Islam is the fastest growing religion in the UK. In Britain’s increasingly diverse community, the Islamic legal system is becoming increasingly prominent. Sharia is the basic Islamic legal system, and in 2008 the Government sanctioned five Muslim Arbitration Tribunals to operate in Britain, ruling on a range of civil matters including financial disputes and divorce. Sharia law, however, is controversial, and can sometimes been seen to be opposing “democratic” principles.
To someone growing up in a predominantly Christian community, the increase in membership of other religions is part of multicultural Britain, and something that my generation has grown up accustomed to. An increase in followers of the Islamic faith may put pressure on the British legal system to decide on what place Sharia Law has in relation to British law. Sharia courts regularly operate in non-Muslim countries, dealing with family law rather than all aspects of a legal system. Sharia is both secular and sacred and has many rulings over everyday life, including food, clothing, hygiene and religion. In Britain, all citizens are equal before the law, whereas Sharia dictates that men, including non-Muslim men, take precedence over women. This difference in fundamental aspects of the law is significant; asking the question - does Sharia conflict with or complement UK law?
Sharia law may seem odd, with many rules, restrictions and customs out of the norm for Britain. However, Sharia is the norm for a different culture and this tolerance is supported by the majority of Brits who live among Muslims all over the UK. Despite this, when this is enforced on people who are not of the Islamic faith it can become an issue. Members of the Muslim Patrol vigilante group have been jailed for attacking people on UK streets in the hopes of enforcing aspects of Sharia Law in the UK. These members shouted abuse to a woman about her clothing and drinking habits in accordance with the laws they employ in their own faith, where alcohol is forbidden and a woman should dress modestly with their hair entirely covered. The abusers were as extreme as shouting “Kill the non-believers.”
The decisions of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals practising family law in the UK can be enforced by British courts. Many Muslim couples marry under Sharia law, but not all necessarily have a civil marriage. This means their marriage is not legally recognised and causes much distress, especially for Muslim women. Sharia Councils across the UK settle many marital disputes, with 95% of clients being women, asking for a divorce in the popular Muslim Arbitrary Tribunal in Leyton. Under Sharia Law a man may marry several wives but a woman must remain faithful to one man. There have been huge numbers of cases of women denied a divorce on grounds of neglect or abuse by her husband, whereas in a civil court the divorce would be granted. Under Sharia Law, if a divorce takes place, a man may take full custody of his son from the age of 5 and his daughter from the age of 7, regardless of the situation, including child abuse by the father. Under the UK legal system, an abuser may receive a custodial sentence of up to 9 years depending on severity, length endured and culpability of the abuse, whereas Sharia law has no ruling on this matter.
So is Sharia Law a parallel legal system? Despite the social influence of Sharia Councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals in the UK, they currently have no legal standing. A divorce in Muslim Arbitration Tribunal has no influence on a civil marriage and Sharia Laws cannot be employed in British society legally. However, with a significant minority of British citizens following the Islamic faith, the legal standing of current Sharia Councils and Tribunals may change, prompting many people to ask themselves - is it possible for Sharia Law to sit alongside current UK laws?
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