent in Sharia law at the eighty-five or so Sharia courts across the UK. I sat with a couple of colleagues in the Clerks’ Box in order to be available to her with advice and analysis during the debate … It’s been an extraordinary journey as we’ve listened to the heart-breaking stories of many Muslim women. We also visited and were stunned by the rank misogyny of the [ISC] whose head, Shaykh Abu Sayeed, refused to shake Baroness Cox’s hand because she is a woman (he shook mine instead). We built a broad coalition of support [and] worked with sympathetic Peers, learned lawyers and eagle-eyed parliamentary draftsmen to come up with a private members bill that would alleviate the discrimination and despair of woman at the hands of these religious courts.1

So wrote Alan Craig, former leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance.2 Among his campaign credentials is opposition to a proposed ‘mega-mosque’3 and an abortion centre in East London, and ‘exposing the intolerant nature of much gay politics and the destructive hedonist nature of the gay political agenda’.4 His party is one of many Christian groups that have voiced support for the Bill through websites and at meetings addressed by opponents of Shari’a.

One of the most prominent Christian advocates of the Bill is Michael Nazir-Ali. Born and brought up in Pakistan where his father had been a Christian convert from Islam, after postgraduate education in the UK Nazir-Ali was ordained in 1976 and eventually became Bishop of Rochester (in Kent), retiring in 2009.5 He has commented widely on Islam and Islamic fundamentalism (for example, Nazir-Ali 2010), and in 2008 gained notoriety for his claim that ‘Islamic extremists have created “no-go” areas across Britain where it is too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter’.6 In a video, Nazir-Ali presented the case against Shari’a:

People in this country are free to practice whatever faith they have. But at the same time we have a very long tradition of people being equal under the law. The problem with Shari’a is that it is inherently unequal for certain kinds of people. So Muslims and non-Muslims are treated unequally; similarly men and women are treated unequally. And so if Shari’a is recognised in any way, in terms of the public law of this country, that for me introduces a principle of contradiction in the body of the law which will cause enormous for the country and the people who suffer, particularly women. It is often suggested that Shari’a family law should be recognised in terms of public law. Well let us see what would happen if it were to be recognised. Bigamy they say is still a crime in this country; well would it then be a crime only for some or for all? So the equality of all before the law is immediately compromised. Divorce. The parties to divorce in this country are treated equally. Not so in Shari’a law where the man’s position remains dominant even if a woman can get a divorce through the courts. But it is quite difficult for her to do so. Custody of children. The Law Lords themselves at one of their last sittings ruled that the question of the custody of children violates a woman’s fundamental freedoms as far as Shari’a law is concerned. The laws of inheritance are unequal, the laws of evidence are unequal. What all of this does, of course, is to cause suffering to people, particularly but not only to women, and we need to make sure that people have free access to the courts and they have equal protection from the state as far as their fundamental rights are concerned.7

Nazir-Ali’s arguments are not dissimilar to those of secularists (below), but crucially for him (and many Christians), behind Shari’a is the threat Islam poses to values rooted in the Judaeo-Christian heritage:

So many of the precious freedoms that we value today, the fair treatment of workers and the care of those in need, arise from values given to us by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. These values, however, are grounded in the moral and spiritual vision of this tradition. It cannot by any means be taken for granted that these values will survive for long if the tradition itself is jettisoned.8

‘I am glad’, he continued, that the Secretary of State for Education is ‘setting out to remove our collective amnesia’ about our Judeo-Christian heritage which is the ‘connecting link to “our island story”’. Without it ‘it is impossible to understand the language, the literature, the art or even the science of our civilization’.9

