Opinion

U.S. Sharia Tribunals, ‘No Problem’?

Karen Lugo Founder, Libertas-West Project
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Recent news of an Islamic “sharia court” in the Dallas area raised alarms but once PolitiFact-Texas, Snopes, and Dallas Morning News reporters accepted sharia judge assurances that the tribunal is essentially just mediating marital and contract disputes, alarm subsided.

However, since the Islamic Tribunal website announces that the Dallas sharia center is a model and will serve to “set a precedence (sic) that will be emulated and duplicated throughout the country,” Americans should persist in getting answers to some deeper questions before assenting to a sharia tribunal franchise.

If sister sharia “councils” in the UK and the EU are instructive, this tribunal’s protestations that proceedings comply with the law of the land are false. Undercover investigations and policy center studies across the pond reveal that the sharia councils operate as counter-cultural and unlawful parallel civil — sometimes criminal – courts. Normalization of similarly operating sharia centers in the U.S. would be like embracing apartheid courts in this country.

To be sure, the Dallas sharia “judges” have now defined the operation as “non-binding” arbitration but this may be a clever way of trying to exist in the ambiguous space between regulated arbitration and advice-only mediation services.

As in Great Britain, these sharia functionaries may posture according to political convenience. A recent investigation by the UK Bow Group, commissioned by a British House of Lords Peer Caroline Cox and titled A Parallel World: Confronting The Abuse of Many Muslim Women in Britain Today, shows that the sharia “mediation councils” (there is no non-binding arbitration designation in Britain) also internally “call themselves courts and the presiding imams are called judges.” The sharia pronouncements “are seen to be legal judgments.”

The BBC recently conducted an undercover investigation at one of the estimated 85 sharia tribunals in the UK. A female reporter posing as a Muslim wife complained that her husband was hitting her and the Islamic counselor advised her to “be courageous” and ask whether her husband was upset by her cooking or because she sees her friends. He cautioned the woman to only go to the police as a “very last resort.”

In another investigation, two imams from British sharia centers agreed to officiate marriages in 2012 for 12 year old girls to men in their twenties.

According to BBC News, increasing numbers of Muslims are turning to tribunals to resolve family and contract disputes. These tribunals reported as of January 2012 that they addressed an average of 200 to 300 cases monthly. Many Muslim women are forced into sharia tribunals since their marriage records are not filed with civil authorities.

In direct conflict with Western standards, sharia codes offer men a simple no-fault verbal divorce statement but women must appear before the tribunals to plead their cases and satisfy varying evidentiary standards. According to the studies in Britain, women are expected to pay the hearing fees.

Disturbing reports show that sharia legal centers in the UK and Germany cross over into the practice of criminal law. The Bow Group report cited British Indian journalist Edna Fernandes’ as finding that “sharia is being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system.” German journalist and legal expert Joachim Wagner, recently investigated Islamic “shadow justice” for his book on sharia arbitration systems in Germany. In a Der Speigel interview, he described Islamic mediations as secret and “outside the German justice system.” He said that the settlement “compromise” is “often achieved through violence and threats.”

Wagner’s finding that in 90 percent of all criminal cases where Muslim arbitrators were engaged and verdicts rendered, “the perpetrators were acquitted by German courts or the cases were dropped altogether by the prosecution for lack of evidence,” demonstrates that sharia criminal law procedures are at odds with German legal practices.

Analysis of the American sharia institutions must begin with legal and cultural discovery regardless of the tribunal’s reassuring platitudes. Upon questioning, self-described tribunal judge and spokesperson Moujahed Bakhach declared that all rulings are nonbinding and “that state and federal laws would always take precedent (sic)” but this is in direct conflict with the organization’s constitution where it declares that all judgments “will be final according to Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).” There is no indication that training in American cultural or legal norms is expected but judges “must have a degree in Islamic law approved by a renowned Islamic institution.” (emphasis added)

They cannot have it both ways since Islamic sharia marriage customs, as evidenced in American family law court records, generally treat women as unequal marriage partners and sharia law disregards fundamental due process rights. With no distinction between civic and religious life — or separation of mosque and state —  tribunal judgments are hardly advisory when honor and shame pressures, family coercion, and male domination are overriding influences. There is no evidence that the reporters who cleared the sharia tribunal inquired as to these essential conflicts.

One way that a serious investigative reporter might test whether American sharia tribunals operate differently than those in Europe is to review court records. If, as the tribunal’s constitution asserts, each “decision will be presented to the relevant court for authentication,” there must be a record of the judgments rendered thus far.

Resolving these concerns before ramping up numbers of Islamic refugees is as important to the American commitment to rule of law as it is to the individual status of Muslims women. As former Somali Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said, “no group is more harmed by sharia than Muslim women” since “Sharia subordinates women to men in a multitude of ways.”

Americans will either begin placing the burden of proof on Muslims who feign respect for American civil systems, or they will continue to give them the benefit of obvious doubts, until those doubts become intractable reality.