Sharia Law is Incompatible with Human Rights.
Interview with Chris Moos, Pragna Patel and Gita Sahgal on the Victory Against the Law Society.
Maryam Namazie: The Law Society has now withdrawn its Sharia-compliant guidance on wills and issued an apology. Why did you initiate a campaign against it? Was it not a lot of fuss over nothing as some initially said?
Pragna Patel: It is easy to characterise this campaign as a ‘fuss about nothing’. The same was also said about our campaign against gender segregation in universities. What both incidents have in common is the ways in which so-called Sharia laws and values are normalised in public and institutional life as a ‘way of life’. Education and the law are key sites of control that religious fundamentalists and conservatives target. If we allow these forces to capture these sites, it will become impossible for us to challenge gender discrimination and inequality. The Law Society and its supporters argue that the Practice Note merely reiterates the fundamental principle in law that testators are fee to leave their property to whomsoever they wish. This misses the point entirely that the Law Society does not exist to maintain discriminatory values in society but to challenge them. Our argument all along has been that it is a key legal institution that should be promoting a rights-based culture within the legal profession and the wider society and not a profoundly discriminatory Sharia-compliant culture.
Chris Moos: Quite to the contrary. We should remember that the Practice Note issued by the Law Society was supposed to “represent the Law Society’s view of good practice in a particular area”. Solicitors know that these Practice Notes will make it easier to account to oversight bodies for their actions.
Had the guidance not been withdrawn, solicitors would have not only felt encouraged, but possibly professionally obliged to advise Muslims to draw up wills that are clearly discriminatory. Unfortunately, some detractors used the initial reporting by right-wing media outlets to diminish this issue by claiming that “the law has not changed” – something we of course never claimed. But this case shows clearly that even without changes in the law, representative bodies like the Law Society can effectively facilitate discrimination against women and ‘illegitimate children’, particularly from minority backgrounds.
Gita Sahgal: At a minimum, the Law Society should ensure accuracy and good practice in a guidance note. It really shocked me that a professional body could get away with work that was shoddy and inaccurate as well being discriminatory. It is really hard to know where to start with the problems of the Note. What does ‘Sharia-compliant’ mean? The use of that term should ring alarm bells – since it moves the Law Society firmly into the realm of theology. The Centre for Secular Space works with lawyers in various countries in South Asia. Their point was that the Note failed to cite a single, actual law in any country. Family laws in many former British colonies are still governed by religion. But this was not a Note about the personal law system and would have provided no accurate guidance about how to negotiate that system, while finding legal ways to mitigate the effect of discriminatory laws. There are many good lawyers practising in countries which have Muslim personal laws (I suspect only fundamentalists pedal the term ‘Sharia-compliant’), who could have provided sound advice on the law (not theology). They certainly did not think this was a ‘fuss about nothing’. I think that in Pakistan and Bangladesh, they were appalled that the Law Society could have promoted the concept of ‘Sharia-compliance’ and the idea that their countries are law- free zones where mullahs are sources of legal advice. In case your readers haven’t studied the Note and other materials with the same attention we have, the Note advises going to the local mosque for advice.
From my legal colleagues, I was also given examples of case law which has an impact on the interpretation of statutory law. Even if the Law Society failed to grasp the personal law system – which is a colonial hangover, but doesn’t exist in Britain – you would think that they would know that all south Asian countries work under systems similar to British common law and depend on case law for their interpretations of the current state of law. Without a consideration of case law, even a precise description of statutory law would be useless.
Maryam Namazie: Part of the success of the campaign was that it took action on many fronts – from protesting on the streets to threats of legal action. Please explain.
Pragna Patel: Yes. The combination of legal and political action was very effective in this case and it was very important. The law itself is increasingly become a site of contestation between feminists and religious fundamentalists everywhere, including the UK. We have to use the law where we can, especially equality and human rights laws that have themselves come out of political struggles by women and others. But we also have to be alert to the fact these very tools are themselves under threat of subversion by religious fundamentalists when they are not seeking to exclude their application altogether in relation to women and other minorities. But the law cannot of itself help to safeguard or progress human rights. Ultimately transformation can only come about through sustained political pressure. That is why the protests outside the Law Society were important. They helped to make the struggle visible, to publicly shame the Law Society and to hold it to account in public.
