Many were taken aback by the news that Islamic arbitration panels are already active in Britain, ruling on financial and marital disputes and doing so with the blessing of the state. Based on its inconsonant response to this outing, the government appears to be among those caught off guard.
Barely a week into his job as Gordon Brown's race relations minister, Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, slammed the Shari'a panels, arguing that the British Muslim community is not advanced enough to run its own legal system. In particular, he unfavorably compared the Islamic courts to Jewish ones, which in his view do not exhibit the same "areas of concern":
Khan said he believed the tribunals would only exacerbate the unfair treatment of Muslim women.
"There is unequal bargaining power between men and women in this country," he said. "Women can be abused and persuaded to do things that they shouldn't have to do."
Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw attempted to alleviate such concerns during a speech to an Islamic conference in late October. Straw insisted that "English law will always remain supreme and religious councils subservient to it." He added:
It is ultimately up to the [regular] court to decide whether the agreement complies with English law. No court will endorse an agreement which conflicts with English law.
The value of Straw's assurance depends on the degree of oversight. Yet according to the Telegraph, the process — previously backed by junior justice minister Bridget Prentice — is little more than a rubber stamp by an ordinary judge, as "neither party has to attend this hearing and approval can be obtained by filling in a two-page application." Activists fear that Muslim women may not be going to Shari'a courts of their own free will, and with nothing more than a form to evaluate, judges are unlikely to learn whether their participation had been voluntary.
Finally, an October 22 decision from Britain's highest court casts doubt on the viability of Islamic tribunals operating in the UK. Referring to Shari'a as "arbitrary and discriminatory,"
the law lords ruled … that it would be a "flagrant breach" of the European Convention on Human Rights for the government to remove a woman to Lebanon where she would automatically lose custody of her 12-year-old son under Lebanon's Shari'a family law.
Incredibly, child custody cases are now being adjudicated by UK Shari'a panels.
So while the lords noted that "the appellant came to this country as a fugitive from Shari'a law," the government is simultaneously helping the same "arbitrary and discriminatory" code to gain a foothold on British soil. The confusion is thicker than a London fog.