Our democracy is built on the fundamental principle that we are one nation and that there is one law for everyone
What does it mean to say that this is a Christian country? Historically and culturally, of course, it is undeniable that that is what we are: but what, for such a culture, are the implications of the “multiculturalism” that was at one time more generally accepted than it is today, but which is nevertheless, for good or ill, now well-established in England?
Specifically, how concerned should Christians be at recent attempts to give Sharia law a quasi official status alongside the law of the land that governs the rest of us? Last week, the Law Society made proposals which would make it possible for Muslims to commission English solicitors to draw up “Sharia compliant” wills.
The Christian peer Baroness Cox — who in 2011 attempted in the House of Lords to enact legislation called the Arbitration and Mediation Services Equality Bill, to protect women living here from the effects of Sharia as it is already allowed to be practised in this country — reacted with deep concern. The question is this: should other Christians — should Catholics — share her concern? “This violates everything that we stand for”, she commented; “It would make the Suffragettes turn in their graves. Everyone has freedom to make their own will and everyone has freedom to let those wills reflect their religious beliefs. But to have an organisation such as the Law Society seeming to promote or encourage a policy which is inherently gender discriminatory in a way which will have very serious implications for women and possibly for children is a matter of deep concern.”
The Law Society’s “guidance” certainly appears to bear out her reaction. The document sets out crucial differences between Sharia inheritance laws and Western traditions. It explains how, in Islamic custom, inheritances are divided among a set list of heirs determined by ties of kinship rather than named individuals. It acknowledges the possibility of people having multiple marriages. “The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class,” the guidance says. “Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death. This means you should amend or delete some standard will clauses.”
It advises lawyers to draft special exclusions from the Wills Act 1837, which allows gifts to pass to the children of an heir who has died, because this is not recognised in Islamic law.
The Law Society, in other words, has given “guidance” to its members as to how to draft wills which employ loopholes in the law enabling it to circumvent English legal principles as they have always been accepted: and it envisages that this might even mean actually taking on the English law in court to see if their wily little legal tricks have been successful: a perfect example of an attempt to make the letter of the law prevail over its spirit: Christians will remember that according to St Paul (2 Corinthians 3:6), “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life”.
This is not, of course, the first time the notion of integrating Sharia law into our legal system has been suggested; readers will recall that no less a luminary than the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said that it was “unavoidable”. This is how the BBC reported it (7 Feb 2008):
“Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4’s World at One that the UK has to ‘face up to the fact’ that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system. Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.
“For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court. He says Muslims should not have to choose between ‘the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty’.
“In an exclusive interview with BBC correspondent Christopher Landau, ahead of a lecture to lawyers in London on Monday, Dr Williams argues this relies on Sharia law being better understood. At the moment, he says ‘sensational reporting of opinion polls’ clouds the issue. ‘An approach to law which simply said – there’s one law for everybody – I think that’s a bit of a danger’.
“He stresses that ‘nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well’.
“But Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said ‘there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger. There’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law.'”
Well, Dr Williams may think we can simply adopt “some aspects” of Sharia law; but for Muslims, Sharia law is indivisible. Their law permits them, as a temporary expedient, not to impose it in full in countries where they are in a minority: but in areas within that country which they consider to be Muslim territory and therefore fully part of the Umma, like large parts of Bradford, say, or certain parts of London, more of Sharia law will be imposed than in others.
Dr Williams says that “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states” and gives as one example of that “the [Sharia] attitudes to women”. Well, maybe nobody should want to see that in this country: but the Law Society is now openly and blatantly proposing to make precisely these attitudes to women a part of our legal system: so the body officially representing all solicitors actually DOES want to see it.
Is this something we should as a society be prepared to tolerate? This is how Baroness Cox explained the intentions underlying her Arbitration and Mediation Services Equality Bill:
We live in a country where we have a fundamental commitment to equality under the law and to freedom and that’s a very precious commitment to our liberal democracy and our traditions, but there’s been growing up in our midst, an alternative system, which affects many citizens, especially women. It’s a kind of quasi legal system that goes under the name of Sharia law and obviously it’s associated with the Muslim community. It discriminates systematically against women, particularly in matters of family law and testimony evidence before the law and domestic violence. I just don’t feel you can have a quasi legal system operating alongside our own historic and traditional legal system, particularly one which discriminates against women and is causing many women real suffering.
She failed, of course, to get her law on the statute book; and many will think that that was regrettable. But Parliament now has surely to act to contain the threat to English law which this latest encroachment of Sharia law will represent—if the Law Society has its way. In the words of the Sunday Telegraph’s leader this week, “Britain’s legal system has its roots in Judaeo-Christian morality. It is, or should be, a single system of law that applies to everyone. That is the most fundamental principle of British justice. Our society welcomes diversity, but this should not mean adopting legal practices that are hostile to our values.”
The whole point is that our entire democracy is built on the fundamental principle that there is one law for all of us, high or low, believer or unbeliever, and that the law protects our liberties as well as constraining and channelling them.
That’s worth fighting for.