Europe’s Sharia question

Posted on Updated on

26 Sep 2008

Europe’s Sharia question

shariah_for_uk_large

A poster in Whitechapel reads: “Shariah the only option for the UK”

In recent weeks, the European Commission and the UK have made apparent concessions to Islamic law, and with confrontations in Cologne over a proposed mosque, the role of Muslims in a future Europe is again in the spotlight, writes Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch.

By Simon Roughneen for ISN Security Watch

Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis made his famous prediction in 2004: “Current trends show that Europe will have a Muslim majority by the end of the 21st century at the latest […]. Europe will be part of the Arab West-the Maghreb.”

Similar claims have been made by other authors, with European countries featuring below-replacement birth rates, while Muslim immigrants and their descendants predicted, in some quarters, to reach over 20 percent of the population of Europe by 2020.

A low fertility rate of 1.47 babies per woman, according to the 2005 estimates for the EU as a whole, is far below the 2.1 needed to keep a population constant, and with newspapers reporting “Muhammed” as the most popular baby’s name in London, the swing toward Mecca has some popular culture branding to match the statistics. Europe’s Muslim population has tripled in the past 30 years, fuelled by immigration from North Africa, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

No one knows whether or not he reads Lewis, but not to be outdone, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadhaffi speculated in February 2006 that “we have 50 million Muslims in Europe. There are other signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe, without swords, without guns, without military conquests. The 50 million Muslims in Europe, will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades.”

Thus an apparently ineluctable demography suggests that Europe, if it does not automatically become Islamic, will have to reframe its political and social norms to address growing and increasingly assertive Muslim community, which is making its presence felt in Europe’s three largest and most powerful states – Germany, the UK and France, as well as in Belgium, The Netherlands and elsewhere, including Russia, which on current trends will be majority Muslim by 2050.

Multiculturalists believe that Muslims can integrate into Western European culture: As they become wealthier and more assimilated, Muslims will shed vestiges of their imported identity and adopt the ways of their hosts, and a “European Islam” will form. However, with newspaper reports in the UK suggesting that Islamic law, or “Sharia,” was being implemented selectively in various parts of the country, and a dispute over the construction of a mosque in Cologne leaving the city divided after a weekend of riots, the debate around Sharia in Europe, as well as the broader issues of Muslim-Christian relations in Europe, is once more headline news with the prospect of continued division looming.

In many ways, “Muslim-Christian” might be a misnomer. With most Europeans now graphed somewhere along the atheist-secularist-agnostic-lapsed axis, “Muslim-Euroskeptic” might be a better phrase, if the latter epithet had not already been applied to political views critical of the EU. Either way, Islam’s potential in Europe, present and future, might be drawing strength from Western cultural trends, as noted by Muslims elsewhere. The Srinigar-based Greater Kashmir newspaper published a report summing-up various views on “how Islamic” Europe could possibly become, noting, with reference to the atrophying of Europe’s Christian culture:

“Most observers believe that the fast erosion of the religious and cultural values in the [W]estern societies is pushing its people toward Islam, [which] offers a more comprehensive, well-knit and value-oriented cultural, social and family structure.”

Law of the land vs ‘man-made’

Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani – perhaps the world’s pre-eminent Shi’ite cleric – recently called for Muslims “to respect the laws of the countries in which they live,” echoed by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Executive Director of the Centre of Islamic Pluralism, and conductor of a recent survey of British Muslim’s views on Islamic law, which outlined that 65 percent of them “brusquely repudiated the imposition of Sharia.”

However, that is not to say that pro-Sharia activism does not exist. In 2001, German-based Turkish organization Mili Gorus, which has over 200,000 members, said in its August 2001 Gazete
“a religious Muslim is also at the same time an advocate for Sharia. The state, the media, the courts have no right to intervene. The allegiance of a Muslim to Sharia cannot be questioned.”

Meanwhile the allegedly disbanded London-based Al-Muhajiroun, banned under UK law for terrorist links, has made the case against “man-made law,” at different times declaring that its members did not recognize British law, which prompted some to point out that this snub did not extend to returning welfare benefits claimed under the same system.

Shifting toward Sharia?

Danish Radio reported on 17 September that Muslims living in EU countries will in the future be able to divorce according to Sharia, according to an online translation of the report:

“This is the belief of the EU Commission, which recommends that a couple be able to choose which country’s law they will follow if they divorce – as long as they have some kind of connection to the country they choose.”

While senior officials and politicians in the UK have asserted that no parallel legal system, Islamic or otherwise, will be implemented in the UK, claims to the contrary are being made by Islamic jurists, not least that the British government has elevated five Sharia courts to the level of tribunal hearings.

Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, barrister and head of the Muslim Action Committee, told the London Times newspaper that the Arbitration Act 1996 allows rulings by his Muslim Arbitration Tribunal to be enforced by country and high courts.

Among four other locations, Islamic tribunals have been set up in the UK West Midlands to resolve disputes among the Muslim community. Special panels, comprising an Islamic scholar and a lawyer, are hearing arguments before making legally binding rulings, and a judge has been appointed to advise the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) on how to make these rulings fit with English law.

