Council of Europe calls on UK to act on Sharia law

25 January 2019

Tim Dieppe discusses a hard-hitting resolution passed by Council of Europe which calls on the UK to take six specific actions in relation to the influence of Sharia law.

The Council of Europe passed a resolution about the operation of Sharia law amongst its members this week. The 47-nation Council of Europe oversees the European Convention on Human Rights and works to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.

The resolution expresses great concern about the fact that Sharia law “is applied either officially or unofficially in several Council of Europe member states, or parts thereof.”

Sharia law incompatible with human rights

The Assembly recalled a previous ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that “the institution of Sharia law and a theocratic regime were incompatible with the requirements of a democratic society”. The resolution continues:

“The Assembly fully agrees that Sharia law rules on, for example, divorce and inheritance proceedings are clearly incompatible with the Convention, in particular its Article 14, which prohibits discrimination on grounds such as sex or religion, and Article 5 of Protocol No. 7 to the Convention (ETS No. 117), which establishes equality between marital partners. Sharia law is also in contradiction with other provisions of the Convention and its additional protocols, including Article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment), Article 6 (right to a fair trial), Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life), Article 9 (freedom of religion), Article 10 (freedom of expression), Article 12 (right to marry), Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (ETS No. 9) (protection of property) and Protocols Nos. 6 (ETS No. 114) and 13 (ETS No. 187) prohibiting the death penalty.”

This is very helpful and clear statement of the manifest incompatibility of Sharia law with human rights.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam

The resolution expresses concern that some members of the European Council (Albania, Azerbaijan and Turkey) have signed up to the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and asks that those member states should consider withdrawing from the Cairo declaration.

The Cairo Declaration is notorious in not being properly supportive of human rights. For example, Article 2 states that: “it is prohibited to take away life except for a shari’ah prescribed reason.” Since Sharia law prescribes the death penalty for apostacy, this completely undermines freedom of religion. Furthermore, Article 10 states that: “Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism.” Thus, freedom of religion is not protected by this declaration.

Free speech is also not protected. Article 22 states that: “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah.” Since Sharia law prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy or insulting Muhammad, this severely restricts free speech.

Article 24 states, “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’ah.” Article 25 states, “The Islamic Shari’ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration.” This makes clear that the Cairo Declaration is just as discriminatory as Sharia law is and therefore extends no protection of human rights to signatories.

Sharia councils in the UK

The resolution also expresses concern about Sharia councils in the UK:

“The Assembly is also concerned about the ‘judicial’ activities of ‘Sharia councils’ in the United Kingdom. Although they are not considered part of the British legal system, Sharia councils attempt to provide a form of alternative dispute resolution, whereby members of the Muslim community, sometimes voluntarily, often under considerable social pressure, accept their religious jurisdiction mainly in marital and Islamic divorce issues, but also in matters relating to inheritance and Islamic commercial contracts. The Assembly is concerned that the rulings of the Sharia councils clearly discriminate against women in divorce and inheritance cases. The Assembly is aware that informal Islamic Courts may exist in other Council of Europe member States too.”

The Assembly is quite right to be concerned about the discrimination against women by these Sharia councils and the effective creation of a parallel legal system which ensues.

UK called to take action

The resolution calls on the UK authorities to take six specific actions to curb the application of Sharia law in the country:

  1. ensure that Sharia councils operate within the law, especially as it relates to the prohibition of discrimination against women, and respect all procedural rights;
  2. review the Marriage Act to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony, as is already stipulated by law for Christian and Jewish marriages;
  3. take appropriate enforcement measures to oblige the celebrant of any marriage, including Islamic marriages, to ensure that the marriage is also civilly registered before or at the same time as celebrating the religious marriage;
  4. remove the barriers to Muslim women’s access to justice and step up measures to provide protection and assistance to those who are in a situation of vulnerability;
  5. put in place awareness campaigns to promote knowledge of their rights amongst Muslim women, especially in the areas of marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance, and work with Muslim communities, women organisations and other non-governmental organisations to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment;
  6. conduct further research on “judicial” practice of Sharia councils and on the extent to which such councils are used voluntarily, particularly by women, many of whom would be subject to intense community pressure in this respect.

The UK is asked to report back to the Assembly by June 2020 on the actions taken as follow-up to this resolution.

The government should take these actions

These action points are very much in line with recommendations that Christian Concern has been calling for in relation to the operation of Sharia councils in the UK. The government commissioned an independent review into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales which reported last year. The review clarified that Sharia law is being applied in the UK and that discriminatory practices are occurring in that context. The review recommended requiring Islamic marriages to be civilly registered. Christian Concern have been supporting Baroness Cox with her Bill in the House of Lords which would make it a legal requirement for religious marriages to be registered. This would protect women with legal rights in the event of death, divorce, or abandonment. It would also prevent polygamy.

We hope that this resolution from the Council of Europe will add to the pressure on the government to curb the operation of sharia law in the UK.

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