Former archbishop, Lord George Carey, too, had long expressed concern about the growing threat of both Islam and secularism to the UK’s Christian heritage. ‘Christians in Britain are too soft and should be more outspoken in defence of their beliefs’, he is quoted as saying: ‘We allow other people to walk over us and we are not as tough in what we want, in expressing our beliefs, because we do not want to upset other people’.10 He accused the Prime Minister (David Cameron) of having ‘done more than any other recent political leader to increase Christian anxieties’ about the marginalization of their faith in Britain.11 When the then head of the EHRC (Trevor Phillips) compared Christian claims for exemption from (anti-gay) discrimination laws with Muslim demands for Shari’a, Lord Carey described the comparison as ‘ridiculous’, but urged MPs to respect the Christian heritage and make ‘accommodation wherever a strongly held faith seems to clash with new legislation’.12

Lord Carey, Michael Nazir-Ali and Baroness Cox are signatories of the ‘Westminster Declaration’13 of Christians concerned about the pressure their faith is under in a secular/multicultural society from what has been called ‘Christianophobia’ (Chaplin 2008; Shortt 2012; and All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom 2013).14 Carey also criticized his successor’s Shari’a lecture and distanced himself from the view, expressed by Judge Munby (in Suleiman v Juffali [2002]), that he (Munby) was a

secular judge serving a multi-cultural community of many faiths in which all of us can now take pride, sworn to do justice ‘to all manner of people’. Religion – whatever the particular believer’s faith – is no doubt something to be encouraged but it is not the business of government or of the secular courts. So the starting point of the law is an essentially agnostic view of religious beliefs and a tolerant indulgence to religious and cultural diversity.15

Griffith-Jones (2013b: 195), who observes that some Christians feel ‘marginalised by this ethos’ (judicial religious insensitivity or lack of knowledge of the significance of religion in family life, may trouble Muslims and Jews, too), cites Carey’s intervention in McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd (counsellor dismissed for refusing to work with gay couples), where he called for special courts with religiously sensitive judges to hear such cases. Rowan Williams himself retorted by urging British Christians who believed they were being persecuted to ‘grow up’: ‘Persecution’, he said, ‘is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable’.16

Another Christian, whose fears about the advance of Shari’a and Islamization were cited above (p. 13), is Patrick Sookhdeo.17 He and Baroness Cox share many interests, reference each others’ activities (Baroness Cox did so at the Restoration Weekend; see also Cox and Marks, 2006: 82–3) and have appeared on the same platform. Originally from Guyana, Sookhdeo had been raised a Muslim, but converted to Christianity after his family migrated to the UK in the 1950s. Sookhdeo, who has long been concerned about the persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries,18 is International Director of the Barnabas Fund, whose mission is to ‘support Christians where they are in a minority and suffer discrimination, oppression and persecution as a consequence of their faith’.19 His views are set out in numerous publications including a book (Sookhdeo 2008) which Baroness Cox called ‘an invaluable resource’ on Islam in Britain.20 Its blurb contends:

Islam is not only a faith but also seeks to be a political and territorial power. How is this being expressed in the UK? Will there be assimilation or separation? This book has been written to provide an easy-to-use resource to help readers understand Islam in Britain today, the way in which Islam is developing, and Islam`s influence on the country. It asks penetrating questions about the way in which the Muslim communities in the UK may develop in the future and how British authorities and institutions appear to be yielding to the process of Islamization.

The Barnabas Fund, reporting opposition to the ‘growing use of Islamic law to settle civil disputes in Britain’,21 drew attention to Baroness Cox’s Bill which would ‘firmly outlaw the practice of giving women’s testimony half the weight of men’s’.22

Baroness Cox also enjoyed the support of Christian Concern,23 The Way24 and the Christian Institute, an organization committed to the belief that ‘the Bible is the supreme authority for all of life and we hold to the inerrancy of Scripture’.25 Its website carried a video of the Baroness and others explaining the Bill’s provisions and quoted the Institute’s Deputy Director, Simon Calvert, for whom the Bill was ‘timely and welcome’.26 The Bill was also backed by Jay Smith, an ‘unapologetic apologist’, who ‘confronts Muslim fundamentalists with fundamentalist fervor’.27 Smith is described in an online evangelical encyclopaedia as ‘an expert in Christian-Muslim Apologetics, having worked with Muslims for [over] 23 years:

