Shariah: Tutoring the Times
by Stephen Schwartz
AMSTERDAM — On November 18, The New York Times published a reportage by Elaine Sciolino on Shariah, or Islamic religious law, and its presence in Britain. The text was a typical Times product: superficial, inaccurate, and soft on Islamist ideology. It illustrated two points -- macro and micro -- first, secular journalists are ill-equipped to write about religion, and second, this difficulty is nowhere more obvious than when Western journalists address the challenging issues of Shariah, or Islamic law.
Before proceeding to an analysis of the Sciolino text, I must disclose my own personal and organizational stake in this discussion. The organization of which I am executive director, the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) is currently completing an extensive survey of Shariah penetration in the main Western European countries: that is, in Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, France, and Spain. CIP has benefited from extensive attention by TCSDaily, and, indeed, one of our most important early commentaries on Shariah in the West appeared here.
In addition, CIP's international director, the prominent and widely-respected Islamic scholar Dr. Irfan Ahmed Al-Alawi, has been in the forefront of debate over Shariah in the UK. A quick glance at the CIP website, linked above, will show that Al-Alawi and I have produced an extensive corpus of articles and interviews on these topics in the main British media, ranging from the British Broadcasting Corporation's TV and radio networks to The Times of London and The Spectator, Britain's main political magazine.
We can hardly expect a New York Times writer like Sciolino to acknowledge that her article merely reproduces facts and arguments that have occupied the attention of the British public, Muslim and non-Muslim, for months. The NYT is well-known for its attitude that, as with certain cooks, any soup begins with them spitting in it. In addition, The NYT would not view CIP as a source for commentary on these matters, notwithstanding the commitment we have made to a serious investigation of the issue, drawing on Islamic sources.
But the problems in Sciolino's approach to Shariah in Britain are best described in terms of the hasty and heedless style of journalism visible in the mainstream media (MSM). Let us begin with the question of real, as opposed to "media Shariah," and what it says about the duties of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries. Traditional Shariah holds that Muslims who migrate out of the Muslim world must accept the laws and customs of their new homes; this guidance dates back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. When early Muslims fled Mecca to avoid persecution, and took shelter in Christian-ruled Ethiopia, the Prophet told them to live according to Christian governance.
Such a standard for Muslim conduct was established throughout the non-Muslim world until the rise of radical Islamist ideology beginning in the late 1970s. Muslims who went to live in Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, France, the U.S., and Canada made no attempt to gain unreasonable accommodation for Shariah in their new countries of residence. At the same time, since Shariah is religious law, it includes areas that cannot, under any circumstances, be viewed as contradictory to Western law. The Shariah of diet, order of prayer, charity, circumcision, and burial -- the classic principles considered "personal Shariah" -- are of no concern to non-Muslims.
Failure to acknowledge these principles is mere ignorance. A worse lapse by Sciolino consists of her unruffled and unsupported declaration that "despite a raucous national debate over the limits of religious tolerance and the pre-eminence of British law, the tenets of Shariah, or Islamic law, are increasingly being applied to everyday life in cities across the country." Let us emphasize that nowhere in her flimsy account does she provide serious evidence for this inflammatory claim, or for her even more regrettable exercise in Times-style, when she comments, "the popularity of the courts among Muslims has blossomed." She continues with the following example of what might be called a combination of weasel-words and nonsense-numbers: "Some of the informal councils, as the courts are known, have been giving advice and handing down judgments to Muslims for more than two decades. Yet the councils have expanded significantly in number and prominence in recent years, with some Islamic scholars reporting a 50 percent increase in cases since 2005."
