July 9th, 2009

Sharia and Suburbia

By Tom Whipple.

"Sharia is little threat to UK law."

An inside look at Sharia courts in England.



Number 34 Francis Road, London, looks much like 36 Francis Road. A converted terrace house, only the multilingual A4 notices pinned to the window indicate its purpose. Because here - beside Mick’s Diner Café (“open 7 days”), opposite a large Sikh Temple and diagonally across the road from Christ Church Leyton - are the London headquarters of Britain’s main Sharia court.

The British press in a full self-righteous battle-charge is a fearsome sight. Rarely, in recent years, have they been more self righteous - or more fearsome - than when discussing the issue of Sharia Courts. That Muslim religious courts exist in Britain at all, let alone in innocuous dwellings in leafy suburbia, is a shock to most. That they are also legal seems a self-evident outrage.

To many there is no better metaphor for a supposedly discredited policy of multiculturalism than that minorities can now impose their own law. If this can happen, then what does it mean to be British at all?

Dr Suhaib Hasan has more practical concerns. Inside his Francis Road offices, he is discussing the difficulties of observing Sharia - Islamic law - in the UK. “It is a real problem,” he says, earnest suddenly behind a greying, scraggy beard. “The days are so long. Prayer times are connected with dawn and the disappearance of twilight, but sometimes twilight never disappears. Some say that we should combine two prayers at sunset, others that we must wait until midnight.”

Dr Hasan, flanked by bookshelves of Arabic legal texts, gives the impression that he is happiest discussing these theological niceties. But, as secretary of the Islamic Sharia Council, he has other duties. Sitting in the waiting room outside his office is a middle-aged woman holding a toddler, accompanied by her female cousin and a bored teenage girl. Dressed in bright, formal, shalwar kameez, they are here - as with most visitors - to seek advice about divorce.

Speaking in Urdu, Mrs Khan (not her real name) explains her reasons for wanting to split with her husband - from whom she has been separated for two years. “He is a drug addict and he beat me,” she says, as her turquoise-clad daughter yomps happily around the office. She claims that he has been imprisoned for domestic violence.

The next step, as far as the court is concerned, is to contact the husband. Afterwards, Dr Hasan explains that this is often the most difficult part. “She has no details - she says his own family disowned him. So we have only her word. We will put an advert in the local paper, and hope her husband responds. But I don’t think she is lying, she is a simple woman.”

Once they are satisfied that they have gathered all the necessary information, or at least as much as is possible, a file on the case will be presented - along with others from around the country - to a group of scholars at a monthly meeting in the Regent’s Park Islamic Cultural Centre. They then have the power to decide the outcome.

Whilst the public debate around Sharia courts is coloured by images of stonings and hands being cut off, the practical reality in the UK is cases very similar to those of Mrs Khan. Since its creation in 1982, Dr Hasan’s organisation has considered 7,000 divorces. In this respect it is similar to the long-established London Beth Din, a Jewish court based in Finchley that is consistently of less interest to the tabloid press.

But when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested in 2008 that the inclusion of some aspects of Sharia into UK law was “unavoidable” - that Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty” - he managed to create one of the most unlikely coalitions in recent political history. The Right joined with the Left, liberals with authoritarian, religious with atheists - all to oppose him. The Sun newspaper reported the story under the headlines “What a Burkha!” and “Bash the Bishop.”

In reality, Sharia is little threat to UK law.

Most who apply to the Sharia Council are already divorced in UK law, or involved in civil divorce proceedings. That is a necessity. What the Islamic divorce adds, as with the corresponding Jewish divorce, is acceptance in their own community. It does not usurp UK law, because it has nothing to do with UK law. In some civil matters, such as financial disputes, the court has power to arbitrate - but only in the sense that a coven of witches would have the power to arbitrate, if both sides agreed to abide by their decision.