Maryam Namazie: The Law Society apologised and said its intention was not to endorse discrimination. This is important in that it is usually opposition to Sharia law that is seen as “discrimination” against the “Muslim community”. What’s the significance of this?
Pragna Patel: The apology was significant for two important reasons: Firstly, it vindicated our stance: if the Law Society was right all along in maintaining that it was only reiterating the legal principle that testators are entitled to leave their property to whomever they wish and that the guidance was not in breach of equalities duties, then why issue the apology at all? I suspect that the Law Society fell under immense internal pressure from its members to recognise that its position was untenable in respect of promoting equality legislation and its own policies on equality. It was forced to recognise that the guidance has no precedence in law anywhere in the world. I also suspect that it realised that it had not consulted minority women in particular, whose rights the Law Society was encouraging other lawyers to violate!
Secondly, the Law Society’s apology is highly significant precisely because it is an acknowledgement that what is passed off as Sharia laws are nothing but highly discriminatory codes of conduct that are completely incompatible with human rights. This is the true significance of the Law Society’s withdrawal of the guidance and one which we must emphasise over and over again.
Maryam Namazie: It does feel like the tide is turning what with small victories over the Law Society, against the Universities UK’s guidance endorsing segregation of the sexes, as well as new investigations into Islamist “charities” or Islamist-led schools, which are issues we have been campaigning on for many years. Also with the rise of ISIS, people are beginning to see the distinctions between Islamists and Muslims and acknowledge our argument that Islamists are part of the religious-Right. Would you agree?
Pragna Patel: It does feel like the tide is turning but we must not forget that it wouldn’t be turning without the campaigns that we are waging, often in the face of hostility and opposition from elements of the Left and Right. What it tells us is that we must be eternally vigilant to the need to challenge religious fundamentalists, their apologists and state institutions that seek to accommodate religion in the misguided belief that the right to manifest religious belief can trump other equality concerns. We have a long way to go in ensuring that religion has no place at the public table, even though we have won these small but not insignificant victories.
Chris Moos: Yes, I would agree, but change is taking place slowly. After our victory, I contacted the authors of the articles that had branded opposition to the Practice Note as “another Sharia scare story” and “anti-Muslim conspiracy theories”. None of them apologised, or even acknowledged any wrong-doing. This is symptomatic. As many on the Left or the Right still think they are fighting the good cause by branding reactionary Islamist demands as the “demands of Muslims”, they continue to wilfully conflate and homogenise Islamism, Islam, Muslims, and individual citizens who happen to be Muslim. Given the high profile cases of Universities UK and the Law Society, some are now waking up to finally realise that it is exactly this attitude that contributes to the othering of Muslim citizens, but far too many are not. I recall with horror how feminists like Laurie Penny proudly declared that opposition to gender segregation amounted to “Islamophobia” and “an attack on yet another Muslim practice”, while New Statesman and Telegraph communists insisted that they “don’t mind” gender segregation, as it does not affect them. While these voices are becoming quieter, the underlying attitudes undoubtedly still exist.
Gita Sahgal: I think we are creating important examples of the use of human rights to control and contain extremism and fundamentalism. But there is a vast difference between winning the legal argument and achieving full implementation. Still, the widespread condemnation of the Law Society and the fact that they had to back down so comprehensively, should give them brief pause for thought. A lot of people are claiming this victory – including those who did nothing at all. Others were dangerous in saying that they would prefer better Sharia – thus failing to understand anything about the issue and making our lives more difficult. While these victories are important, we have to understand that we are facing a huge, powerful and concerted opposition. For every brick we remove from their argument, they will start building a wall. So I don’t think the tide is really turning. But there is a vocal progressive, secularism emerging which also opposes bigotry.
Maryam Namazie: What needs to happen next at various levels in government and public bodies and institutions for one law for all and citizenship rights to become a reality?
