Richard Scorerin New Humanist:
‘‘We know we have a problem, but we do not know the full extent of the problem . . . We will commission an independent investigation of sharia law in England and Wales.” In a speech in March 2015 the Home Secretary Theresa May promised a review of the role of sharia courts. In an apparent toughening of political rhetoric, May appeared to situate the issue squarely within wider concerns about Islamist extremism following the “Trojan horse” and teenage jihadi scandals. The growth of sharia courts, May implied, is evidence “that a small but significant number of people living in Britain – almost all of whom are British citizens – reject our values”.
The sharia debate has been rumbling for several years. In 2007 the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, provoked a furore when he claimed that it was “unavoidable” that English law would need to incorporate sharia. At one extreme, far right groups have portrayed sharia courts as a threat to British “cultural integrity”, conflating sharia with unrelated but emotive issues like the grooming scandals in Rotherham. At the other end of the spectrum, some prominent legal figures like Lord Phillips, a former President of the Supreme Court, have argued that there “is no reason why sharia law should not be the basis for alternative dispute resolution”. The lawyer Sadakat Kadri, author of Heaven and Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law, maintains that much press coverage of this subject is “hysterical”. Concerns about the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT), one of the leading UK networks of sharia councils, “bore no relation to the risks it posed”, Kadri suggested, particularly as the MAT had no jurisdiction over criminal matters or cases involving children. The most detailed and evidence-based critique of sharia has come from secularist campaigners who, whilst rejecting caricatures of Islam, have highlighted concerns about the treatment of women and children in sharia courts, especially in cases where women have been forced to return to abusive relationships, or custody decisions have ignored child welfare.