“There are many things that English law does not cover,” Dr Hasan explains. “In Islam, there is a dowry amount attached to each marriage. It may be nominal, it may be exorbitant. If a man wants a divorce and has not paid it, we ask him to pay. If a woman wants a divorce, she must return it.”

This problem has an analogue in UK law: Dr Hasan is effectively arguing for legally-binding pre-nuptial agreements. But he goes on to describe aspirations that come closer to the tabloid caricature of Sharia - lamenting a system that does not recognise marriage under 16, and arguing in favour of polygamy. “Many Muslims, including those in high positions, keep mistresses in hiding along with a legally wed wife. We say, what is better? To have a legally wed wife and a mistress, or a second wife? Mistresses are allowed, but second wives are not. Isn’t it ironic?”

The Sharia Council is technically powerless. It would like to have enforcement powers, but with no official status, its authority comes solely from its standing in the community. During the course of an afternoon, I sit in on a succession of meetings with people discussing extremely personal issues. None of them knew I was coming, but equally none of them even questioned my presence - if the council trusted me, so did they.

The second appointment of the afternoon is a man, stubbly and in his late twenties. Accompanied by his brother, he wants a fatwa - a religious edict - to get him out of a predicament worthy of a daytime TV show. In a rage, three years ago he told his pregnant wife he divorced her. For men, that is all that is required to be separated in the eyes of Islam.

Now he wants her back. “I made a lot of mistakes in my life,” he says, shuffling and looking down. “But I have changed. So long as Islam permits me to do this, then I want us to be together.”

He claims she feels the same, yet there are problems. The first is, he said “I divorce you” three times. In Islam you are allowed to remarry someone, unless you have been divorced from them three times before: many scholars believe that repetition counts as consecutive divorces. Dr Hasan disagrees - issuing a written fatwa to that effect. “If I ask you: ‘Bring me a bottle of water, a bottle of water, a bottle of water,’ I mean one bottle, not three,” he says. “This is one divorce.”

The second problem is that his wife remarried - a quickie ceremony with a cousin in Pakistan to save face. They claim she can get a divorce, but want to know if it is a problem that her current marriage was never consummated. “She doesn’t have to spend a night with that person?” his brother asks. “I need to take an answer to our family.”

“No,” Dr Hasan replies. “This is prostitution - you made the mistake by divorcing her, why should she suffer?”

In the angels-on-pinheads legalistic interpretation of Sharia, if someone does have three divorces from the same person, then that count can be reset if the wife remarries another man and divorces him. Because of this, there are stories of men ordering their ex-wives to marry someone for one night only. Dr Hasan is keen to avoid any implication that he is advocating this approach.

The Regent’s Park Mosque is the largest Islamic Centre in Britain. More than a place of worship, it is a complex with meeting rooms, shops and a cafe. Even on a humid weekday afternoon, when we convene for the monthly meeting of the Council, it is busy - groups of young men, and women in hijabs, walking across the central courtyard.

The meeting is late starting. I wait in a slightly scruffy, stuffy, room, chatting to one of the scholars. An Egyptian lawyer, Hamdy El-Sawy chairs a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, runs a travel agency and organises trips to Mecca for the Hajj. He also has the conversational skills of a good taxi driver (“I had Yusef Islam on my Hajj once, lovely man - Cat Stephens, you know…The Swedish ambassador as well, he said we were the best agency…”).

As we chat about the perception of Islam in the West, he tells me a story about a visit to Cordoba, the city in central Spain dominated by a cathedral that, until the 13th century, was a mosque. “Standing in the middle of the Cathedral, my young son ran off. His name is Islam, and I shouted after him, calling him back. I suddenly realised I was standing in a disputed religious site, shouting ‘Islam! Islam!’,” he laughs. “I got some funny looks.”

The other scholars are a collection of academics and imams with beards in various states of disrepair. Dr Hasan, the chairman, opens the session with the brisk sense of purpose of a parish council meeting. “If you will turn to case 3684,” he says, quieting the room, and we begin.

