In the centre of heated debates following the mass-arrest of an alleged British-based Islamic terrorist group in early August, a Labour MP, Shahid Malik, suggested that if young Muslims are seeking sharia law, they should essentially move to a country in which sharia law is the predominant doctrine of legal governance. Remarkably honest to the core of the established political process in the UK, Malik had condemned fellow Muslim leaders in calling for Islamic holidays and sharia (Islamic law). Such an appeal had been proposed earlier last week, following a meeting between the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, the communities minister, Ruth Kelly and a range of Muslim leaders.
In a column in the Sunday Times, Malik espoused a fair view of the situation: “whether you are white, Asian, black, Christian, Muslim, Christian or Jew, if you don’t like where you’re living you have two choices: either you live elsewhere, or you engage in the political process, attempt to create change and ultimately respect the will of the majority.” It was a point well accepted, and even expected in the ranks of British society, following the far-fetched requests for legislation accorded to religious minority groups.
However, the Labour MP, as a Muslim, also reconciles his own faith and governance according to a very difficult premise. Quoting the Islamic scholar, Muhammad ibn Adam, the MP writes: “It is necessary by sharia to abide by the laws of the country one lives in, regardless of the nature of the law, as long as the law doesn’t demand something that is against Islam.” This, for all practical purposes, is possible. Yet, it is only possible once the MP had displaced the meaningfulness of structured liberal laws, since their co-existence is clearly unviable. Whilst Malik’s criticism of those Muslims, desperate for governance by sharia law, may have been well-placed I cannot share his optimism for suppressing the debate over differences of governance – the sharia law is born from the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as a cornerstone of the Islamic faith, whilst the liberal law of Western states has not sprung from this history but is a milestone in the development of a Christian-liberal political schema of governance. Clearly there are differences that cannot be reconciled, and as with the development of all timorous religious groups in those situations, the first response has tended towards collective unity and sectarianism.
The Islamic scholar and journalist, M. J. Akbar, offered an alternative response to the consequences of Muslims living without sharia law in his book, The Shade of Swords: “A Muslim does not have to live in a Muslim state, but he must have the right to live by his divine law; if that is denied, then he is in Dar al Harb, or the House of War, and jihad becomes obligatory upon him.” That is a very different picture from the one painted by the Labour MP, attempting to reconcile the Islamic faith with a liberal politics of the state. Since British Muslims face the prospect of not living under a Muslim state or the divine law of Islamic practices, then it might be seen that there is a clearly treacherous conflict between the liberal laws responsible for governing all religious individuals and the demand for sharia law, governing a particular religious community (removing certain personal freedoms).
Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, secretary general of the Union of Muslims Organisations of the UK and Ireland, was foremost among those requesting Islamic festivals become public holidays and that sharia law should govern Muslim family affairs. Dr. Pasha was clear on his recommendation: “We told her if you give us religious rights, we will be in a better position to convince young people that they are being treated equally along with other citizens.” Express concerns of the majority, including that of the West Yorkshire Labour MP, Malik, boldly rejected Pasha’s outrageous requests as well as the “sympathetic” approach taken by Ruth Kelly. Khalid Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Perry Bar, reacted cautiously:
“Sharia law can’t apply in the UK because we are not in an Islamic state, that’s a basic fundamental.” It still remains the case that in order for the British authorities to isolate and identify terrorists in its midst – which cannot be left to organizations such as the Muslim Council of Britain – then it is essential for the British Muslim community to reject what Malik so ably labelled the “victim narrative.”
Much of the debate has been overshadowed by a direct Islamic terrorist plan to explode a series of aircraft from UK airports, later foiled by the MI5. Counter-terrorist officials of the MI5 undermined an Islamic terrorist plot to blow up a series of transatlantic airlines, which were estimated, at the time, to have likely cost 3,000 lives. The intention is clear. Of the twenty-four original arrests, eight have been charged with conspiracy to murder and three others been charged with different offences.
The consensus among politically-active Muslims in the UK has been to blame the rise in Islamic extremism on British foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East. Recently, in an open letter to the Prime Minister, three Muslim MPs, three Muslim members of the House of Lords and 38 groups consisting of Muslim members declared that foreign policy in Iraq and the Middle East had brought about this extremism and that the country needs to “change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they are and whatever their religion.” The letter was printed across a range of media in Britain. Frankly, it read like the ranting letter of a herd of ten-year olds to the Prime Minister, each and every signatory declaring that Muslims were unable to take responsibility for the violent instinct that had voluntarily led their own hot-headed aggression to destroy the very nation that made their settlement possible. Of course, young Muslims settling in Britain may not like the country’s foreign policy toward different countries – and neither would I expect them to – but the process of change opens through recourse to the law, not through jihad and devastation.
Once we do put aside the concerns of the three Muslim MPs, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, Hanne Stinson, offered the most considered response to Ruth Kelly’s “sympathetic” approach to consideration of sharia law in family affairs: “[I]t is fundamental to the principle of equality before the law that the same rights and processes of law be available to all, and this would automatically rule out any possibility of delegating the rights of some citizens to unaccountable religious authorities. I might add that singling our certain groups for separate treatment will surely undermine work towards good relations and social cohesion.” I agree with Stinson to the extent that the best amendment to the current climate can be realised in making clear that each citizen stands equal before the rule of law, and the nation, as a family of citizens, can withstand a rebellion but not violent terrorism.