Mixing up the message on Islamic law

You know that game called “broken telephone” (it goes by other names too, I think), where one person whispers a message in someone’s ear, who whispers it to someone else, and so on, and by the time it reaches the last person, it gets a bit warped? That’s probably a pretty good analogy for what the media does on a regular basis. This week, Robert Verkaik, Law Editor for The Independent, plays telephone with the law lords of Britain.

First, the headline: “Court rules Islamic law discriminatory.” I wasn’t actually aware that British courts were in the business of regulating religious legal systems. Or that they were in a position of authority to do so. I mean, obviously, they’re not. But you wouldn’t know that by the first few paragraphs of this article.

The article starts off by stating that:

“Britain’s highest court has criticised Islamic law for discriminating against women after a case in which a mother was forced to flee the Middle East for Britain to protect her son from his abusive father.”

The next paragraph is even stronger: apparently there is “no place in sharia for the equal treatment of the sexes.”

It is not until the fourth paragraph that we get clarification on this:

“Lord Hope of Craighead said that the right to non-discrimination was a core principle in the protection of human rights. “Sharia law as it is applied in Lebanon was created by and for men in a male-dominated society… There is no place in it for equal rights,” he said.” [emphasis mine]

I am no legal scholar, but in my mind, there is a world of difference between “Islamic law” as an idea, and “Islamic law” as it is applied in a specific place. To quote the court as saying that there is no place for gender equality in sharia law itself is grossly misrepresenting the court’s decision, not to mention Islamic legal systems and processes. In fact, from Lord Hope’s quote above, it seems that the decision was in fact relatively careful in acknowledging the patriarchal context in which the particular legal system in question was developed, and attributed the inequality to this context and not to Islam’s influence. (As an aside, I hope that Lord Hope is equally attentive to the role that patriarchal [and racist, classist, heterosexist, etc.] systems of oppression have also influenced the development of British and European laws, though something tells me he may be less concerned about this… The way that Islamic law is seen as much more likely to be influenced by oppressive social structures than European legal systems is also an important issue to think about.)

A quote from another member of the court states that they are not “setting out to make comparisons, favourable or unfavourable, with sharia law,” again attempting to put its decision into context, and emphasise that they are ruling on a particular situation and not on Islamic law in general. Whoever wrote the headline for this article totally missed that point.

I don’t want to argue about whether “Islamic law” or “sharia” is actually discriminatory; that’s a different discussion. What I am concerned about is that the writer of this article made a giant leap – between a decision that apparently defined its scope in terms of a particular situation in a particular location on one side, and an all-out condemnation of Islamic law, full stop, on the other – and then proceeded to inform us that British law had spoken and had pronounced Islam’s entire legal framework as discriminatory. It is only through reading between the lines in the last half of the article (which is generally not where journalists choose to put the parts that they most want you to read) that we can lend some nuance to this story, but how many people will actually do this?

The image that ends up coming across is one where sharia law is monolithic, unchanging, and of course, inherently oppressive. The implication is that Muslim women are necessarily subjugated and silenced, and that outside intervention is the only way that they can be protected. The article itself silences any possibilities of resistance and challenges to these systems by Muslim women themselves, or of developing understandings of the legal systems that are less influenced by the systems “created by and for men,” as cited by Lord Hope.

If the writer wanted to write about why he thinks Islamic law is unfair, and used his own evidence to back that up, that’s one thing. But construing this case as if the British court has condoned these blanket statements on sharia law is quite another. Whoever finds themselves at the end of this telephone game (like us, the readers) will have to do a lot of digging to decipher the original message.

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  • cranberrie_21

    Although I appreciate with what the post has to claim, yet I do not agree with it.

    Lets just face it, each and every Muslim is a delegate of Islam. How they behave in front of the world or on foreign land, represents the very religion of Islam. The very problem here is that Muslims themselves simply love to show Islam as a cruel, monolithic , one-tracked religion. Lack of knowledge and core understanding is to blame, but its the truth. We are who we portray ourselves to be. And if we portray ourselves to be a male dominated society that does not give a single thought to women, then that is, in reality, who we ARE!

    I think its time to actually finally wake up and smell the flowers. Rather than expect non Muslim courts or administrators to sit and ponder on why the Sharia regarding Muslim men and women’s rights is so unbalanced (or rather why its IMPLEMENTATION in the so called Islamic world is so biased towards men) , why not do it ourselves? After all, it is our religion. And they are not to be blame for their misunderstanding. For one thing, they shouldn’t even be bothered about us Muslims. I have to hand it to them that they actually took the time out and observed, discussed, analyzed and pondered over it! Compare that to the recent case in Baluchistan, Pakistan, where the very parliament members themselves got off their seats to shout out about how they will kill a woman for honor.

  • Krista

    @ cranberrie:
    Thanks for your comment. I definitely agree that there are a lot of problems with the ways that sharia law gets understood and implemented, and that Muslims bear a lot of responsibility for this.