Every weekend he leads dozens of Christians to the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park in London, where they meet with hundreds of Muslims face to face, to make friends, answer tough questions, debate the latest research and ideas, and share their faith. Smith heads up Hyde Park Christian Fellowship, and emphasizes the use of Polemics with Muslims.28

There was support, too, from Cross Rhythms, a Christian media organization, whose Rebecca Duffett interviewed Baroness Cox, discussing divorce, the custody of children, polygamy and intimidation, and the Baroness’s view that ‘the fundamental problem in the Sharia system is that it totally favours the man’.29 The interview elicited the following comments on its website:30

Well done, Baroness Cox, Thank goodness we have some decent politicians in this country, It is high time something was done about this!

I’m British & a Christian, Only know a bit on Sharia Law. Mainly people can be killed or have their hands cut off for any reason, it won’t happen over here I hope & pray, it’s a wicked law as it is for women who are abused or want Divorce. I pray this Bill gets passed but see nothing in the press about it

[From the USA] I watched you on Glenn Beck yesterday31 and it occurred to me how grateful I am to you for taking a stand in this matter. While I and many others have been lulled into a false sense of security, heros like you and Glenn Beck, have been actively fighting to enlighten and change our world’s downward spiral into an upward one. I and many others are awakening and ready to support you. Thank you for all your hard work and God Bless.

One Law for All: ‘Religion Should Come with a Health Warning’

The public debate on sharia is changing … sharia bodies have been exposed as being abusive to children in ‘marrying’ young girls to old men, forced marriage has been discussed in Parliament with a Government commitment to criminalise the practice, and One Law for All continues to grow and to influence this debate – including in our vital opposition to the far-Right and its attempts to hijack the issue of sharia law to further its own racist agenda. With your help, One Law for All will continue to lead the fight against sharia in Britain and elsewhere, and for equal rights for all, including by supporting [Baroness Cox’s] Bill and speaking across the country and internationally to raise awareness and mobilise support (Maryam Namazie, One Law for All Circular Letter, 3 February 2013).

Among secular groups opposed to Shari’a is One Law for All, launched in December 2008 at a meeting at the Lords.32 A key figure in the organization, which has criticized TV channels for allegedly censoring criticism of Islam, attacked the activities of Islamist groups in universities,33 and opposed gender segregation in campus meetings34, is Maryam Namazie, originally from Iran, which she left with her family in 1980. According to her biography,35 she is active in Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation, Equal Rights Now, One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, the NSS, the International Committee against Stoning, and engaged in campaigns against veiling. She founded Iran Solidarity, and is a Central Committee member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. Gholami’s account (2013) of ‘non-Islamiosity’ among Iranian exiles in London helps understand Namazie’s background (see also Bowen 2014: 144).

Maryam Namazie and her then colleague, Anne Marie Waters,36 were very active on national and international speaking circuits, addressing bodies such as student societies. In November 2013, for example, she spoke at a meeting of the Brighton Secular Humanists in a theatre at Brighton University. About 50 people attended, mostly middle-aged or elderly (and white), with a balance of men and women, including several couples. Her talk, ‘Freedom – not Islamism – is my culture’, ranged widely across the international and British scene, drawing on various One Law for All publications about far-right opponents of, and far-left apologists for, Islamism. The latter she called ‘moral relativists’; the charge of ‘relativism’ (cultural or moral) is frequently made against critics of the anti-Shari’a movement (Namazie 2013c). There followed some 90 minutes of questions and answers in which many of the audience participated. While a few of the questioners appeared well-informed (and none were critical), most (inevitably perhaps) knew little about Islam and were pleased to be enlightened by an articulate and convincing speaker who advised that ‘religion should come with a health warning’.

