Christian Concern welcomes today’s ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights concerning the application of Sharia law in Europe.
Christian Concern intervened in the case because of the increasing influence of Sharia law across Europe, including in the UK.
The court ruled that a Greek lady should have her inheritance dispute settled by Greek domestic law rather than by Sharia law.
The application of Sharia law in Greece to this case was found to be in violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits discrimination on grounds such as sex, race, colour, language, religion etc.
The court noted that: “Several international bodies have expressed their concern about the application of Sharia law to Greek Muslims in Western Thrace and the discrimination thus created, in particular against women and children, not only within that minority as compared with men, but also in relation to non-Muslim Greeks.”
The court also stated that, “freedom of religion does not require the Contracting States to create a particular legal framework in order to grant religious communities a special status entailing specific privileges.”
Intervention of Christian Concern
The court noted the intervention of Christian Concern which outlined, “the increasing influence of Sharia law in the United Kingdom by virtue of its application by the Islamic arbitration tribunals (Sharia Councils).”
The court noted from our intervention that:
“The operation of these tribunals has raised many problems, because it has allowed Sharia law to become a parallel legal system. The House of Lords had drawn attention to the conflict between Sharia law and United Kingdom law and had described the Islamic Code as ‘wholly incompatible’ with human rights.”
“The inherently discriminatory nature of Sharia law could not be ignored, particularly in so far as it related to women and non-Muslims. In conclusion, Sharia law was often incompatible with the rights guaranteed by the convention, and individuals should therefore always have a right of appeal to the ordinary courts in order to benefit from the protection of domestic law.”
The case involved an inheritance dispute. Ms Molla Sali inherited the entire estate of her husband when he died under the terms of a will that he had drawn up in accordance with Greek domestic law. Two sisters of her husband claimed that since her husband was a Muslim, the inheritance should be allocated according to Sharia law, adjudicated by the mufti. There are provisions for Sharia law to be applied to Greek nationals in Western Thrace who are Muslims. The application of Sharia law to the estate would deprive Ms Sali of three-quarters of her inheritance.
The ruling concerned whether Sharia law can have supremacy over a member state’s domestic law. The Grand Chamber of the ECHR today ruled that domestic law should have precedence over Sharia law. Rulings of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights cannot be appealed.
New legislation in Greece
In the meantime, in a move widely seen as anticipating today’s ruling, new legislation has been passed in Greece which enables members of the Muslim community to apply domestic law to family disputes such as inheritance or child custody. The new law falls short of abolishing the application of Sharia law altogether, instead making clear that the application of Sharia law is optional. This still leaves a parallel legal system which some Muslims may feel pressured to abide by.
Sharia law operating in the UK
As our intervention made clear, Greece is not the only country in Europe where Sharia law is practised. There are dozens of Sharia courts operating in the UK where Sharia law is used to adjudicate various disputes. Sharia principles, such as regarding a woman’s voice as half that of a man’s voice and making divorce much harder for a woman than for a man are applied, creating a de facto parallel legal system. Furthermore, London has become the European hub of Islamic finance where bonds are issued that come under the jurisdiction of Sharia law. The British government became the first non-Muslim state in the world to issue a Sharia bond in 2014, meaning that a government bond is regulated by Sharia law.
Christian Concern’s intervention consisted of a ten-page legal brief co-authored by:
- Andrea Williams, Chief Executive, Christian Concern
- Roger Kiska, Legal Adviser, Christian Legal Centre
- Tim Dieppe, Head of Public Policy, Christian Concern
- Yassir Eric, Professor for Islamic Studies at the European School for Culture and Theology.
The brief is available online here and was used in the court’s analysis of the case. The intervention also attached a peer-reviewed expert opinion on the incompatibility of Sharia law with Western legal tradition, authored by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, which is available here.
Sharia ‘incompatible’ with Western public law
The president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, commented:
“Sharia law recognises inequality between certain kinds of persons. For example, Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women etc. Whereas Western public law is based on the Biblical notion of the equality of all. Muslims, like people of any other faith, are free to practise their faith, but because Sharia is incompatible with public law in the West, it should not be given recognition in terms of such public law in the West.”
Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern said:
“We are relieved by today’s ruling. People should not be forced to have their disputes settled by Sharia law. As our intervention made clear and as the court notes, Sharia law is not compatible with human rights.
“We call on the British government to take note of today’s ruling. The operation of Sharia councils in the UK should not be tolerated. We are allowing a parallel legal system to rise and flourish which undermines the rule of domestic law. Many Muslims feel pressured to apply Sharia law to their disputes and may be unaware of their rights under domestic law.
“The government is also wrong to be promoting Sharia finance. We hope that the government will note the discriminatory nature of Sharia law and its fundamental incompatibility with human rights and decide to stop promoting Sharia finance. Government Sharia bonds are to some extent governed by Sharia law. This ruling now makes clear that domestic law should take precedence in any dispute about these bonds.”