Sharia courts give The Hague the shivers
Stoning. Chopping off hands. Whippings and beatings. When people hear the word ‘Sharia’, these are the images that spring to mind. But Islamic justice can also be used in civil law. Like in family law, and in divorce and inheritance cases.
These areas of Sharia law could be applied in certain Dutch mosques.
The government is looking into whether the Netherlands, like Great Britain, should allow some kind of Sharia law. The idea terrifies Dutch politicians because Islamic law means inequality between men and women. Everyone in the Dutch political world is also well aware that Freedom Party leader and anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders is bound to make enormous electoral mileage from it.
Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin is looking into the details of the system. In a letter to MPs, he says it is the government’s duty “to ensure that no parallel society evolves where people take the law into their own hands or have an independent system of justice.
Close down mosques
An overwhelming parliamentary majority is fiercely opposed to any form of Sharia. MPs say mosques where imams dispense Sharia rulings should be closed down. Socialist Party MP Sadet Karabulut argues that “Islamic law is contrary to our own laws and regulations”. “Islam often places women in an inferior position. They can, for example, be forced to have sex with their husbands. Men are allowed to be polygamous and that is against Dutch law,” she explains.
Maurits Berger, Leiden University’s professor of Islam in the Western world, is also against Sharia, but only where it runs contrary to Dutch law: “No stoning, child marriage or chopping off of hands.”
Dr Berger believes there is room for manoeuvre: “For example, in marriage law, people can choose to submit to religious rules which can lead to inequality between men and women. This happens in the case of orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Protestants. I don’t want to see the government regulating how these people should live their lives.”
Dr Berger thinks it would be difficult to forbid Muslims their courts. The Netherlands has had Jewish and Roman Catholic courts for years. The priests and rabbis hand down rulings which sometimes directly contradict Dutch law.
Dr Berger: “Someone can be divorced under Dutch law but still be married according to Roman Catholic canon law. Catholics do not recognise divorce and, among orthodox Jews, a woman needs permission from her husband. The government does not recognise religious marriages but does not forbid them. Furthermore, it doesn’t have anything to say on the subject of relationships between adults. This is why the Dutch artist, Anton Heyboer, can live with four women.”
Most MPs, however, think Sharia courts would give the wrong signal. They want the minister to say precisely in which mosques polygamous marriages, inheritances and divorces would be arranged according to Islamic rules.
The question is where the government should draw the line. The justice minister only wants to act in cases of duress, illegal pressure or misuse of authority. He believes, however, that certain elements of Sharia, such as the inequality of men and women, are diametrically opposed to the principle values of the rule of law under a democracy.
Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Sharia in other Western countries
Since 1982, there has been a Sharia council which rules according to Islamic law in family and divorce cases, and in business disputes. Its remit is that of an advisory body which has to keep within national law. Calls for the Sharia council to be integrated within the country’s judicial system encountered fierce resistance.
In 2004, Muslims called for an arbitration commission in Ontario. There were already Jewish and Roman Catholic religious courts in Canada. The government approved the setting up of Muslim advisory boards, as long as these did not contravene Canadian law. Following criticism from Islamic women’s organisations, the religious courts were suspended after a year.
The United States does not recognise any form of religious arbitration. Republican Senator Tom Tancredo put forward legislation, which became the Jihad Prevention Act, forbidding all forms of Sharia law. Muslims who give rulings on Islamic law are refused entry to the USA.
Klaas den Tek