    And the writer totally could have written an article about why he thought sharia law was unfair (I likely would have had issues with that too, but that’s not the point.) The thing is, that’s not what he was doing. He was attempting to argue that it’s Britain’s court system that has deemed sharia law to be unjust, even though that’s not really what the court said.

    So my point here isn’t about whether sharia law is oppressive, or what we should be doing about that (that’s another discussion that’s totally worth having, but not necessarily on this blog.) Rather, I’m frustrated that this writer totally misrepresented this British court decision, and made it appear as if Britain’s highest court has ruled Islamic law as a whole to be discriminatory.

    I also disagree that “they are not to blame for their misunderstanding” – I mean, certainly, if some average non-Muslim western person reads something about the way that Islamic law is being implemented in Lebanon or Pakistan or whatever, and they feel that’s oppressive, that’s probably understandable. For the LAW EDITOR of a major news source to represent this story as he has is pretty irresponsible journalism.

  • Aynur

    So true to say that “How they behave in front of the world or on foreign land, represents the very religion of Islam.”

  • laila

    @ Krista

    Court rules Islamic LAW discriminatory, not Islamic Law(S) in this situation. Krista, honestly I think I’ve also missed that point.

    So your saying that Britain’s highest court has NOT ruled Islamic law as a WHOLE to be discriminatory, just this one law which has no exceptions made for violent fathers?

    “The image that ends up coming across is one where sharia law is monolithic, unchanging, and of course, inherently oppressive. The implication is that Muslim women are necessarily subjugated and silenced, and that outside intervention is the only way that they can be protected.”

    But Krista, let’s be frank in this case This Muslim woman (EM) was subjugated and silenced and the only way she could keep custody of her child from a violent parent was to flee from a law that has made no exception in Lebanon. The image of sharia law as monolitihic, unchanging, and of course, inherently oppressive, is the image Lebanon’s family court is sending out in this particular case and sadly in others. This is also the image a lot of Muslims are fighting to KEEP, including some women.

    Yes I found it unfair that he “silence(d) any possibilities of resistance and challenges to these systems by Muslim women themselves,”, perhaps he doesn’t know of any Muslim women or organizations who challenged this? Or perhpas he does and doesn’t care, perhaps we should start informing people.

    Maybe this is an opportunity for Muslim Women to inform the public that their taking this into their own hands, that their not sitting ducks, or helpless children etc. That they do have activists, and organizations challenging this, such as so and so.

    I have a feeling that the Muslims (including women) who are going to have the opportunity to speak up about this in the media are those who are in favour of pushing this monolithic unchanging image. Even by simply keeping silent about this case.

    No doubt the law editor was irresponsible in this article but the responsibility doesn’t lie solely on him. We should start to speak up for ourselves and not wait for others such as Robert Verkaik to do it for us, but that’s usually what happens we wait to long. We are responsible for ourselves!

    By the way do you ladies know of any Muslim women organizations in Lebanon that are trying to help women in these similar cases, or have made any comments about this case?

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for stopping by. There are some really good points being made here about the need for Muslims to take matters into our own hands and start working ourselves to improve the ways that Islam is seen.

    @ Laila:
    To clarify my interpretation of the author’s point (vs. what the court actually said): my first reading of the headline was that the court had ruled “Islamic law” (ie, as an entire set of laws and methodologies, the way one might refer to “Canadian law,” for example) to be discriminatory. I re-read it later and wondered if the writer instead meant that it as “Court rules [one specific] Islamic law discriminatory,” but given the way that “sharia” is referenced later in the article, it seemed clear to me that the author was referring to Islamic law as a whole, and not to one particular law. So, in my mind, the headline referred to the broader category of “Islamic law,” which includes *all* Islamic lawS. Does that make sense?

    In contrast, what I understood from the quotes from the actual court decision wasn’t that they were saying that “just this one law” is discriminatory, but rather that they were saying that the way this legal system has been *implemented* is discriminatory. They weren’t passing judgement on Islamic law; they were passing judgement on *Lebanese* law, and they were attributing the sexism embedded in it to male-dominated social structures, and not to Islam. (Whether this is an accurate description of Lebanese law as a whole could probably be debated, but is definitely way out of the scope of my knowledge!)

    I hope that makes my point a bit clearer, and doesn’t just confuse everyone even more! :)

    As for organisations in Lebanon – a quick google search found me the Lebanese Council to Resist Violence Against Women (http://www.lebanesewomen.org/research.html), which looks pretty interesting. I haven’t had a time to look deeper (and I don’t understand nearly enough Arabic to do an Arabic-language search, which would probably find more), but I would be interested if anyone else knows anything about this group, or knows of any others that are doing similar work.

    As I alluded to in my initial post, I do also think there are some racist undertones to the ways that Lebanese law is seen as influenced by sexist social structures, and British law is likely understood by the same people to be entirely equitable and free of bias. That’s not the main focus of this conversation, but I do think it’s worth being aware through all of this that Lebanese legal systems aren’t the only ones that are influenced by the social relations in which they were created.

