Sharia Councils in the U.K.: A parallel legal system?

The advancement of Islamic law worries not only the British but also other European countries that see their values ​​threatened.

In the United Kingdom, Sharia Councils - also known as Sharia Courts - have been flourishing, which are supposedly only responsible for arbitrating in matrimonial and routine matters. Although its rulings are not considered official, the truth is that there are concerns linked to the discrimination suffered by Muslim women in those courts and the formation of a parallel legal system with rules that have little or nothing to do with those of the United Kingdom and the West in general.

To understand the concerns related to this issue, it is necessary to delve deeper into Islamic law and how the creation of Sharia Councils in the United Kingdom has been addressed while the culture shock in that country and others on the Old Continent is producing tensions that seem to be approaching a point of no return.

What is Sharia?

Sharia, meaning the path to peace, is the basis of Islamic law. This is a set of rules that all Muslims must follow. From a moral and religious perspective, these rules constitute the code of conduct that the faithful must follow - both what they are allowed and what they are prohibited from doing. However, Sharia usually adapts to various times and social changes.

Sharia is based on the Quran, the holy book of Islam; the Hadith, a compilation of Muhammad's deeds and sayings; the Iyma, the ideal consensus of the Muslims; and the Iytihad, the effort to reflect.

Sharia divides crimes into two main categories: Hadd, which constitutes the most severe offenses with established penalties, and Tazir, in which punishment is left to the judge's discretion.

Hadd crimes include theft, adultery, homosexuality, consumption of alcohol or other intoxicating substances, and apostasy. Among the punishments imposed are stoning to death, judicial amputation or flogging, among others.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2003 that Sharia is incompatible with the values ​​of democracy, as it stipulates that Allah has dictated all the rules that human beings must obey and that all rules contrary to Sharia must be rejected.

Israeli Noam Bennett, a specialist in the Middle East, explains in statements to Voz Media that “over the years several schools of legal thought were created: Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i and Hanbali.

Bennett emphasizes that “the Hanafi school is considered more lenient.” On the other hand, the Hanbali school “is defined as the most conservative, so there is no room for considerations; follow the Quran and Hadith.

Sharia Councils in the U.K.

According to an article published by David Torrance for the House of Commons Library, Sharia Councils - also known as Sharia Courts - have existed in the United Kingdom since the early 1980s. The Islamic Sharia Council ( ISC ), based in Leyton, London, was founded in 1982. Its website states that it was formed to “resolve the marital problems of Muslims living in the United Kingdom in the light of Islamic family law,” such as marriages, divorces and inheritance issues.

The ISC is not a formal court of law, and therefore, Torrance noted, it only handles Islamic marriages - Nikah - rather than civil marriage contracts.

Torrance noted that the Sharia Councils have no official legal or constitutional function in the United Kingdom. Their work involves mediating religious divorces and rendering verdicts on other aspects of daily life, such as finances compatible with Sharia or Halal food - the foods allowed by the Islamic religion.

However, in the United Kingdom, some accuse these organizations of creating a parallel legal system even though their rulings have, so far, no legal validity.

Currently, it is estimated that there are around 85 Sharia Councils in England and Wales. The number continues to increase, raising serious concerns in the United Kingdom, where, according to the census carried out by the National Statistics Office in 2021, there were 3,900,000 Muslims, representing 6.5% of the country's total population, for which the influence of this sector in society is increasing. London and several other cities are run by Muslim mayors.

As noted by researcher Susanna Lukacs in an article published last year in The European Conservative, the British Department of Home Affairs expressed concerns about the discrimination against women in Sharia Councils and the rise of Islamic extremism, which the report attributed to the lack of social and political integration in many parts of the United Kingdom.

The report added that several religio-cultural elements within some U.K. Muslim societies obstruct individual freedom and rights, especially for women. The report further indicated that a large number of Muslim couples do not register their religious marriages with the State, so women cannot obtain a civil divorce, resulting in Sharia Councils unfairly ruling against them.

This situation led to Theresa May, then Home Secretary, launching an independent review in 2016, which concluded that some of the Sharia Councils legitimized forced marriage and issued unfair divorces for women. In the same year, British politics Louise Casey conducted a report revealing that Sharia Councils also condoned wife beating and ignored marital rape.

Lukacs explained that Baroness Cox, a member of the British House of Lords, introduced a bill in 2012 to prevent Muslim women from being misled into the idea that Sharia Councils have jurisdiction, allowing a British court to ignore an agreement on whether there was evidence that one of the parties' consent was not genuine. That is, it was intended to prevent arbitration providers from discriminating against or harassing women.

In 2012, when the bill was first debated in the House of Lords, the government rejected the proposal, saying that it was not the best way forward to address the problems of Muslim women and that it violated the Arbitration Act of 1996, which allows parties to reach an agreement on how certain civil disputes should be resolved, even based on the law of another legal system.

