International Director Irfan Al-Alawi on Rowan Williams and Sharia

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 13, 2008

Sharia Promotes Disunity
Liberal Muslims express themselves in the debate in Great Britain

The archbishop of Canterbury has sparked, with his call for a limited use of the Islamic sharia, a violent discussion. Many Muslims also dissociate themselves from the postulate.

Since Gordon Brown became the British prime minister, the Union Jack flies above Whitehall. The ministries were compelled to hoist the flag the whole year. The patriotic gesture should help to the new feeling of “Britishness” of which Gordon Brown has long spoken. However, what is Britishness? The question is posed in debates on cultural and national identity in the United Kingdom again and again. Without finding the slightest common denominator that would hold the nation together. Since the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, last week entered a political mine field, it is finally clear: We want no sharia.

The religious head of the state Church of England had suggested in a speech to lawyers and during an interview with the BBC that in Great Britain elements of Muslim law should be accepted, especially, in family and financial disputes. The speech gave rise to a coalition between forces which one would have considered seldom compatible until now. Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed, and were joined by the representatives of the different minorities and religious communities: The country has laws, and they apply to all.

“Back room justice”

This view is shared by wide sections of the Muslim community, including the Muslim Council of Britain. Nevertheless, the latter organization of Muslim federations argues that Muslims desire equal treatment with other religious communities, especially with Jews. The Jewish Beth Din [religious court] regulates civil and commercial conflicts, but is subordinate to British law. Presently about 30 sharia courts also operate in Great Britain, and the number of Muslims using their services grows. They are not based in British law, making their decisions technically inadmissible, and their judgments count only as long as the affected persons accept them.

Liberal Muslim groups warn about establishment of such courts. Haras Rafiq of the Sufi Muslim Council, which maintains an online-portal against the radicalization of youthful Muslims, worries about the menace of “back room justice.” He argues that you cannot compare these committees to the Jewish Beth Din. “The Jews have lived for 300 years in this country, and their judges are experts in British law. However, many sharia judges have no notion of local jurisprudence.” It is doubtful which interpretation of Fiqh, or Muslim jurisprudence, is to be applied. There are, in Sunni Islam, four Schools of Jurisprudence, and they have produced different interpretations; in this lies, according to Irfan Al-Alawi, international director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, the danger for the cohesion of the community. There would be no guarantee at all that judges were experts in all four schools. “The introduction of sharia courts in Great Britain would cause chaos among Muslims,” he says. “People come from quite different countries and cultures with different administrations of justice – which should then have jurisdiction?” Sharia courts, he believes, would promote disunity among the Muslims and open the door to arbitrariness. “And to whom should women appeal, when they believe they are unfairly treated in a divorce?”

Faith – but without compulsion

In Al-Alawi’s opinion sharia cannot be applied by halves or limited to a quarter of its weight, and official recognition could open the gates to further denial of personal liberty such as compulsory covering of the female face or a ban on women driving. “Sharia is bound up, today, with establishment of an Islamic state. This is a demand promoted by Islamic extremists and from which the biggest part of the Muslims sharply dissociates itself. The majority of the British Muslims love the British law,” says Haras Rafiq. “Precisely this law permits us to maintain our religion in a way which is required by us. Nobody here makes me drink alcohol and eat pork, I can get Halal meat, adhere to fasting and prayer times, and circumcision of boys is permitted.”

The archbishop has done a disservice to them with his speech, Muslims immediately complained. They did not start the debate and have not brought any emotional heat to it; the media did this. The ghosts are summoned, and, nevertheless, liberal Muslims as well as representatives of the Anglican church can find sense in this: A debate is on the table, now it should be led rationally.

Lilo Weber
Translated by Veli Sirin, CIP Germany,

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