Two years ago, Amina, a Muslim woman, approached a religious teacher near her home outside London. She wished to divorce her husband. They had married in Pakistan, moved to England, and later separated. Amina was planning to file for divorce in court, but wanted proof that she was divorced religiously in case she wished to remarry. The teacher referred her to Londons Islamic Sharia Council, and earlier this year, at one of their monthly meetings at the Regents Park Mosque, the six Islamic scholars sitting as the Council took up her case.
Their first aim, as with Islamic judges in other countries, was to save the marriage. But Aminas husband had not answered entreaties to appear before them. As a result they agreed to dissolve the marriage, and officially informed Amina of their decision. With their letter, she should be able to remarry in a country practicing Islamic lawfor example, her native Pakistan. Should she remarry in England, she will be able to satisfy relatives and neighbors (and perhaps herself) that she has not sinned.
In the eyes of English law, the Councils deliberation and its judgments are private matters, of no concern to courts or legislators (as long as child custody and finances are not involved). Last July Britains highest Justice, Lord Phillips, tried to make this clear. Echoing a February 2008 statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Phillips said that English law should recognize the right of Muslims (like everyone else) to settle personal affairs among themselves, in their case, according to sharia, the body of Islamic law. The press pelted the Archbishop for his speech; many commentators claimed that he had proposed introducing sharia law to England, and that mutilation, stoning, and the oppression of women were next on the English legal agenda. Six months later, Lord Phillipss comments elicited fewer responsesother news occupied the tabloidsbut the press continues to warn of judges adopting sharia.
The English debate has also fueled concerns in the United States about the future of Western civilization. The New York Times paraphrased the conservative commentator Daniel Pipess worries that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia. Although neither the Archbishop nor the Lord Chief Justice suggested incorporating rules of Islamic law into English law, their speeches left them open to charges that they would recognize sharia. Some British Muslims, moreover, do call for the courts to turn over Muslims marriage and divorce settlements to Islamic tribunals.
This article has become a book!
MIT Press / Cloth / $14.95 / April 2012
In the United States and in Europe, politicians, activists, and even some scholars argue that Islam is incompatible with Western values. In Blaming Islam, John Bowen uncovers the myths about Islam and Muslim integration, with a focus on the histories, policy, and rhetoric associated with Muslim immigration in Europe, the British experiment with sharia law for Muslim domestic disputes, and the claims of European and American writers that Islam threatens the West.
John R.Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is author of Why the French Dont Like Headscarves and Can Islam Be French? He was a 2005 Carnegie Scholar.