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Shariah v. Human Rights

The clash between Sharia law and Western societies and the implications for Christian-Muslim relations was the topic of a recent forum held at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.

“Confronting Islamic extremism is one of the greatest challenges facing the United States and the West in the 21st century; and the issue is not only one of national security and foreign policy significance, it is also manifest in many domestic policy ways as well,” said Jennifer Marshall, director of Domestic Policy Studies and Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, as she opened the discussion on “The Challenges of Islamic extremist ideology to America’s founding principles.”

Marshall said that Western legal traditions originate from Judeo-Christian beliefs and the concept that there is one law for all; specifically, the religions’ teaching about equal dignity and liberty for all. She then posed the primary issues of concern for Western nations by asking, “How do Islamic tenets challenge specific core principals of Western legal and social foundations: including the rule of law, the role of women and equality before the law, religious liberty, freedom of speech and free enterprise?”

Because Sharia doesn’t provide equal rights to women and non-Muslims, and contains obvious conflicts with Western law (such as its allowance for bigamy), “it would be a great mistake for provisions of Sharia to be recognized in terms of public law in the West,” said Michael Nazir-Ali [1], former Bishop of Rochester in the Church of England from 1994 to 2009 and the Heritage Foundation’s guest lecturer on the topic.

An outspoken critic of Sharia, Nazir-Ali has not only faced criticism from the international press, but along with his family, has received death threats for his criticisms of Islamic extremism and its impact on cultural traditions and societal laws in Western nations.

Nazir-Ali said there has been continuous pressure in Canada and England to allow provisions of Sharia to be recognized and applied in public law. He added that these countries have already faced legal and social conflicts when attempting to accommodate elements of Sharia in their legal systems; and that the West needs to recognize the demands that are being made on it.

“About 18 months ago, some very prominent personalities in the United Kingdom-church leaders and legal officers-argued that it was inevitable that some aspects of Sharia would be recognized in terms of public law, and then actually also commended such recognition,” he said. “In Ontario, Canada, there was the proposal that some aspects of Sharia should be recognized there, but it did not proceed, because of the adamant opposition of Muslim women who said they had not come to Canada to be subjected again to Sharia.”

Governments’ consideration to allow the implementation of Sharia to settle disputes between Muslims who live in the West has heightened fears among some Muslim women [2] who believe they would lose the rights and freedom they now have in Western countries.

One conflict England faced was in family law and the application of Sharia in regard to marriage, divorce and child custody rights.

Since bigamy is a crime in England, Nazir-Ali said the government would have to consider whether the allowance of Sharia would mean that the practice would only be illegal for some, specifically, non-Muslims.

In divorce and child custody rights cases, Sharia and Western laws hold two different opinions. Under Sharia, men have an expectation of rights that are not allotted to women, and thus, it’s easier for men to not only divorce, but to obtain sole custody of the children who were born into a marriage.

To provide an example of such a case, Nazir-Ali said that in England, a Lebanese Sunni Muslim woman sought asylum and won her appeal, because if she had returned to Lebanon, her son would have been taken from her and custody would have gone to the child’s father, who lives in Lebanon. The British Law Lords decided that “deporting her would be an infringement of her human rights if, under Sharia law, she was going to be deprived of the custody of her son.”

Among the concerns that people have about Sharia is that their actions or people’s accusations against them of apostasy or blasphemy can lead to imprisonment or death. Apostasy, the abandonment of one’s religion, is converting from Islam to Christianity or another religion or becoming agnostic or atheist; whereas blasphemy [3] is practicing a non-Islamic religion or committing an action that offends Islam, members of an Islamic community [4], or by making comments that are believed to be derogatory toward the prophet Muhammad. Under Sharia, in some countries, all are actions that are punishable by a 25 years-to-life sentence in prison or the death penalty [5].

The Organization of the Islamic Conference [6] has initiated an international movement to have the United Nations recognize the defamation of religion, which is designed to protect some religions from criticism, and protect their founders from criticism and insult. “For the first time, it would be impossible for people to take a properly critical view of a religion like Islam.” Nazir-Ali said as he explained that Muslim scholars are no longer encouraged to analyze the tenets of Islam and how they’re being applied in cultures and societies; which he said, has been the case for Christianity and Christian leaders for more than 200 years.

Nazir-Ali capped the discussion by suggesting that people listen to those who live outside the West who provide warnings about potential threats. In doing so, he recounted a conversation he had with an Algerian foreign minister during a state banquet for King Abdullah II 0f Jordan-after the 9-11 and 7-7 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and England, respectively-who said: “For years we have been telling you that these people are terrorists. You have been telling us, ‘no, they are freedom fighters.’ Now, what do you say?”

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was born into a Shi’ite Muslim family in Karachi, Pakistan, and later converted to Christianity and worked as a priest in Karachi and Lahore, where he was appointed the first Bishop of Raiwind. He later became the first Asian Bishop to join the British House of Lords, where he served from 1999-2009. Nazir-Ali is also the president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD).