PROFESSOR Mona Siddiqui’s Commission of Inquiry into sharia councils was the most interesting religious story of the week. The question arising was whether any state intervention could be justified to curb the abuses that, everyone agrees, are taking place in some parts of the system.
The commission rejected the obvious answer of banning them altogether: “One cannot implement a ban on organisations which can be set up voluntarily anywhere, and which operate only on the basis of the credibility given to them by a certain community.”
Failing that, what could be done to ensure that they did not disadvantage women, or act to deprive them of rights that are guaranteed under British law?
A majority on the commission proposed a state-authorised code of conduct which would require the councils to confine their efforts to religious marriage and divorce: “Any matters respecting children and financial remedies must be referred to the family justice system; a proper understanding of the role of the family justice system and how and when to direct parties to it; . . . the need for safeguarding policies including how to deal with applications for a religious divorce brought by vulnerable women; clarification of reporting duties for example in relation to domestic violence,” and so on.
The fact that all these are listed as desirable reforms is further proof that many councils operate against them. It is rare to ban abuses that don’t happen. None the less, the argument prevailed that even listing the abuses particular to the sharia system and attempting institutional reform would be too much like granting recognition. This seems to me wrong. It offers no help to those women actually trapped by the system. The argument for doing nothing is set out in the dissenting report.
“The creation of a state facilitated or endorsed regulation or audit scheme will give legitimacy to the existence of alternative dispute resolution entities in the form of sharia councils. . .
“The creation of state-endorsed regulation sends the message that certain groups have separate and distinct needs and further that sharia councils are an appropriate forum for resolution of their family law disputes. In short it would perpetuate the myth of separateness of certain groups.”
The trouble with this is the word “myth”. The separateness of certain groups is a sociological fact. Whether we choose to face it squarely is another matter. But it will not go away just because we ignore it. Legitimacy cannot entirely be imposed or withdrawn from above.
Whether or not Islam is ultimately compatible with human rights, as they are understood in the contemporary West, seems to me an empirical question: some forms are, and some are not. It is merely responsible government to ensure that the good kinds flourish and the bad ones don’t.
IT IS also curious that the people saying that we should not regulate sharia because this would admit its existence are also likely to say that we must absolutely not regulate Sunday schools, because the state ought to recognise Christianity.
The Times had a story last Friday on the strained relations between Ofsted and the Church of England which summed this up nicely: “The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said in December that he supported the regulation of schools where ‘children are indoctrinated in unhealthy ways’, but he had had ‘robust conversations’ with senior people in government including Mr Cameron over plans to ask Sunday schools to submit to regulation.
“Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, told leaders at a Church of England education conference yesterday that they had in effect blocked plans to act on extremist teaching. ‘This is not about infringing religious freedom: no one is proposing a troop of inspectors turning up at Sunday schools. Instead, it is about ensuring that the small minority of settings that promote extremism are not able to evade scrutiny. . .
Then, of course, we got Muslim groups complaining that she was unfairly linking Islam with extremism. The Muslim Council of Britain said that her remarks would “strengthen the negative perception among many Muslim parents about Ofsted’s interventions”. One difficulty here is that most discussions about “extremism” confuse what you might call cultural and political expressions of extremism.
This is nicely illustrated by the comparison of Jesus with Gerry Adams: no one could be more opposed to the cultural values of the world than Jesus, but he posed no armed threat to anyone. Adams, on the other hand, seems to have been culturally entirely at home in Belfast; it’s just that he believes in killing civilians for political ends. To stretch the term “extremist” to cover both makes it pretty much useless.