Pragna Patel: We need to safeguard the tools that we have to hold state and religious power to account because they are being taken away from us. Our very right to political protest and to access justice are rights that are under threat due to the combined impact of regressive state policies and austerity measures. What this tells us is that we need to connect our struggle against religious fundamentalism with struggles for access to justice, the right to political protest and to a welfare state. These struggles are indivisible. We cannot aspire to equality and freedom in one sphere of our lives alone. As feminists, our struggle has always been about freedom in the family, community and the state.
Chris Moos: What we have been seeing for years is that public bodies have been following a highly contradictory strategy. On the one hand, they are promoting extreme and ultra-conservative expressions of religion through multifaithist policies, for example in the area of faith schools. On the other hand, they are using illiberal measures to crack down on the extreme groups they had helped to flourish in the first place. Supporting non-violent extremists is still seen as an appropriate means of containing more extreme or violent groups. The problems we are seeing will not be resolved until both Conservatives and post-modernists Leftists stop using culture and religion for identity politics. In the end, public bodies will have to realise that secular neutrality in matters of religion and belief will help to address many of the issues that are haunting British civil society.
Maryam Namazie: Sharia law is highly contested here in Britain and elsewhere. Some use concern over Sharia to promote their anti-Muslim and xenophobic agenda – groups from the EDL to UKIP and Sharia Watch. Others oppose the likes of the Law Society’s endorsement of Sharia wills whilst defending “better interpretations” of Sharia law. What’s different in our strategy and principles and why should people be joining us? Also, is it not divisive to exclude some who want to join in the “fight against Sharia”?
Pragna Patel: I see our overall struggle as a struggle for social justice and democracy which includes the struggles against patriarchy, racism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism. If we believe in equality and democracy and the universality of these principles, we cannot then for the sake of political expediency, embrace the political and far-Right that use the struggle for secular laws as a cover for their anti-Muslim, racist and anti-immigration agenda. Our version of secularism unlike that of UKIP, EDL and others on the political right, is one that is rooted in wider struggles against inequality, racism and social injustice. However, unlike sections of the Left, we will not prioritise any of these struggles or apologise for serious harms committed against women and other minorities in our communities for the sake of defending so-called religious identities and communities which have come to be defined by illiberal and fundamentalist religionists. It is not us who are divisive and exclusionary. On the contrary, we wish to build a progressive movement that is inclusive of anyone and everyone so long as they share our vision of a just society in which secular human rights law and values prevail in our state institutions and in the public culture of all communities.
Chris Moos: Simply being “against Sharia” does not qualify anyone to be part of the struggle against the religious far-Right. We are fighting for secularism, equality, social justice and human rights. While they opportunistically might use the language of human rights or secularism, the likes of the EDL, UKIP, BNP or Pamela Geller have an agenda that is diametrically opposed to our goals. We also have to acknowledge that secularism is a political ideology. As such, we are moving in a political space where secularism is predominantly opposed by groups and parties on the Right, as well as the post-modernist Left. In today’s Britain, the fight for secularism thus necessarily goes hand in hand with a fight against these groups and their ideology.
Maryam Namazie: What are the next hurdles? Where must we go from here?
Pragna Patel: The hurdles are many and immense but we need to carry on doing what we do by forging wider alliances and solidarity with those that share our politics and objectives here and abroad. This task is easier said than done but we must use every space that is afforded to us to keep shouting and remain visible. By doing so, we can show that a more progressive, alternative world free from greed, violence and injustice is possible and within our reach.
Gita Sahgal: Our definition of fundamentalism and our argument for secularism is much better located in universal human rights than the government’s use of the term ‘extremism’ and the demand to sign up to British values. We have to go on making the positive arguments for secular space to be expanded and to go on limiting the spread of fundamentalist influence. We cannot do this without combating the idea that Muslims are not ethically capable of embracing full human rights and therefore must live within their religion controlled by some religious leader or other. In fact successive governments in Britain have chosen to use religious influence to contain Muslims. The Law Society example shows that the financial interest in making money out of ‘Sharia’ was likely to be a driver in this ridiculous Note. We also need to work further with people in other countries who see Britain as an exporter of fundamentalism and terrorism and not a promoter of freedom.
Pragna Patel is Director of Southall Black Sisters. Chris Moos is a Secular Activist and Gita Sahgal is Director of Centre for Secular Space.