A page from the Quran

There are 80 practising Sharia courts around the United Kingdom, and I’ve got no problem with different religions and different groups having their own private observance, but the law should be the law. — Nigel Farage, 2015

A lot of people in the West associate Sharia law with harsh punishments such as amputations and stoning to death – ISIS certainly did nothing to soften the Sharia’s image. However, there is a great deal more to the Sharia than that.

The Sharia is a comprehensive, sophisticated system of law that dates back to the early days of Islam. It comes with a court system presided over by a highly educated and trained professional judiciary and is laced with all the trimmings of its distinctive due processes.

In many ways, the Sharia is a fairly typical Middle Eastern codified system of law – it comes from the same stable as Mosaic Law. Its evidence-based proceedings are, however, probably tighter than most. It was certainly light-years ahead of most of what passed for law in continental Europe in the Middle Ages. When a team of Arab jurists visited a Crusader military outpost in the Levant in the 11th century and witnessed judicial procedures there, they considered them to be ‘barbaric’.

The Sharia is part and parcel of the Islamic way of life, and Muslim populations in Western countries generally continue to abide by it. There is a Sharia court system stretching across the UK. Muslim businesspeople sign contracts under their auspices and take disputes to them where those arise. Muslims enter into marriage contracts under the Sharia and seek divorces to release themselves from those obligations should the marriage break down. Sharia courts have no enforcement capabilities, but British courts will enforce some types of arrangements made between private parties under Sharia law unless those arrangements explicitly contravene British law.

Polygamous marriages are conducted by Sharia courts. A man who marries a second wife under false pretences under British law can be prosecuted for bigamy. But as a Sharia marriage contract has no standing in a British court, there is no prosecution for a man who has four wives even if he married the first one under British law. As bemoaned by Baroness Cox of the House of Lords in 2014, “It violates the fundamental principles of our country that bigamy is illegal and yet polygamy is condoned and allowed to flourish.”

It is customary for a Western jurisdiction to recognise one of a series of marriages in polygamous jurisdictions (either the first entered into, or the first presented to the authorities, depending on which Western country) providing the State authorities in the country where that marriage took place recognise it and providing the marriage would have been permissible under the laws of that Western nation.

A deviation from this established rule occurred in 2017, when the Irish Attorney-General withheld recognition of the first marriage of a Lebanese man married to two women under Sharia law on the grounds that the man had supposedly not acknowledged the “to the exclusion of all others” clause in the Irish matrimonial protocol when he had married the first wife and so even that first marriage would accordingly not have been allowed in Ireland. The man took the case all the way to the Irish Supreme Court who more or less told the A-G to wake up and get real, and ordered the recognition of the first marriage.

It makes many people extremely uncomfortable to have a parallel system of civil law operating in their country, and understandably so – whatever happened to “law for one is law for all”? Muslim groups including the Muslim Lawyers’ Association in the UK have long been lobbying for official recognition of the Sharia in civil matters.

One of the big draw-cards of the Sharia court system is its accessibility. Its website lists actions and precise fees, and they don’t shilly-shally – cases are dealt with speedily, and they don’t tolerate frivolous delaying tactics on the part of defendants. By the maxim “Justice should be done, and be seen to be done”, the Sharia beats Western law hands down.

But the unease so many feel about the Sharia in our midst is well-founded. In Refah Partisi and others v Turkey 2003, the European Court of Human Rights declared the Sharia to be incompatible with fundamental Western democratic values, particularly the principle of equity. With regard to equity between men and women, for instance, the Sharia attaches different weightings to witness testimony depending on sex, and treats the sexes very differently in matters involving the distribution of property such as inheritance rights and upon divorce.

And yet many Muslim women approve of the manner in which their sex is treated by the Sharia. I have listened to passionate defences of the Sharia by young women at the university I work at in Beirut telling me that Islamic law recognises the differences between men and women and acts accordingly. One informed me that the unequal division of an inheritance was justified on the basis of men having more obligations – for instance, a Muslim man becomes responsible for the widow and children of his deceased brother. Another very assertive young lady told me rather hotly, “Women are more emotional, so their testimonies are not as reliable,” supporting her stance with reference to comparative brain anatomy.

A finding of the nationwide UK study on polygamy in 2013 found that a surprising number of Muslim women, including young educated ones, expressed a preference for polygamy as it gave them more independence – “I wouldn’t want him around all the time telling me what to do” about sums it up.

In a way, the success of the Sharia in Western societies reflects the fragmentation that the policy of multiculturalism has imposed on us. Immigrant populations are encouraged to live according to their own cultural norms, and in the case of Muslim immigrant populations that includes Sharia law, one of the defining features of Islam. In the UK town of Dewsbury, 99 percent of the resident population is immigrant Muslim – in the words of the Daily Mail, “even the ice-cream lady wears a burka”. Little wonder that Sharia law rules in that community!

But it also tells us something about our own system of law, which is comparatively cumbersome and commensurately expensive. It has moreover been hijacked by PC-zealots to promote their social engineering agenda. The Sharia may discriminate against women, but our laws discriminate against men, as many guys fleeced by avaricious women for half their property when they divorce them for no good reason, and caring fathers deprived of their own children because the court almost invariably awards custody to the woman, will tell you.

The travesty of same-sex marriage and its concomitants, such as allowing two men to ‘have children’ using a surrogate, has done nothing for the image of Western law in Muslim eyes. They believe the Sharia gives them the higher moral ground, and I for one have precious little to say in the way of a rebuttal!

No, I would not like to live under the Sharia – for one thing, I am rather fond of my Scotch. But I can see where they’re coming from.

Enforceable or not, the Sharia has brought about a ‘State within a State’ scenario in at least some of our societies. How should we respond to that? Her Majesty’s Government recently insisted that the decisions of Sharia courts had to be compatible with British law, but that has not spelt an end to polygamous marriages being concluded in the UK.

To be totally frank, I don’t think there is any way of addressing the issue of the Sharia in our midst while the doctrine of multiculturalism coupled with an open-door policy with regard to immigration from Muslim countries hold sway. Until we have made a U-turn on those policies, we remain in the situation of having made our bed and now having to lie in it. Perhaps we should consider following the example of Hungary, where Viktor Orban has declared the country to be monocultural and closed the borders – there ain’t no Sharia courts there.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA BSc BEdSt PGDipLaws MAppSc PhD is at the American University of Beirut.