On 05-12-2015, the Independent carried an article on its front page entitled “Sharia courts: the inside story”. The article by Senay Boztas was based on the research of Machteld Zee, a Dutch PhD student who sat in the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC) office for two afternoons in 2013 and then proceeded to write a book called “Choosing Sharia? Multiculturalism, Islamic Fundamentalism and British Sharia Councils”.
It is incredibly interesting to note that Baroness Cox played a huge part in the making of the infamous Panorama programme when she was attempting to get her anti Sharia Councils Bill through Parliament in 2014. The Bill failed miserably, mainly because the Jewish lobby did not wish to see the Bill affect the work of the Beth Din. Baroness Cox cleverly responded by removing all references to the Beth Din in 2015 and attempted a second stab at the Bill. After the success of Panorama in defaming the ISC, her party political broadcast this time is in the Independent newspaper. The shoddy and manipulative journalism revealed by the article under discussion does little for fair or accurate journalism. We were contacted via e-mail at 6pm on Friday 4 December by Ms Boztas for our response to this story, which was going to be in the paper the next morning. I shall doff my hat and be grateful for being offered this meagre opportunity. British newspapers are well aware that costs to bring libel or defamation action by small grass roots organisations such as the ISC are exorbitant and well above their capability. Newspapers and television channels have an army of lawyers at their disposal to destroy not just the reputations but the finances of small organisations and individuals. So they continue to libel, fabricate and accuse with impunity.
Baroness Cox has repeatedly claimed that Sharia Councils give a woman’s evidence half the weight of that of a man. May we assure her that in mediation, the voices of men and women are heard equally. If a disputing party is unfair, hostile or intemperate in their language, they will be told of this. But their complaints will be heard equally and will be given equal weight. To suggest that Islamic law gives the evidence of a woman half the weight of that of a man is to show ignorance of Islamic law. Baroness Cox has made this claim incessantly and without evidence. BBC Radio 4 Asian Network recently hosted Baroness Cox after her allegations that Muslim men were having ten children in polygamous marriages and were living on benefits. The hilarious interview exposes her ignorance of Islam and her desperation to vilify the entire Muslim community. A link to the interview is available on this website.
Below is the complaint lodged with the Independent’s complaints department on 08-12-2015.
I am writing to complain about the article mentioned above by Senay Boztas.
- The article was on three pages: page 1, 8 and 9, so it was given plenty of prominence. It mentioned the Islamic Sharia Council (henceforth referred to as the ISC) repeatedly so one would assume that the ISC had been contacted while the article was in progress. Other organisations such as One Law for All were given plenty of notice to respond. Yet we were contacted only on 6pm on Friday 04-12- 2015, the night the paper was going to press. Ms Boztas rang the office at 6pm asking for a response; I rang Ms Boztas at 6.16 and she spoke with me for 8 minutes. The call is logged on my phone and a screen shot is available for evidence. During the call Ms Boztas seemed to be walking and then a child could be heard crying. May I presume that she had left work and that the article was almost complete? I was not given a complete list of the accusations made against the ISC, so was unable to respond to all the allegations made in the article. I believe that the thrust of the article would have been totally different had Ms Boztas given me a fair chance to respond before she had written the article and before she had drawn her conclusions.
- Zee’s research was published in 2013. Since then there have been many developments at the ISC which were completely ignored in the article. The article mentions a couple of scholars who had gone against ISC policy on custody matters and domestic violence. After an internal review earlier this year, three scholars were dismissed. Two of them were mentioned in Dee’s research This was a crucial development in the story, but we were not given the opportunity to explain this.
- Given that the research is two years old, why is the article being published now? We believe that it is to publicise Baroness Cox’s private Members’ Bill (regarding Sharia Councils) which is making its second way through Parliament after failing miserably to pass into legislation two years ago. The Bill is mentioned in passing in the article, but we believe that the Bill and Baroness Cox’s vendetta against the ISC is the main reason for the article being written in the first place. It is not the place of journalists to publicise the work of individual peers unless they openly acknowledge this fact. The public has been deceived regarding the intent behind the article and this fraudulent intent needs to be exposed.
- Dee claims to have attended two afternoons in the ISC office, but is then able to give many examples of cases. In an afternoon sitting between 2-6 pm, a maximum of four cases will be seen, so she cannot have seen more than eight cases in two afternoons. Yet her evidence is that of far more cases. This presents a clear case of fraudulent presentation of evidence, yet Ms Boztas has made no effort to check the veracity of the research.
- The photograph on page 9 of three male scholars is at least ten years old. The deliberate impression given is that the Council is an all-male establishment, and ignores the fact that there are three women in the office: a female receptionist, a female scholar and a female law intern. No effort was made by Ms Boztas to request up-to-date information. Many changes have been made in the structure, policies, training and so forth at the ISC in the last two years, but none of these have been taken into account.
- The article has led to increased hostility against Muslims in general and the male scholars of the ISC in particular. This is deliberately designed to defame the scholars. Newspapers such as The Daily Mirror have used the article in the Independent to write similar articles without a shred of research or evidence. This has resulted in a potential loss to earnings, a sense of fear of increased Islamophobia toward staff in the office, and public defamation. We hold the Independent directly responsible for this and demand compensation.
- The words “parallel legal system” are used to defame the ISC. The title of the article is “Sharia courts”, giving the clear message that this is a court of Yet we call ourselves a Council. The reader is led to believe that the ISC considers itself to be a court of law and that it holds court. Zee has used words such as judge and qadi to substantiate this allegation. We reject this accusation completely. The scholars at the ISC are referred to as Sheikh or Ustadha, never as judges as qadis. The ISC is a Council, and not a Court.
