Speaking at a London mosque (why?) Lord Phillips, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, has said that Muslims should be permitted to have their marital and financial disputes decided according to Sharia law.
He said "It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by law other than English law. There is no reason why principles of sharia, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution."
Some months ago Catweazle, the alleged Archbishop of Canterburistan, caused a bit of a furore when he suggested something similar. Lord Phillips, having two brain cells to Catweazle's one, hedged his bets by pointing out "It must be recognised however that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of the mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales."
On the face of it, what he said was fair enough, though it's a pity he, like Catweazle, can't see that if you're in the public eye it behoves you to make sure that everything you say in public is incapable of being misunderstood or misrepresented. The Grumpy Old Sod can say what he damn well likes, but if you're a Lord or an Archbishop, you have to be more careful. If you think that's unfair, resign your lordship and travel by bus like the rest of us.
So in that respect, Lord Phillips is guilty of being na´ve, nothing worse. But as a prominent legal eagle he also should have thought a bit harder before opening his beak. All right, it is in theory true that Muslims could agree between themselves to settle financial and marital disputes by their own code of law.
But there are parts of Sharia law that seriously conflict with British law. Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester and a Pakistani himself, says Sharia "would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence," along with "freedom of belief and of expression."
A lot of this is pretty obvious. We all know that the British government gives extra benefits to Muslim men if they have more than one wife, but under English law bigamy is a crime. We all know that under English law a girl cannot be forced to marry someone she doesn't want to - it's rape, basically. Under Sharia law, it's fine. There are many other examples. Sharia law has even been used to excuse honour killings, beatings and other barbaric practices, with how much justification we don't know.
Anyway, it's evident that some things in Sharia law are completely illegal in England, while others are OK.
So what is Lord Phillips advocating, exactly? That Muslims be excused from some of the laws that apply to the rest of us? Surely not. That would create a new privileged class in the country.
Or is he suggesting that Muslims might use just those bits of Sharia that do not conflict with the law of the land and of Europe?
In that case, who decides which bits are OK and which bits aren't? Lord Phillips? An English law lord sitting in judgement over the law of Allah? That's going to go down well with Muslims, I don't think.
Frankly the idea is potty, and the Lord Chief Justice ought to know that.
Downing Street quickly distanced itself from Phillips, saying that "British law should be based on British values and determined by the British Parliament." Politicians on both sides of the aisle have resisted calls to sanction Sharia law, which is a relief. And prominent Muslims have also spoken out. Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Bar and a practising Muslim, said "This would create a two-tier society. It is highly retrograde. It will segregate and alienate the Muslim community from the rest of British society. The majority of British Muslims want to live only under British law and they would reject anything that means they are treated differently. What Lord Phillips and the archbishop are discussing is something that is completely outside their area of understanding."
All well and good. But why the hell do these dotty old idiots keep banging on about it? Do they get up on their hind legs in some mosque somewhere, look at the serried ranks of earnest, bearded faces and feel their brains turn to jelly? Thank the Lord (not any particular Lord, just any old Lord that happens to be passing, we don't want to offend anyone) that we can rely on people like Nazir Ali and Khalid Mahmood for sense on inter-racial matters, because our own senior figures seem to be babbling in their dotage. That's the trouble with senile dementia - it's just not quick enough.
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