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Sharia council inquiry criticised

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Christian Concern's Director of Islamic Affairs, Tim Dieppe, discusses an open letter which highlights problems with a Home Office Inquiry into sharia courts. The letter criticises the government's 'independent review', expressing concerns over the Inquiry's panel, its terms of reference, human rights issues and more. It calls on the government to "drop the inappropriate theological approach, and appoint experts with knowledge of women's human rights."

An open letter to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has been published which is deeply critical of the government's inquiry into sharia councils, launched in May. The letter is signed by multiple campaign groups and human rights activists, and expresses concern and disappointment with the terms of reference and the appointments to the government's 'independent review'. The letter states:

"It is evident from the limited terms of reference and the makeup of the review panel that the review is in danger of becoming seriously compromised and as such, we fear that it will command little or no confidence."

The letter criticises the terms of reference which appear to rule out considering whether sharia councils should be allowed to exist at all. Instead the inquiry seeks to highlight best practice which would thereby endorse the creation of a parallel legal system. The composition of the panel is criticised as being "more suited to a discussion of theology than one which serves the needs of victims." The chair is herself a theologian, and two of the four other members of the panel are Islamic 'scholars'. The letter queries the competency of these Imams to investigate human rights issues and the compatibility of sharia councils with English law.

They write:

"Our fear is that in these circumstances, many vulnerable women simply will not want to give their testimony before theologians who legitimate and justify the very idea of Sharia laws on the grounds that it is integral to their 'Muslim identity'. Indeed, the panel is set up much like the Sharia 'courts' themselves."

Campaign group One Law for All has raised further concerns about the Imams on the panel, pointing out that one of them has supported the death penalty in Islamic states and stated that women who wear tight clothing are 'corrupted'. 

The letter also expresses concern that human rights issues will not be investigated by the inquiry. It cites evidence of discrimination against women by sharia councils. It raises various concerns about how these councils operate such as a women's testimony being worth half that of a man's, the treatment of marital rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse, forced marriage, honour based violence, polygamy, divorce etc.

The letter concludes by calling on the government to appoint a judge to head the inquiry, and to expand the terms of reference to ensure that the inquiry investigates the full range of human rights concerns raised by these sharia councils. It also calls on the government to "drop the inappropriate theological approach, and appoint experts with knowledge of women's human rights."

This letter is written by a coalition of secular organisations which accounts for the strong criticism of the theological make up and focus of the inquiry. Nevertheless, we share these concerns with the way the government has framed this inquiry. The inquiry would undoubtedly have much more credibility if a human rights advocate was appointed to the panel.

We have previously criticised the terms of reference of this inquiry and pointed out that the European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that sharia law is incompatible with the principles of democracy. Sadly, this review seems flawed from the start and badly conceived. Perhaps it is not too late for the government to expand and clarify the terms of reference and to appoint a human rights advocate to the panel to strengthen its composition.

The inquiry has issued a call for evidence and would like to hear from anyone who has used a sharia council in any capacity in the last 5 years. If you know someone who has used a sharia council, please encourage them to get in touch with us so that we can help them to make a submission to the inquiry. It is very important that the inquiry collates as much evidence as possible of what is going on in these councils. We need people to be brave enough to step forwards and we are willing to protect anonymity if necessary.  

Related Links: 
Independent review into sharia law launched
Whitewashing Sharia councils in the UK? (Open Democracy)
Background on Imams and Scholars on Sharia Inquiry (One Law for All)
Independent review into the application of sharia law: call for evidence (GOV UK)