UK: Comment: "Sharia Delusions in Canterbury"

Agence Global
Mona Eltahawy asks, "What's wrong with the British legal system that religious groups are allowed to create parallel systems to it?"
When it comes to Islamic law, or Sharia, words certainly do come easy if you're a man. You can marry four wives, receive double the inheritance a woman gets and you can end your marriage simply by saying "I divorce you" three times. So why not pontificate?
Words are especially cheap if you're the Archbishop of Canterbury, who ignited a social storm in the UK last week by saying that the adoption of some parts of Sharia alongside Britain's legal system "seems unavoidable" in certain circumstances.

Remember please that Dr. Rowan Williams is the head of the global Anglican community, the U.S. branch of which ordained a gay priest in 2003. But the archbishop clearly does not believe in wishing unto others as you would unto your own. He extends no such progressive ideals to Muslims. Most interpretations of Sharia consider homosexuality an abomination.

He probably thinks his "tolerance" for Sharia is progressive enough in light of the rabid Islamophobia that mars parts of Europe today. But it is a tolerance that condones only the most conservative options for Muslims. It is at best a form of the racism of lower expectations -- the cheapest bargaining chip of liberal guilt.

Witness the archbishop's insistence that he wasn't advocating the "inhumanity" of Sharia à la Saudi Arabia or Iran where adulterers are stoned and thieves have hands amputated. No, no, he told us. He was just referring to the use of Sharia to resolve marital disputes, he insisted.

But that is precisely where the "inhumanity" of Sharia lies for women. As a Muslim woman -- born in Egypt, raised in Saudi Arabia -- I can only laugh at the archbishop's naiveté. In Egypt, as in many Muslim countries, the legal system has been completely modernized with the exception of one area that stubbornly remains caught in the web of edicts issued by Muslim scholars who lived centuries ago -- family law.

Sharia is used only to govern the lives of women and children.

Sudanese-American law professor Abdullahi An-Nai'm long ago pointed out the lie at the heart of calls for Sharia: They are essentially an attempt to "protect a patriarchal system."

There are already some Sharia councils operating in Britain for Muslims who agree to abide by their rulings, but these are unofficial bodies not recognized by British law. It's not difficult to imagine women being pressured to "agree to abide" by such rulings. And it's just as easy to understand why a man would choose them over the secular legal system which would not be as tilted in his favor.

Why on earth are these religious cop-outs allowed to exist in the UK? It's not just unofficial Sharia Councils, but Orthodox Jewish courts -- and similar councils for British Sikhs. Women from those communities tell similar stories of how difficult it is to be granted divorces from their respective religious leaders.

What's wrong with the British legal system that religious groups are allowed to create parallel systems to it?

For the less naïve view of just how "humane" Sharia is to women in Britain, I refer the right honorable archbishop to the recent study, Crimes of the Community: Honor-Based Violence in the UK by James Brandon and Salam Hafez.

It makes for difficult reading. Women and activists mince no words in showing the hurdles for women with children who want to get divorced; and, tell the researchers that women are being forced to stay in violent marriages as a result of skewed decisions of the Sharia Council.

Tanisha Jnagel told the report that the Islamic Sharia Council hears both sides but relies on religious texts to decide whether a divorce should be granted.

"In our experience, this isn't going to result in a solution which is fair for the woman."

When the archbishop so generously extended Muslims the right to use Sharia, I wonder whose version of Sharia he meant? The Angel Gabriel did not reveal Sharia to the Prophet Mohammed. Instead, much Islamic law was codified many centuries after the prophet died: by male jurists who used the Koran, and the life and sayings of the prophet to come up with laws that met the needs of their time. There are various Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim schools of thought but there is no consensus on one version of Sharia.

In a climate of growing right-wing anti-Muslim rhetoric some in the Muslim community find it difficult to stand up to radical Islamist posturing on Sharia. Such hesitation is often based on a mix of reluctance to openly criticize fellow Muslims, and ignorance as to exactly what Sharia means. Archbishops feeling generous to Muslims certainly don't help.

We must resist selling out women's rights and pandering to right wing religionists. That was exactly the point that Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born German political scientist made at a conference on Sharia I attended in Copenhagen in 2005.

While lamenting European governments' habit of turning to the most conservative in the Muslim community to speak on its behalf, he vowed "In the name of multiculturalism I will not accept cultural rights as a cover for Sharia."

"I believe in Sharia as morality not as state law,"

Tibi said. "I am not willing to shut up about human rights abuses by Islamists just because of the right wing. They are my enemy too...Islamophobia is the weapon of Islamists to silence critics."

Are you listening Dr. Williams?

By: Mona Eltahawy

14 February 2008

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.