Some courts? Is that two, or ten, or a hundred? An increase of 50 percent in cases? Does that mean a rise from 100 to 150? Britain's Muslim population exceeds two million. How many have recourse to these tribunals? Irfan Al-Alawi and I have spent a year investigating this phenomenon in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. In the UK, we have identified a small number of active Shariah tribunals. One, which the intrepid, unfailing journalist Elaine Sciolino managed to find, is the Islamic Shariah Council in Leyton, a suburb of London, but it is easy for anybody to locate, since The Guardian in London reported in detail on it, publishing an article from which Sciolino might appear to have heavily borrowed, in 2007. But such an imputation would be extremely serious, regardless of the well-known reputation of The New York Times for such shoddy methods. Either way, reporting on the Leyton body hardly supplies proof of the spread or increasing popularity of Shariah tribunals. But let us be fair: Sciolino also found a Shariah court in Ealing, a London neighborhood.
More important, Sciolino failed to do the kind of reporting that would explain why Muslim women go to what Al-Alawi and I have called the "Muslim marriage mafia" -- Shariah courts in East London -- for divorces. According to the bien-pensant Timeswoman, "for the parties who come before them, the courts offer... the imprimatur of God." The reality of Muslim divorce in Britain is quite different and has little to do with religion per se. The problem, of which journalistic tourists like Elaine Sciolino are unaware, is that thousands of British Asian Muslim women were married in Pakistan by nikah, a marriage contract that has no standing in the UK unless it is recorded in a mosque registered with the British authorities, and these women cannot get divorces by recourse to the UK courts. God gives way to the habits of human beings in such cases; indeed, nikah, although an Islamic custom, does not automatically include religious content, although religious blessings are included in the marriage ceremony.
Further, Sciolino overlooked the most problematical aspect of these Shariah tribunals for Muslims: they are run by extremist ideologues who charge women who seek divorces thousands of pounds sterling for improvised decisions.
Sciolino's misleading article also included outright errors, one of them rather sinister. She wrote in an ameliorative, misleading idiom, "Most Shariah councils do not recognize the [UK] Arbitration Act [of 1996], although [UK justice minister Jack] Straw has been pushing them in recent months to do so. The main reason for their opposition is that they do not want the state involved in what they consider to be matters of religion." The Arbitration Act would, it is proposed, give the decisions of radical-directed Shariah councils the force of law. It is useful to know that Mr. Straw has added his voice to the chorus of ill-advised non-Muslim authorities in Britain, including not only Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, but also Britain's Lord Chief Justice, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers -- the rough equivalent of the U.S. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- who have decided to offer British Muslims something few of them have asked for -- Shariah as a form of multicultural accommodation [see The Weekly Standard].
But if Elaine Sciolino had done a better job, she would have learned that late this year, a certain Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi announced that a system of Shariah tribunals he directs, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT), would request that the British government enforce verdicts rendered by his authorities. MAT has established three public offices, with two more to be set up. Siddiqi stated that he anticipated utilizing the UK Arbitration Act, defining the MAT councils as arbitration tribunals, with rulings that could be enforced in law, if both parties in the dispute agree to grant the tribunal jurisdiction in their cases.
Sciolino also quoted a British Muslim figure, Shahid Raza, who promised, "We are not asking for criminal Shariah law -- chopping of hands or stoning to death." But we at CIP, who deal with this issue in a serious manner, are aware of a far more shocking declaration: The very same Suaib Hasan from Leyton, who Sciolino describes benevolently as "a silver-bearded, Saudi-educated scholar of Pakistani origin," was described and quoted as follows in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph of January 20, 2008: "Hasan is open in supporting the severe punishments meted out in countries where Shariah law governs the country. 'Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society. This is why in Saudi Arabia, for example, where these measures are implemented, the crime rate is very, very, low.' " What an absurd claim that is -- offenses committed by the poor and defenseless are harshly punished, and alleged moral infractions are the pretext for atrocious penalties, but behind their compound walls the Saudi elite are as criminal and immoral as any mafia in the world. And from the Muslim perspective the Wahhabis are a mafia, masquerading as a religious interpretation.
Too bad Elaine Sciolino missed so much of the story. But such gaps make The New York Times the paper it is.