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UK Gov't Review Into Sharia Law 'Hijacked' by Counter Extremism Agenda

© Photo : PixabayWoman wearing a headscarf
Woman wearing a headscarf - Sputnik International
A UK government review into Sharia councils has been "hijacked" by the home office's counter-extremism agenda, family lawyer and expert in British and Sharia law told Sputnik.

"The review into Sharia councils should not fall under the counter-extremism strategy, it's been hijacked and the women they [the UK government] should be helping will be failed," Aina Khan, head of the Islamic and Asian division at Duncan Lewis law firm told Sputnik.

It's estimated 30 Sharia councils operate in the UK, dealing with civil matters and issuing Islamic divorce certificates and advice on other aspects of Islamic law. Decisions made in a Sharia council are not legally binding under UK laws.

The independent review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales, launched by the Home Secretary Theresa May, hopes to reveal its findings in 2017.

"The Home Secretary committed to an independent review of the application of Sharia Law as part of the government's Counter-Extremism strategy," the Home Office announced.

"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 that some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way, seeking to legitimize forced marriage and issuing divorces that are unfair to women contrary to the teachings of Islam."

​Aina Khan, a solicitor who specializes in family cases and deals daily with Sharia councils, told Sputnik, "labelling it under the counter-extremism agenda defeats the purpose of any review," adding that it doesn't make sense to accuse councils of "legitimizing forced marriage."

"Why would they? It's the exact opposite. The Sharia council immediately grant a divorce as forced marriage is banned under Islam as well. If the government has evidence of it, I'd like to see it." 

Roshan Salih, editor of British Muslim news website 5Pillars told Sputnik that the review is "yet another attack on British Muslims."

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"Every week we see another attack on British Muslims and the review has to be viewed in this context. It feels like we're under siege from the mainstream media and the government's counter-extremism Prevent strategy, that's how I see it. Instead of trying to incorporate the desires and wishes of British Muslims, the government is criminalizing it.

"There are 30 Sharia councils in the country, and it's mainly women who go to them, for matrimonial affairs, women who want Islamic divorces or a will, for example. These are not places where extremism or radicalization occurs. This has nothing to do with Muslim extremists setting off bombs," Salih told Sputnik.

'Any Women Would Find It Humiliating'

Khan has published proposals for reform of Sharia councils that she believes if implemented, would benefit women and make them feel more confident during divorce processes.

"The most pressing reform addresses the fact that there are hardly any women on Sharia council panels, or indeed female administrators, so women find it an extremely intimidating process.

"Even if the marriage has simply broken down and there has been no abuse, it's agony for women to have to explain private details and facts to a panel of men. Any women would find it humiliating," Khan said.

According to Khan, Sharia councils should implement a paper process like English divorces, "where you don't necessarily have to attend, or there is someone to guide you through it".

"There are some Sharia councils that are doing that — there is great work being done but no one is ever looking at that."

Chair of the home office led Sharia Law review, Professor Mona Siddiqui said: "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 Aina Khan remains skeptical, suggesting that unless the review panel listens to people on the ground, nothing will be achieved and opportunities to reform Sharia councils will be missed.

"When government representatives came to see me and asked my advice, I did think the review was sincere but the minute it became labelled under extremism, that all changed dramatically. The Muslim community is asking, who are the people on the review team with any experience in this area?"

Roshan Salih told Sputnik that the government is not engaging with Muslim communities at a grass roots level.

"They don't have a relationship with them; they don't like it when these groups bring up British foreign policy, so their strategy is to speak to people who are compliant. I think that's what they've done here.

"This review has been launched by a home secretary who is currently in the process of targeting the Muslim community under the guise of the Prevent strategy and I think it is Islamophobic."

According to Aina Khan, 80 percent of recent Muslim marriages are not legally registered in the UK, and that number is increasing.

"If they go to court a judge can't help them, so the 'one law for all' point fails immediately. They're victims because they have to go to Sharia councils for a divorce.  All faiths should legally register marriages and if every Muslim marriage was registered — then they would have access to civil law. People are missing the actual point of it all."

"The UKs Marriage Act hasn't been updated since 1949."

Sputnik asked the UK's Home Office for a statement and was directed to the announcement made by Home Secretary the day the review was launched. 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."

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