    Last, to be clear, I am in no way condoning the structure of the Lebanese court that would force a child to live with a father who has been abusive in the past, or that would automatically remove the mother’s custody of the child that she has been raising since his birth. Based on the (limited) information we’ve been given, I’m glad to see the British court’s decision not to force them to return to Lebanon, and I think this is certainly an example of sharia law being understood in oppressive and discriminatory ways.

  • laila

    @ Krista

    Thanks for the example, (ie, as an entire set of laws and methodologies, the way one might refer to “Canadian law,”), now I understand what you mean, and yes that does makes sense. It is indeed a very bad transmission of the British Court Decision!

    That was unprofessional of Robert Verkaik. He has a right to take a stand on this issue and state his opinion but don’t make us believe that it is what the British Court decided. It isn’t very fair to the reader that he is passing his own biases for the British Court. And to think he is the Law EDITOR of “The Independent”, which I guess tolerates low standards.

  • cranberrie_21


    Thanks for the clarification. Like I said in my comment too, they’re wondering as to why the implementation of Islamic law is so discriminatory. Although, I must admit, the author of the article could have used a better essay structure, because the first impression that I got too was that the Court was labeling all of Sharia law as discriminatory.

    I’d deem that sadly unprofessional of the author Robert Verkaik, who decided to play around with words to project his own understanding of the Sharia law, while disguising it as a British Court’s ruling.

  • Maarouf

    The court did not actually make enquiries into the how the law would be applied in Lebanon. Sharia’ law does make provision for such cases. Instead of recognising this, the judges and lawyers were complicit in constructing a caricature of sharia’. They made a very conscious choice to battle a straw man. It is inconceivable that they somehow did not notice the equitable component of Sharia. Generally, Lebanese sharia’ courts follow the Hanafi school, which certainly makes use of istihsan (more or less equivalent to the common law concept of equity). I know from the case of a relative that the court does indeed employ this technique to ensure justice for the wife and children. So the question here is, why would the House of Lords create this deceitful basis for their decision?

    This is more significant than it first appears. House of Lords decisions set the standard for the rest of the British judicial system, and are highly persuasive (in the legal sense) for commonwealth judges. Every word in a HL decision is weighed extremely carefully because that decision literally becomes law, every bit as effective as an Act legislated by Parliament.

    This decision should be extremely worrying. It is bereft of a factual basis and is quite openly a political, rather than legal, judgement.

    So while the situation for this woman was tragic, what is even more pressing is that the House of Lords has chosen to weigh in on a political debate currently raging in the British media, and it has chosen to do so on the basis of an Orientalist fallacy.

  • Krista

    @ Maarouf:
    Thanks for stopping by. That’s interesting (and disturbing) that the court seems to have ignored the ways that the law would be applied, especially when, as you say, the House of Lords has so much authority in setting legal precedents.

    It’s bizarre that the court was so careful to specify that it wasn’t passing judgement on Islamic law, and yet apparently much less careful in its judgement of the Lebanese legal system.

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  • winoceros

    The justices rule on facts. EM’s attorney would have been required to present a case that showed that EM would have received discriminatory (not to mention downright dangerous) treatment upon her return to Lebanon. If the crown did not think the facts presented by the petitioner were valid, they would have disproved them, and the justices would have ruled in favor of the appeals court.

    The article may be badly written, but to claim that it’s simply a case of the writer painting with broad strokes the decision, remember that the decision was based on the facts. Shari’a law is de facto discriminatory against women. Shari’a (“the way”) is based totally on Islam. You said you didn’t want to address that fact in this article and I respect that, but realize that the judges were in the position of having to rule whether or not the woman and her son faced a potential human rights violation. Based on the evidence, shari’a law, they found it to be so.

    What’s so offensive here?

    And the argument, “well, Brits had discriminatory laws, too” doesn’t fly. They don’t now. Due to the closing of the gates of itjihad, there is no further evolution of shari’a. The wonderful activists fighting these battles in Muslim nations and nations threatened by the imposition of shari’a on its citizens have a battle against a total ideology, not just a religion.

  • Krista

    @ winoceros:
    “Sharia law” is not monolithic. It’s a little simplistic to say that it is “de facto discriminatory against women.” I’ll definitely agree with you that most of its implementations HAVE been discriminatory, but “sharia” as a concept is a lot broader than the actual legal systems that are in place in some countries today. See my post on an interview with Asifa Quraishi (http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2009/01/05/asifa-quraishi-on-women-and-sharia/) for an elaboration of that point. Personally, I would argue that if the laws in place in Lebanon really would have forced this woman (or at the very least, her son) to remain with her abusive husband, then there is a lot about that system that is un-Islamic.

    Moreover, the judge in the case was quite clear that he was ruling based on the *application* of the law in a specific context. According to the judge, the issue at stake was not “shariah” as a whole, but instead the particular legal system of contemporary Lebanon. Whether or not you think shariah law is discriminatory is beside the point, because my point in this post was that the judge was quite clear that the judgement that *he* was making had more to do with the Lebanese legal system than with the concept of shariah. The article therefore did a poor job of describing the judge’s decision, which was based on a particular legal system and not on Islamic law as a whole, despite what the headline implied.

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