The UK government has been forced to dismiss claims that Sharia law will become embedded within the laws of England and Wales. In parliament, Minister for Justice Simon Hughes has publicly quashed reports that Sharia law was being given equal status in UK legislation.
This followed a furore that erupted after the Law Society issued guidelines to help solicitors deal with probate matters under Islamic law.
Nicholas Fluck, president of the Law Society, said the ‘practice notes’ would ‘provide guidance to solicitors dealing with clients where Sharia succession rules may be relevant. There is a variety of spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs within our population, and the Law Society wants to support its members, so they can help clients from all backgrounds’.
However, many groups questioned the move, claiming that the Law Society was condoning unfair practices and giving Sharia equal legal status to the laws of England and Wales.
The Lawyers’ Secular Society waded into the debate, issuing a statement saying, ‘We are very concerned to learn that the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has recently issued a practice note on “Sharia compliant” wills’.
Of particular concern is that, under Sharia law, women are often denied an equal share of inheritances, and wills written under this could exclude ‘unbelievers’ and prevent children born out of wedlock from being counted as legitimate heirs.
Andrea Williams, director of Christian advocacy group Christian Concern, said, ‘It is extraordinary that the regulatory body for lawyers in Britain should approve and facilitate the use of Sharia principles, that actively discriminate against women and children, and which conflict with the principles of freedom and fairness found under English law’.
Indeed, the Bible, upon which UK law was once substantially based, says of God, ‘He executes justice for the orphan and the widow’ (Deuteronomy 10:18).
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Law Society’s publication was not just a ‘wake-up call for women’s equality’, but also a move that could trump English law and enshrine Sharia within the legal system.
Little wonder, then, that Mr Hughes had to assure MPs that the Law Society’s recommendations would never lead to an alternative jurisdiction based on Islamic fundamentals.
However, despite his protestations, fellow MPs have pressed for full inquiries into the prevalence and influence of Islamic law in this country. Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, has requested a joint investigation, by the Commons Justice and Home Affairs Committees, into the practice of Sharia law within the UK.
Since the outcry, the Law Society has issued a statement that it was not promoting Sharia law, but simply responding to demand from clients.
According to the 2011 census results, published by the Office of National Statistics, there are 2.7 million practising Muslims in the UK, a 1.2 million increase on 2001. Many of these Muslims wish to conduct financial and legal business along religious lines.
Last year, at a London meeting of leaders from Muslim countries, Prime Minister David Cameron said he supported the growth of Islamic finance, and unveiled a UK Islamic Bond.
Some people in financial services advocate Sharia-compliant mortgages or investments, as these are based along ethical guidelines that seek to avoid usury and screen out companies whose profits are derived from gaming, armaments, tobacco or alcohol.
When a Sharia-compliant ISA was launched earlier this year, one London-based financial adviser was quoted in trade title Financial Adviser as saying, ‘This is a positive move for this community, and its take-up has shown there is a market for this type of product’.
So the Law Society is not wrong to state that there is demand. But there is a huge difference between having a regulated financial product and the whole Sharia system being given equal legal status within the UK.
Apart from the preferential treatment given to men over women, Sharia law has widely different perspectives on divorce, polygamy and paedophilia. Just two years ago, Baroness Cox brought in a bill to protect young Muslim women in the UK from being forced into abusive marriages, that were permitted under Sharia law.
As reported by ET at the time, children as young as nine had been forced into such marriages in Islington. At least 30 such unions had taken place in 2010, involving two nine-year-olds and three 11-year-olds.
Former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, said, ‘If Sharia is recognised in any way in this country, this will present a contradiction in the body of the law that will cause a big problem’.
Baroness Cox said, ‘As a parliamentarian, we have a responsibility to see that women do not suffer discrimination. The UK has a heritage of liberal democracy that people have lived and died for, and we are just letting that go. We have to draw a line in the sand’.
Whatever the short-term legal outcomes, there is still the question of how far Sharia has already spread unofficially.
According to Church of England blogger ‘Cranmer’, Sharia courts are operating unofficially, often within mosques, and have now ‘been bolstered in their legitimacy by the Law Society.
‘It is astonishing in England that centuries of Christian belief, custom and tradition must conform to every aspect of human rights legislation, while the imported beliefs, customs and traditions of Islam may trump those same rights.
‘The integrity of our legal tradition is rooted in the moral and spiritual vision derived from the Bible. We abandon that at our peril’.