Recently in the UK the debate, started by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the so-called Shari‘a Law, has seen a new wave of discussion following the publication of Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All by the controversy-seeking conservative think tank Civitas. The author of the report, Dr Denis MacEoin, is not new to readers of my blog and also quite well known for his questionable (if not creative) social scientific skills and methodologies in a previous publication byPolicy Exchange.However, Dr Denis MacEoin has this time honestly admitted that his methodology has been based on what I can only call ‘analogical induction’. Indeed in the press release by Civitas we can read:
It is extremely difficult to find out what goes on in these courts, so MacEoin reproduces a range of fatwas issued by popular online fatwa sites, run out of or accessed through mosques in the UK, and in some cases, as was revealed in the earlier Civitas report Music, Chess and Other Sins, even from UK Muslim schools. These online fatwas can give a good indication of the rulings of sharia courts in Britain.
We can observe that some of the electronic ‘sources’ through which MacEoin judges British Shari‘a courts, that are based on the Arbitration Act 1996, come from an organization called Ask Imam, dispensing ‘personal advices and opinion on request’ (i.e. fatwas) in South Africa! I think that just this alone shows how this report is based and biased on MacEoin’s personal opinions which are camouflaged with a sprinkling of very weak evidence.
Yet we have to recognize that both Civitas and MacEoin have reduced to zero any possibility of serious and in depth-research on Muslims. The same impenetrable ‘Shari‘a courts’ would not be, for instance, so impenetrable to an anthropologist and ethical research. But we have to remember that Civitas’ — and Dr MacEoin’s by proxy— research are not aimed at scientific evidence or academic engagement, but rather to publicity, political influence and catching the attention of the mass media.
Nonetheless, this time I do not need to discuss the methodology of Dr MacEoin’s research since it is clear and no mysterious ‘researchers’ have been employed. I am more interested in Dr MacEoin’s idea of Shari‘a since his views summarize well how some other commentators, politicians, and members of the general public (and interestingly some Muslims as well) see or perceive Shari‘a as a real ‘thing’, a phenomenon which exists beyond the actual social, political, and general environment and the individuals within it.
Let me observe two important facts that are often forgotten. Firstly, do Muslims (who differ from one another in many aspects) in the UK care about this debate on Shari‘a courts based on the Arbitration Act 1996? During my research in the UK, I have concluded that:
- there is no unitary view about Shari’a among Muslims in the UK (even among Muslims of the same ethnic group or tradition) an unitary Shari’a court is impossible at the present;
- among the various priorities, this is not the most reported;
- the debate on Shari‘a is often a consequence of particular political and mass media based debates than an internal one;
- some of the most hardcore ‘traditionalists’ (if I can use such term) have clearly argued that there should not be a Shari‘a court in a non-Muslim country, and in any case a Shari ‘a court which derives authority from a non-Muslim law is not Islamic by definition;
- even without the Arbitration Act 1996 version of Shari‘a court, Muslims can always decide, as part of their freedoms granted in the UK, to live under a self-defined Shari‘a, hence the reason for why today we can find many fatwa websites (which often contradict each other in ‘opinions’).
Secondly, as has been discussed many times, religious courts exist in the UK and the case of Jewish courts, or Beth Din provide clear evidence of how the Arbitration Act 1996 can work in the case of Shari‘a courts.
Of course, Dr MacEoin would likely argue that Arbitration Shari’a courts cannot be compared to their Jewish counterparts because Shari‘a, as a system of law is barbaric. I respect–but disagree–with Dr MacEoin’s right to see the Shari’a as barbaric law. Yet the fact remains that he does not tell us which Shari ‘a he refers to – all of them? any interpretation? Also he would possibly suggest that Muslim law is unfair to women, but would perhaps hide that Jewish lawis certainly not fairer to them when compared to UK legislation.
Yet if we shift our focus to men, specifically fathers for instance, we may question whether the UK legislation is fair to them as far as divorce and custody are concerned. Some definitely think that it is not. The issue remains that the idea of ‘barbaric’ is an emotional or argumentative one. It cannot be declared to be a universal parameter because it is too subjective. What Israel has done in Gaza recently, for example, will be described by a majority of British people as ‘barbaric’ but perhaps not, for instance, (I trust) for Dr MacEoin, who would probably see the over reaction of Israel as simple defense and just action against Hamas (and here he is ready to deny, to Palestinian children and women those same human rights which he says to defend in the case of rejecting the Shari’a arbitration courts).
We need more serious research on religious based arbitration, and this of course should not focus only on Muslim organizations but also include all the religious arbitration which has taken place within the framework of the Arbitration Act 1996, or other national frameworks such as those which exist in the US. This research cannot be conducted though a superficial and naive (if not intellectually biased) methodology such as, for instance, checking what extreme ‘rabbinic fatwas’ exist in Israel in order to understand how Jews in Britain understand halakhic instructions.
‘Analogical induction’ is open to manipulation, personal opinion and aims more to impress and to argue than to analyze. It is inevitable that we need a social scientific (and not textual as Dr MacEoin seems to prefer) approach with clear and ethical interviews of those involved (from the litigant party, the arbitrators, and the other actors) as well as participant observation.