Courts of fear

PhD student investigates British sharia councils

BBC’s Panorama went undercover to investigate what is really happening in Britain’s Sharia Councils.

By Vincent Bongers

Machteld Zee attended English sharia-court hearings as part of her doctoral research. She claims that those courts are mainly concerned with keeping women subordinated.

(Originele Nederlandse versie hier)
“My jaw literally dropped sometimes” recalls Machteld Zee, a political scientist and legal expert who was awarded her doctoral degree for her research into sharia courts in Great Britain. “I was interviewing Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, who was, at the time, the President of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court. ‘So tell me”, he said to me, “What actually goes on in there?’ I was shocked. This man had argued, in public talks, that sharia councils were absolutely no problem, but he had no idea what happened there.”
Sharia comprises Islamic laws based on four sources, of which the Quran and the Hadith, Muhammed’s sayings, are the most important. “In the Netherlands, everyone still supposes sharia consists of principles that are open to interpretation, but the courts administer hard justice based on legal precedents.”
Zee taps a book with a green cover on the table in front of her; it is called Reliance of the Traveller, a classic manual of Islamic sacred law. “This collection of regulations has been approved by Al-Azhar University in Cairo and all sorts of other Islamic authorities. It contains a register, so you can look up what’s permitted and which punishments can be imposed on violations. The existence of these reference books deserves more notoriety. It’s available from for thirty Euros and I think everyone should read it.”
She flips through the volume. “Here’s an entry on rape and this is an explanation for eating rabbit meat. Later on, it says that sarcasm is prohibited and tattoos are haram, so punishable by death. These are not principles that are open to interpretation, especially not to fundamentalists and political Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the clerics in Saudi Arabia. Of course, there are a great many Muslims who don’t see it that way, but Islamists, secularists and the European Court of Human Rights can at least agree on this: democracy and sharia are mutually exclusive. To a fundamentalist, democracy is a man-made infidel system.”
The British religious courts were founded by migrants, which makes them unique in Europe and are now estimated to number around ninety in total. “But that includes websites where you can ask questions. It’s difficult to get a grip on them – just three men meeting in a living room can be a sharia council.”
England is fertile ground for Islamic law. “There are relatively many Pakistanis living in Britain who are susceptible to those ideas. The country was very open-minded about accommodating different cultures.”
Zee attended hearings in London, Birmingham, the little village of Nuneaton and elsewhere. “The one in London was founded in 1982 by two fundamentalists sent to England by Al-Azhar University; Saudi Arabia and Egypt wanted Islamic law to have a foothold in Europe. A current member of its committee, Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, is known in the Netherlands too for saying that Jews are pigs and gays should be put to death.
Her main concern is that “the object of the councils is to keep women subordinated. Practically all cases involve divorces filed by women. A civil marriage can be dissolved by a court but in Islam and Judaism, a marriage needs to be dissolved by the religious authorities too. The community won’t accept it if it’s not done properly and the couple still separates. Many of the cases I followed involved women who were beaten and who were forced to apply to the council for a divorce from their husbands; they take advantage of the fear of being rejected by the community.
“A Pakistani-British woman, an engineer, told the religious court at a hearing in a mosque in Birmingham that she was married and they had moved to Pakistan. Her husband had promised her a large house with a staff and pretty things.
“But she ended up living with her husband and her nasty mother-in-law, who made her a dogsbody. Her mother-in-law smashed her head against the marble and convinced her son to use his fists to beat his wife. She returned to England where she had to argue her case to the council. Her marriage was dissolved.”
Most women who file for divorce are granted one. “But it’s an extra barrier and can easily cost a few hundred pounds. In Birmingham, the proceedings are quite quick. You go in, have your say and the marriage is dissolved. That sound quite good, but in London, the husband can thwart the proceedings and then it can take years. It can be dangerous too, if the husband is still living in the same house as the woman. Sharia won’t allow a divorce if your married life is boring or because you have fallen in love with someone else. There has to be a real problem: a husband’s long or frequent absence or domestic violence. Many women are trapped in their marriages and the councils make it more difficult to escape from that prison.”
Moreover, there is a fear of repercussions on their family. “One of the women I spoke to said: ‘I’m not bothered about marriage under sacred law. I’m getting my stuff and leaving.’ But her parents still lived in Pakistan and were attacked by the other villagers, who threatened set their house on fire.”
Zee thinks that in Great Britain, but in the Netherlands too, people respond far too indulgently to sharia and the councils.
“Even in the academic literature, the ‘justice’ administered by the councils is often spoken of as arbitration or mediation, but that’s very far from the truth, as that would involve two parties and unbiased arbitration. Public morals have evolved towards avoiding saying anything bad about a culture or a religion, but I would like to imagine a society in which it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Catholic, a Jew, a man or a woman. I do not think it’s OK to ignore or tolerate the dark side of Islam, such as the subordination of women. If you allow that, you do not support integration. It has some objectionable practices, like female circumcision, honour killings and fundamentalist imams. You have to take a stand on those matters, especially if you want to have a say in the public debate. Criticizing Islam is often regarded as racism. We need to lose that attitude.”

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Courts of fear

Machteld Zee attended English sharia-court hearings as part of her doctoral research. She …