Baroness Cox's six-year campaign to defend British Muslim women ended in 2016.

In 2019, Conservative MP John Howell stated in Parliament that a large number of cases relating to the position of Muslim women under Islamic law are likely to never come before the ordinary courts or the European Court of Human Rights because they are under enormous pressure from their families and communities to meet the demands of informal religious courts.

Mina Akter, a Muslim woman from the United Kingdom, said that after her Islamic wedding, she spoke with her husband to register their marriage with the country's authorities, which infuriated him. According to Mina, she was not treated as a wife but as her in-laws' caregiver and servant, who constantly watched over her.

The woman said that after five years of being enslaved, humiliated, controlled and financially abused, she contacted the domestic abuse helpline. The counselor made her understand that she was being the victim of psychological abuse to create fear in her and, in this way, to keep her submissive. Then, without warning, the husband gave her 21 days to gather her belongings and leave the house. Mina contacted the police, but they told her it was not a crime but a civil matter. Her marriage ended after a brief phone call in which her husband told her that he was going to give her Talaq (divorce).

Mina maintained that she will never get justice under the current legal system because Muslims do not register their marriages with the U.K. authorities, and the police are confused by situations similar to the one she experienced.

As can be seen, the Sharia Councils in the United Kingdom avoid, in many cases, the intervention of the country's justice system even though they do not comply with local laws. There are serious concerns that these Islamic organizations will slowly advance (or continue to advance) the U.K. legal system and begin to govern Islamic law in the not-too-distant future, at least in certain parts of the country.

However, it is not only in the United Kingdom that there are concerns about the advance of Sharia. There are also fears in other European countries, such as France, Sweden and Germany.

France

According to a survey conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) for Le Point magazine in 2019, at least 46% of foreign Muslims living in France want to incorporate Sharia into the country's legal system.

The survey also reveals that 41% of Muslims believe that Islam should be practiced and integrated into the country's customs, raising concerns because many citizens believe that the French Republic is in danger.

Furthermore, as Guy Milliere points out in an article recently published in Jewish News Syndicate, 37% of French Muslims say they support the extremist organization Muslim Brotherhood. This is not surprising since Musulmans de France ( Muslims of France ), the main Muslim grouping in the country, is the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It should be noted that according to data published in 2021 by the French Institute for Demographic Studies and the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, 6,770,000 French citizens are Muslims, immigrants, children and grandchildren of immigrants, representing around 10% of the total population of the European country.

Sweden

In an article recently published in Gis Report Online, Swedish analyst Stefan Hedlund argued that “the strong influx of immigrants from countries with Muslim populations could lead to a situation in which Sweden elects a radical Islamist party (Nyans) for Parliament, potentially in the 2026 elections.”

The author further warned that “although virtually all Swedes were Christians from the 12th century to the early 20th century, that proportion has fallen to less than 60% today.” It is not inconceivable that Sweden will have a majority Muslim population at some point this century. The trend is sure to reinvigorate Islamist circles calling for a divided legal system, where Sharia law applies to Muslim citizens.”

If Nyans achieves its goal, perhaps it will be only the first step towards a Sharia that also applies to non-Muslim citizens, and Sweden will thus become an Islamic State, which generates great concern among the local population.

Germany

The advancement of Islamic laws in Germany can be observed in that country's educational system. Recently, the British newspaper Daily Mail noted that Christian students are converting to Islam because they feel excluded and are desperate to try to fit in with their Muslim peers.

A German security official told the local newspaper Bild that more and more parents of German students are turning to counseling centers because Christian children want to convert so as not to be further excluded in school.

A study by the Lower Saxony Criminal Investigation Institute revealed that 67.8% of students surveyed believe that the Quran is "more important" than laws in Germany.

The organization also revealed that almost half of the students (45.6%) think that "Islamic theocracy is the best form of government."

It is important to highlight that about 5.5 million Muslims live in Germany (6.6% of the total population), and in several schools in large cities such as Berlin or Frankfurt, Muslim children represent more than 80% of the students, which is due to the substantial immigration of the last eight years.

Will Europe be able to stop the advance of Sharia?

Concerns regarding the advancement of Islamic law also exist in other European countries, which, like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Germany, have a large Muslim population, which is made up of religious leaders and ordinary citizens who promote and/or support the imposition of norms of nations where freedom is not a priority. So, they collide head-on with the Western way of life.

These tensions have resulted in the strengthening of right-wing political parties that advocate for a more restrictive immigration policy, deportations of migrants who commit crimes, and other measures to prevent Islamic impositions from becoming normalized in those European countries.

The actions of Sharia Councils in the United Kingdom, which fail to comply with the condition of respecting national laws, demonstrate that the more space given to the promoters of Islamic law, whether officially or not, the less place there will be for local laws, which, as we see, can lead to a chaotic and violent situation from which it will be difficult to return.