Mixing up the message on Islamic law

Mixing up the message on Islamic law October 27, 2008

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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