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Monday, 12 May 2008


In the wake of the recent brouhaha over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks about the compatibility of Islamic Sharia law with English civil law, politicians and pundits alike united to decry and condemn any such move towards allowing the spread of so-called ‘sharia courts’. This is what the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham MP had to say on the issue on BBC1’s Question Time:

“You cannot run two systems of law alongside each other. That would be a recipe for chaos."

Chaos? Really? I was reminded of his remarks when I came across this fascinating article in the Jewish Chronicle, which points out that Israel (Israel!) has managed to accommodate the sharia – especially in the form of Muslim family law – into its own legal code for the past six decades. The Chronicle notes,

“Not only is sharia law officially recognised by the justice system in Israel in everything regarding the personal status of Muslims, but the judges of the sharia courts are officially appointed by a joint ministerial-parliamentary committee and their salaries paid for by the state. Ironically, this arrangement originates from the days when Britain was the Mandate power in Palestine.

“Most matters of personal status, especially marriage and divorce, are ruled in Israel by religious courts. For three religious groups, Jews, Muslims and Druze, there are official, state-appointed courts, who rule on these matters. For Christians, there are private ecclesiastical courts whose rulings are recognised de facto by the civil authorities.

“The system began with an Act during the British Mandate, under which all recognised religious groups were allowed to deal with matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption in their own courts. After 1948, the system was continued but only in matters of personal status. By law, the sharia courts have exactly the same status as the rabbinical courts.”

I find it most amusing that the inclusion of state-sanctioned sharia courts for Muslim citizens of secular, democratic Israel – as with the application of Islamic 'personal law' for Muslim citizens in secular, democratic India – is a legacy of the great British Empire which had no qualms about “two systems of law” running “alongside each other” (to quote Andy Burnham). Yet, now, more than sixty years since the demise of that Empire, and in spite of an even larger concentration of Muslims living here in Britain, we are told that there is no space, no place, no possibility, of sharia law being incorporated, included or accommodated into our own ‘secular’ English legal system.

Islamophobia anybody?

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