The first few cases are fairly simple. Mainly wives abandoned by husbands - who have rarely even responded to the council’s requests. The only debate is whether to send a final warning by recorded delivery, or grant the divorce then and there.

One husband, who has not seen or helped his wife for more than a decade, has ignored three letters from the council. There is discussion as to whether they should send him one final letter. The council president briefly stops chewing tobacco. “For 15 years he is not caring about his wife. What kind of a husband is he?”

The afternoon is hot, and by the second hour it is difficult to maintain concentration. Someone answers their mobile phone, and is reprimanded “I hope you will say that we told him off,” the treasurer (he told me he preferred the title Exchequer) says.

The council deals with all UK Muslims - from Pakistanis to Somalis. This means that often the plaintiffs come from communities very different to the council’s. In one case, a husband tries to mitigate his wife’s accusations that he abandoned his family by arguing that someone has cast a spell on her - an allegation that the council treats with the careful cultural sensitivity, and studiedly lowered eyebrows, of a well-trained liberal social worker.

We come to case 4475, the largest file on the table. It concerns a Middlesbrough couple who have been married for 14 years, with three children.

The wife wants a divorce, claiming that her husband abused her and is a drug dealer. The husband counters, in a letter claiming that the wife committed adultery - with a drug dealer.

“All this is about the house, the money, living a westernised life. The whole Asian community in Middlesbrough knows the truth,” the husband says in the letter. “I have no interest in divorce, unless she gives me full custody of the kids. I can safeguard their religion, future, life, behaviour, attitude. I will let them marry into good, respectable Muslim Pakistani families only.”

“I still love and respect my wife,” he later writes. “But I find it extremely difficult to trust her. She is my first love, my last love.” One of the council seems convinced, sighing audibly - like he has just seen a puppy perform an endearing trick.

Others are less sure; the husband has, after all, refused to meet with the council’s representative in Middlesbrough.

Working down the file, the wife provides a letter of support from a women’s advice centre. “This means nothing, they always support the women: I should join Fathers4Justice,” the Treasurer says, referring to a campaigning group where divorced men refused access to their children protest in superhero uniforms. “There is too much discrimination against men in this country.” Dr Hasan gamely tries to move the conversation on, but Sheikh Haisan won’t let him. “I’m pondering the injustice,” he says - faux intransigent. One suspects this is a favourite topic of his, but it is also a welcome diversion as the afternoon gets hotter.

A pneumatic drill starts up. The case seems intractable. Atif, the office manager, suggests a solution would be to find out who is really the drug dealer. “Maybe we should send someone there to buy drugs, and see who is selling it,” he says.

It is a good time to break for evening prayers.

I wait for them to finish in the cafe below. A cross between a school canteen and a kebab shop, it advertises itself as a venue for block-booking and parties.

After leaving the mosque, the council comes to eat. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about what we do,” one of them says between mouthfuls of curry. “Sometimes I think people don’t want to understand - but the media certainly don’t help.”

Earlier, I had tried to visit a similar organisation in Dewsbury, North England,. but the scholars there refused to speak to me - citing negative reports in the tabloids as the reason. “We received a lot of harrassment,” they said. “Some of us have children, and we just don’t need that. We now reject any media requests.”

“Quite apart from anything else, it scares off the women; it might surprise you, but most of our work is helping women.” There was a hint of bitterness in the last part of their answer, and reading the articles in question it is easy to see why. They describe “quasi-judicial religious zealots” ruling communities with “a rod of iron” and for whom “superstitious, barbaric, misogynistic…anti-female discrimination is part of their theology.”

This clash describes the great contradiction in UK Sharia courts. The system is in many ways the antithesis of feminism. Men can divorce their wives by simply uttering the words “I divorce you”, whereas women have to apply to a council of men - it is always men - and plead their case. And yet the work of the court itself is almost entirely on behalf of women who - short of abandoning their religion - feel they need its ruling.

Tom Whipple is a journalist at The Times.

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