Within 48 hours of the Archbishop making comments around religious inclusion and Shariah, there were press calls, comments and rabid responses for his resignation. This strain of fear is disproportionate and based on conjecture, myths and in some instances, xenophobia. But before I lay out these facts, there is something that I must clear up. The vast amount of Shariah Law covers financial elements, marriage and divorce and other codes for living life. It is not primarily around punishment. However, I for one as a Muslim and as a liberal to my very core, see Islam through the prism of emancipation and knowledge sharing. This means having the chance to question, to debate, to discuss and therefore Shariah is a theoretical and practical framework which must be looked through within a modern context. This therefore means ardently protecting women’s rights, respect for diversity in all of its forms (the first convert to Islam was a black man), providing the space for dissent, education for all and emancipation from debt by taking out interest in financial transactions. These are just some examples of what I regard Islam to be about. It should be a driver against poverty, against fear and xenophobia and it should be a driver against ignorance. I have to also add, that I cannot accept two legal systems as a citizen of the UK and the resulting confusion and isolation for Muslims if this were to happen would in the long term, provide a foundation to those who want to portray Muslims as the ‘other’ and therefore somehow different. We should not give them that chance.
I make these comments on the basis of very real facts on the ground that we must all wake up to. The Archbishop does not want, nor did he state that two parallel legal systems should be set up. He picked up on something that is already taking place within our major cities. In places like Birmingham, Manchester and London for example, Shariah based mediation towards divorce is taking place. There are hundreds of these cases. Additionally, the UK has become the world’s Ethical Finance / Shariah Finance base and has even outstripped the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia in the diversity of non-interest based financial products that are provided to Muslims and non-Muslims within and beyond the UK. Thousands of jobs for UK nationals are created and the billions of pounds of profit help our economy, yet this is gratefully accepted and there has been no outcry. Indeed, in some parts of the country the non-interest based programmes have been tailored for lending to Muslims and non-Muslims and have helped to assist local communities. Allied to this, lending has been focussed on getting people into business and thereby making them economically active.
You see, Shariah has many strands and the elements which talk about punishment need to be seen within a modern context and have no place today in modern societies. Islam is and must be about inclusion and it must be interpreted as so, so that women are not discriminated against, nor injustice served.
Fundamentally, what the Archbishop was getting at, was looking to find ways of using elements of what is within Shariah to help in for example, mediation in divorce. If two consenting individuals want to undergo mediation with someone who understands concepts of Islamic jurisprudence, then they should have the right to do so, though ultimately, any agreement must be presented within the common law courts of our country so that a judge can make a decision with responses from the two individuals. In the end, such Shariah based mediation is not legally binding and can only work on the basis of the two parties agreeing without coercion. The only binding element would be the courts decision and in the end, there should only be one legal system that is binding on us all.
There are therefore no parallel systems of law, just the facilitation of decision making with those who want to use community based services; participants can also leave the process at any point. To ensure non-coercion in the process, pre-mediation interviews with participants can be conducted with professionals who can help to tease out whether one of the parties has been forced into the process.
Even within financial packages based on Islamic finance, the contracts that are entered into must be in line with regulations laid out by the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and within strict financial laws. There are no opt-outs and there is strict monitoring of processes.
So, I have provided some examples of facts on the ground already operating within the legal processes and boundaries of our common law. Finally, can I suggest that the real impact of the hysteria will be to give substance to those criminals who prey on the disaffected within Muslim communities and who want to carry out violence against us all. They will be smiling today and suggesting that Muslims do not have a home in the UK. They will no doubt point to the hysteria that has been whipped up. Collectively, we should ask forgiveness for what we have done by strengthening the hands of those extremists who promote violence. That is all what this storm in a teacup will achieve.