There are many reasons to find problems with sharia law. In its full form, it contains numerous provisions that are barbaric and irreconcilable with any advanced society: stoning married adulterers, flogging the unmarried, throwing homosexuals from roofs or steep hills, amputating limbs for theft, and much more.
But sharia is much wider than that. It moves seamlessly from the public to the private realm, and it is in the latter that we find demands that a measure of sharia be introduced to this country. Such demands have been made, not just by Muslims, but even by an astonishingly naïve Archbishop of Canterbury. Sharia is only marginally about how a believer prays, fasts, pays the alms tax, or performs the pilgrimage. For the individual it carries obligations and penalties that cut deep into personal life. Here is a very simple example. If a Muslim man in a fit of temper uses the triple divorce formula, even if his wife is not present, the law considers the couple divorced. But if he comes to his senses, he cannot simply resume relations with his wife. In order to remarry, she must wait three months to determine that she is not pregnant. Thereupon, she is obliged to marry another man and to have sex with him, and this man must then divorce her (or not, if he decides to keep her). She must then wait another three months, after which her first husband may remarry her – see also Ask Imam). This revolting practice, known as halala, demeans the woman. In British law, it would be considered a form of coercion into unwanted sexual relations. Is this what the archbishop wants?
But sharia has already entered the UK through a back door. In October 2008 Bridget Prentice, parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Justice, stated that the government does not "accommodate" any religious legal systems, but confirmed two developments. First that sharia courts are operating under the 1996 Arbitration Act, which allows private disputes to be settled by an independent arbitrator. And second that sharia rulings on family matters (that are not covered by arbitration) could be given the authority of a British court by seeking "a consent order embodying the terms" of the sharia court ruling. There is now a Muslim Arbitration Tribunal which claims that the lord chief justice endorses alternative dispute resolution under sharia law.
The idea that Muslim tribunals arbitrating in matters of family law can take place without introducing contradictions to UK law, mainly through severe discrimination against Muslim women, is not well thought through. We have already seen one way that sharia law may have repercussions for wives in certain instances of divorce. Giving tribunals semi-official status will, assuming they work according to sharia, introduce similar anomalies.
I have not been able to get reports of live rulings from tribunals, but there are a large number of online sites which offer fatwas in answer to questions posed by believers and these seem likely to represent the kind of answers which tribunals in Britain must produce.
If couples do not marry according to UK civil law (and I have seen a fatwa ruling that they need not register their marriage with the British authorities), there may be serious consequences in the event of divorce; in the custody of children (which always goes against the woman); with respect to alimony (a man does not have to pay any, except for the children) and with regard to rights to a share in the family home (which a woman does not have). During the marriage, a man may coerce his wife to have sex, (though wives do not have that right); a husband may confine his wife to their home; if one or the other partner abandons Islam, (the marriage is declared null and void). It is considered wrong to reject polygamy. If a woman wishes to divorce her husband, it is made dependent on obtaining her husband's permission and the agreement of a sharia court. A woman may not marry a non-Muslim and a man may marry only a Jewish or Christian woman. Legal adoption is prohibited, but if a child has been adopted, he or she may not inherit from the adoptive parents. The Leyton-based Islamic Shariah Council has issued rulings including one that forbids a woman of any age to marry without a male "guardian"; another that says a man only has to intend to divorce for it to be valid; one that insists that a polygamous marriage must be maintained even in the UK (Islamic Shariah Council); and another that excuses a man from making alimony payments after divorce.
If Islamic tribunals are to arbitrate according to such antiquated and discriminatory rulings, they condemn British Muslim women to a life as second-class citizens with barely any rights. And if they claim to advise only within the framework of British law, then what are they doing in the first place? The only solution to this scandalous situation is to ban such tribunals entirely and let Muslims, like everybody else in this country, abide by a single code of laws. Sharia courts must be excluded from recognition under the 1996 Arbitration Act if justice for all does not become a farce.