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What role can be played by Sharia Law in contemporary Britain?

The ‘vigilantes’ of east London may have been Pythonesque, but the issue is deadly serious

By on Monday, 9 December 2013

Female dress codes are the most high-profile aspect of Islamic law (AP)

Female dress codes are the most high-profile aspect of Islamic law (AP)

Things are not going well in the world of vigilantism. A story from the Guardian tells us: 

The court had been told that Horner and the 23-year-old man drove alongside Joshua Bilton and Anna Reddiford in Bethnal Green and yelled at them through a megaphone. Horner shouted: “Let go of each other’s hands. This is a Muslim area!” The couple initially believed it was a joke but the group repeated the warning until they let go of each other’s hands. When they started holding hands again a few minutes later the car re-appeared and blocked their path until they let go.

England remains a country where it is perfectly legal and acceptable to hold hands with whoever you like in public, and thank goodness for that. Muslim vigilantes who try to stop couples holding hands in public are simply foolish, and it is not suprising that the couple they shouted at through the megaphone thought they were joking. Indeed, the british sense of humour being what it is, the behaviour of the vigilantes in this case is positively Pythonesque.

Moreover, in Britain there are no “Muslim areas”, nor can there be. There is only one law, and that is the law of the land. There is only one legal system. And there can only ever be one legal system. There are no “franchises”, as they were called in the Middle Ages, enclaves where another law is valid.

Though the behaviour of the vigilantes is comic, there was also a serious side to it, and they have been deservedly found guilty of harassment and assault. As the Guardian report continues:

Two weeks later, on 6 January this year, Horner and MacFarlane attacked a group of men drinking in the streets of Shoreditch. They said that they were there to “enforce Sharia law” in “Allah’s land”, and shouted: “Kill the non-believers”. Horner then punched two of the group, hitting James Forward in the jaw and knocking out Patrick Kavanagh with a punch to the head. A week later, Horner and the 23-year-old confronted another couple, Clare Coyle and Robert Gray, walking in the street in Stepney. The 23-year-old accused Coyle of dressing inappropriately in a Muslim area and that she would be punished in “hellfire”. Horner filmed the incident on his mobile phone and called Clare Coyle a “slag”. She told him: “This is Great Britain. I can dress how I wish.”

All this leads to a serious question: what role can be played by Sharia Law, or any other law of this type, in contemporary Britain? This is of course a question Catholics can answer and should answer as well, as we have the example of Canon Law.

The force of Canon Law is in the will of the participants in any canonical process. The Church may have the power to promulgate canons, but it has no power to coerce anyone to keep them. Hence, it is always misleading to imply that anyone is ‘silenced’ by the Church. A theologian may, after a canonical process, lose the right to call him or herself a Catholic theologian, and thus the right to work in a pontifical faculty of theology, but he or she can carry on teaching wherever anyone else gives them a job.

Sharia Law presumably acts on the same basis. People might approach a Sharia court and ask it to arbitrate on some matter, and they might then agree to abide by the decision handed down to them. But this process would depend on the consent of the parties. No Sharia court in the UK has any power over non-Muslims.

But here is the rub. In some countries non-Muslims are coerced to adhere to specifically Muslim customs; in other words, they are subjected to Sharia law. True, one does not have to visit those countries; you do not have to go to Saudi Arabia, but if you do, then it may well be reasonable to adopt the customs of the place. However, if you were born in the south of Sudan, and were a Christian, why on earth should you submit to Sharia Law, a law to which you have never consented?

Canon Law does not make universal claims. No canonical court claims jurisdiction over non-Catholics. No Jewish court ever legislates for Gentiles. So – why are Muslim vigilantes trying to enforces Muslim practices on non-Muslims? Is there any justification for this in Islam?