One Law for All has organized numerous seminars, rallies and demonstrations often with impressive lists of well-known speakers. (The website has an extensive video archive covering such events.) For example, in November 2009: ‘Several hundred joined a rally in London’s Hyde Park … to show their opposition to Sharia and religious-based laws in Britain and elsewhere and to demand universal rights and secularism. At the rally, over 20 speakers and performers exposed the discriminatory and brutal nature of religious laws’.37 They included representatives of secularist and humanist organizations, the SBS, the CEMB and groups concerned with Iraq and Iran, as well as individuals such as the philosopher A.C. Grayling, Evan Harris Liberal Democrat MP and gay activist and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Another rally in central London in June 2010 (reported by Russia Today38), attracted the attention of other anti-Shari’a groups such as the EDL, as well as a groups demonstrating in Shari’a’s defence. It became a shouting match.

Among several influential anti-Shari’a pamphlets published in the late 2000s was One Law for All’s Sharia Law in Britain: A Threat to One Law for All and Equal Rights, based on a seminar held in March 2010.39 It begins by outlining the severe punishments available under Shari’a, and quotes prominent Muslims advocating the introduction of such penalties in Europe. Following examples of the alleged practices of British-based Shari’a councils, the pamphlet gives voice to several well-known Muslim and non-Muslim opponents of Shari’a, including Douglas Murray, who had called regulations making provision for Shari’a-compliant financial instruments ‘soft sharia’, and the ‘thin end of the wedge’ of radical Islamism (2009; Murray 201040). One Law for All likewise argued that ‘Despite all efforts to package Shari’a’s civil code as mundane, its imposition represents a concerted attempt by Islamists to gain further influence in Britain’.

The pamphlet mentions the Somali gar and attacks the MAT for what it says is the false claim of operating legally under the 1996 Arbitration Act. ‘Many of the principles of Sharia law’, the pamphlet continues,

are contrary to British law and public policy, therefore in theory they would be unlikely to be upheld in a British court. In reality, however, women are often pressured by their families into going to these courts and adhering to unfair decisions and may lack knowledge of English and their rights under British law (p. 16).

It cites the Lords’ judgment (EM (Lebanon) (FC) (Appellant) (FC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent)) which showed, it said, that the court declined to deport a woman to the Lebanon on the grounds that she would, under Shari’a law, lose the custody of her child to a violent husband. Under the ECHR, it continued, not all rights are absolute; the right to freedom of religion, ‘can be restricted where it is justified in the public interest’ (p. 22). The Campaign, it adds, ‘believes it is in the best interest of the public to abolish religious courts in the UK’, and makes five recommendations (pp. 24–5): initiate a Human Rights case to challenge Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and/or Sharia Councils; amend the Arbitration Act to exclude religious arbitration (as in Canada); campaign ‘to inform people of their rights under British law’; propose an EU Citizens Rights Initiative41 for anti-Shari’a legislation; ‘strengthen [] secularism and the separation of religion from the state, the judicial system and education in order to more fully protect citizenship rights’.

A legislative initiative was already on the agenda at the December 2008 Campaign launch, when Carla Revere (p. 31) argued that decisions by Shari’a councils were neither legally binding nor enforceable at law, and that even if they were enforceable, no UK court could uphold an agreement which is contrary to public policy. Her conclusion that the Campaign needed to target outlawing these courts, and inform women of their rights was underlined at the launch by Keith Porteous Wood of the NSS who declared: ‘Our next task is to come up with proposals, possibly including legislative ones, as to how the vulnerable can be better protected and how existing equality and Human Rights for all in the UK can be permanently protected from the never-ending clamour for yet more religious privileges’.42 Subsequently, in October 2010, One Law for All reported:

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. The amendment will then be sent to all MPs in the House of Commons asking for it to be presented to the House for consideration. A meeting will be arranged with supportive MPs to highlight the amendment. A campaign will be initiated inviting people to contact their MP and request their support for the amendment.43