The Home Secretary Theresa May has launched an “independent review” into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales.
There are an estimated 30 Sharia councils in the UK, giving Islamic divorce certificates and advice on other aspects of Islamic law. None of their decisions are legally binding but they are popular with Muslims who wish to live their lives in accordance with Islamic law.
The review will be chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, who the government describes as “an internationally renowned expert in Islamic and inter-religious studies” who was appointed OBE for her services to inter-faith relations.
Professor Siddiqui, who is known for her secular views, will lead a “panel of experts” that includes family law barrister Sam Momtaz, retired high court judge Sir Mark Hedley and specialist family law lawyer Anne Marie Hutchinson OBE QC.
The panel will be advised by two religious and theological experts – Shia Imam Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi and Sunni Imam Qari Asim. The government says they will ensure the panel has a full and thorough understanding of the religious and theological issues relating to specific aspects of Sharia Law, and the way it is applied.
On its website the government said: “The Home Secretary committed to an independent review of the application of Sharia Law as part of the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy. The strategy notes that many people in England and Wales follow religious codes and practices, and benefit from the guidance they offer.
“However, there is evidence some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way, seeking to legitimise forced marriage and issuing divorces that are unfair to women, contrary to the teachings of Islam. It will also seek out examples of best practice among Sharia councils.
“The terms of reference set out the review’s intention to explore whether, and to what extent, the application of Sharia law may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales. It will examine the ways in which Sharia may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values and cause social harms.
“The panel will begin work immediately and is expected to complete its review in 2017. It is expected to issue a call for evidence to provide an opportunity for groups and individuals to contribute to the review.”
Home Secretary Theresa May said: “Many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit a great deal from the guidance they offer.A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern. There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen.
“Professor Siddiqui, supported by a panel with a strong balance of academic, religious and legal expertise, will help us better understand whether and the extent to which Sharia law is being misused or exploited and make recommendations to the government on how to address this.”
Chair of the Sharia Law Review, Professor Mona Siddiqui, added: “It’s a privilege to be asked to chair such an important piece of work. At a time when there is so much focus on Muslims in the UK, this will be a wide ranging, timely and thorough review as to what actually happens in Sharia councils.”
However, Massoud Shadjareh, chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said the review was an outrage and the government should be trying to accommodate the religious needs and desires of Muslims (as they do the Jewish community) rather than investigating them.
He told 5Pillars: “This whole thing has been set up as if they are investigating a crime. The approach is totally wrong. A committee has been set up who themselves have no understanding of the aspirations of those who seek guidance from Sharia councils so they have no credibility or legitimacy to address these issues.”
He added: “If any aspect of Sharia councils is un-Islamic then I’m sure Muslims themselves will deal with it because they will not want to see their own religion being abused.”