According to Shamim Qureshi, a district judge who works closely with the tribunals, “MAT is arbitration and that exists in this country. Any two people can agree to it, just like a contract with an insurance company for home insurance,” British newspapers reported.

The UK Conservative Party’s legal spokesman, Dominic Grieve, begged to differ, saying in a statement that “arbitration tribunals can settle some disputes and have their judgments enforced. But they must act within the principles of English law.

“They can’t forbid girls to attend mixed classes in school or award sons the bulk of inheritances merely because the parties agreed in advance to accept the verdict – any more than a regular court can enforce a voluntary contract of slavery or prostitution.”

Whatever the legal status of these tribunals, it is clear that Islamic norms are being moved closer to the mainstream of the British legal system. A cynic might wonder if the secular UK had temporarily forgotten itself, given that this comes mere months after Church of England head Rowan Williams called for the implementation of Islamic law for Muslims in the UK.

“We believe that ‘politically-correct’ non-Muslims like Rowan Williams have formulated inept and patronizing suggestions for what they believe would benefit Muslims. Sharia is not a ‘sound-bite’ issue and the discussion does not benefit from light-minded political comments,” Schwartz told ISN Security Watch.

Toward confrontation

Outside the law, no pun intended, are broader political and cultural issues surrounding the place of Muslims in Europe. One school of thought holds that many Muslims move to Europe to flee the oppressive dominant regimes which enforce Islamic law, or aspects of same, to varying degrees, and therefore do not want Islamic law. Beyond this, the conventional wisdom is that various grievances, such as the war on terror, papal discourse on religious relations, and the Danish cartoons controversy are the drivers of Muslim anger, abetted by what the head of France’s Great Mosque, Kamel Kabtane, described to the German magazine Der Spiegel as discrimination, high unemployment and social exclusion.

Schwartz sees these as “ephemeral to the real problem, radical Islamist ideology,” which is alive and well in Europe. The hatching of the 9-11 plot by a Hamburg-based al-Qaida cell is well-known, and despite the successful prevention of any major terror attack in Europe since July 2005, hardliners are often dominant in Muslim communities, even if often subterranean to public awareness.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Dr Barham Salih apparently claimed some mosques in Blackburn, England would be banned in Iraq for the extremist messages they preach, after visiting the town to campaign for long-time Labour cabinet member and former foreign secretary Jack Straw in 2005. According to Conservative Party culture spokesman Tobias Ellwood, Salih told him that: “I am not surprised that you British are facing so many problems with extremists after what I saw in those mosques in Blackburn.”

This all has prompted reaction from some European politicians. Usually derided as far-right, the Vlaams Belang Flemish separatists, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Danish People’s Party and Geert Wilders Dutch Party for Freedom have been focusing more and more on Islam’s role in Europe in recent years.

Some of these convened in Cologne 18-20 September to discuss the imminent construction of a mosque with a 55-meter high minaret in the city, whose population is now one-third Muslim. The “Pro-Cologne” gathering brought a storm of protest from some city officials and left-wing politicians, while Iran asked France, as president of the European Council, to block the conference, as it reflects “a growth of anti-Islamic sentiments in Europe.” The German Council of Muslims called it “an unparalleled abuse of the freedom of opinion.”

Media reportage on the events differed, and itself has already become a source of controversy. Some accounts describe thousands of people gathered in a counter-demonstration in front of the city’s world-famous gothic cathedral, while others state that no more than 1,000 gathered, and of these, many were left-wing activists, rather than ordinary Cologne citizens.

Converging opinions

The optimism peddled by multiculturalists – perhaps including some of those involved in the anti Pro-Cologne demonstration – whether well-intentioned or merely naive, does little to practically address the issue of Islam’s role in Europe, now or in the future, as the demographic balance between Muslims and Europeans changes.

Whether European Muslims and Europeans can be categorized separately however, remains a moot point. Integration proponents believe such demarcations to be irrelevant and/or discriminatory, though the boundaries are often self-evident, even if an often-silent cohort of Muslims do not adhere to hardline or extremist views.

However, a recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey alluded to some common threads between European and Muslim public opinion when the US is included as a factor.

A slight majority of British blame al-Qaida for 9-11 (57 percent), but another 26 percent say they don’t know who the perpetrators were. The numbers were roughly the same for French and the Italians, with 8 and 13 percent, respectively thinking the US authored the act. Among Germans, almost one-quarter – 23 percent – the US itself staged 9-11. In Turkey, 36 percent of respondents blame the US for the attacks, while in Indonesia, less than a fourth of all respondents 23 percent think al-Qaida orchestrated 9/11, while over half claims they have no idea.

With such a harmonizing of public opinion, Gadhaffi might be on the right track.

Simon Roughneen is an ISN Security Watch senior correspondent, currently in Southeast Asia. He previously reported from the region in 2007.

http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?lng=en&id=92057

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