- We make it abundantly clear on our website and to clients that we are dealing only with the religious marriage, the Nikah. In fact, the application form on the website explicitly asks if the client had a civil marriage and if there has been an application for a civil divorce. If the client does not have a civil divorce, they are asked to apply for one. This is a central part of ISC procedure. Zee is quoted as saying that “The woman has no idea this is a religious institution..” This is a stupendously stupid comment to make, and yet Boztas repeats it as if it is a sensible statement. Muslim women are not blind or stupid. The plaque on the wall of the building says “Islamic Sharia Council” in huge letters. The website uses Islamic terminology such as Nikah, Mahr and The client is asked if they had a civil marriage and divorce, and to provide a copy of the civil divorce certificate. We would like proof that women have come to the ISC and not realised it is only a religious institution.
- The article claims that the ISC ‘condemns women to marital ‘ It continues that “Judges at the courts…set out to frustrate women whose husbands do not want them to leave.” This is an absurd and false claim. Muslim women come to the ISC because they are trapped in religious marriages from which they cannot escape. In many cases the husbands refuse to grant a religious divorce because they wish to make their wives suffer. In other cases, the husband may wish to save the marriage because he truly believes the couple can have a future together. We therefore offer a mediation service that is governed by strict rules of procedure to ensure that both parties get a chance to have their say in a safe atmosphere. But Islamic law is very clear that if one party does not wish to stay in the marriage, they cannot be forced to stay by outside forces. For this reason, 98% of women who apply for a divorce will obtain a religious divorce. The remaining 2% are cases where the couple decided to reconcile or the case was closed due to fraudulent behaviour. Dee implies that women leave in tears because they do not get the divorce. This is a false allegation as the success rate of divorce applications is high. We do not hand out divorce certificates like confetti, but we follow strict rules of procedure in the interests of justice. Dee quotes a woman who had been coming to the ISC for two years “desperately seeking a religious divorce”. I was seeing this case and I made it very clear to Dee that the woman had put the case on hold three times during two years as she had repeatedly reconciled with her husband. Dee was aware of this fact but chose to deliberately misrepresent the facts in her thesis. The woman received her religious divorce a month later. This is deliberate falsehood and we will be writing to Dee’s university regarding the authenticity of her research. We will also be publicising and disputing the fraudulent research she has quoted in order to obtain her doctorate. Senay Boztas has accepted Zee’s claims as completely authentic without making any effort to check the veracity of the supposed research. We have looked at Zee’s claims and compared them to the files we hold; the evidence points to deliberate distortion on Zee’s part, and we shall be contacting the university regarding this soon.
- The article begins by saying that sharia courts are “doing nothing to officially report domestic violence.” This is a serious allegation that has been made without any evidence The issue of domestic violence is taken very seriously by the Council. We do not permit DV, we do not justify it, we do not take it lightly, and we certainly do not ignore it. It is very rare that victims of DV who come to the office have not already reported it to the police. The vast majority of such clients will have already been to the police and will have taken the necessary steps to protect themselves. We keep detailed files of our cases and can prove in any court of law that domestic violence victims are given the necessary advice. We have a close relationship with local police and they will confirm that we have contacted them whenever there has been a need to do so. Non-molestation orders are very commonly held by our clients; in these cases we do not attempt reconciliation, but will speak to both parties if there are outstanding debts that need to be paid. A man who has been violent to his wife will be called into the office to see a scholar, if only to warn him of the evil of his behaviour. An Islamic scholar is in a position of religious authority and can use this to encourage high Islamic values and behaviour within the community. If a woman has not reported DV to the police, she will be encouraged to seek appropriate help in order to protect herself. We actively encourage women from contacting authorities such as the police or social services. It is very rare that a client who is the victim of marital violence will not have contacted the police in the first instance. When we see such cases, we insist that they speak with the police. If they wish to speak with police officers in the safety of the office building, we arrange for that as well.
- Custody of children is an issue that mediation bodies are not permitted by law to deal with and so we refer clients to English courts for this. We also advise them that under Islamic law, one parent cannot deny the other party access to their children unless there are legal reasons (such as sexual abuse) for doing so. I am sure Fathers For Justice would agree with this sentiment.
- Page 8 carries a large photo of a group of men carrying placards demanding “SHARIA FOR UK”. The implication of putting this photo in the middle of the article is to imply that the ISC is also asking for Sharia law to be implemented in Britain. This is absolutely incorrect and is a deliberate provocation intended to sow fear in the minds of readers. We consider this to be openly defamatory and we demand a public apology and retraction. In fact, we consider this to be deliberate incitement to religious hatred. Some groups such as Al Muhajiroun have indeed made such demands, but they have been mocked and ignored by the majority of Muslims in Britain. Sharia law for ordinary Muslims means living a God-fearing life: praying five times a day, giving charity generously, fasting in Ramadan, eating halal meat, abstaining from alcohol, drugs and gambling and so forth. The penal codes of Islam, such as punishments for murder and theft, can only be implemented by a Muslim government in a Muslim country to its Muslim subjects. To discuss this issue in the context of Britain is ridiculous, if not insane. Muslims are not calling for sharia to be implemented, and the sharia councils are not a back door entrance to sharia law. They are simply mediation bodies which generally deal with religious divorces. They are not a threat to the British way of life, they are not a parallel system, and they are not a danger to vulnerable women.
- The sharia councils are described as “secretive courts”, which is a completely false description and designed to prejudice the mind of the The ISC has a website, our policies and procedures are openly explained on this website and our application forms can be downloaded from the website. Furthermore, we have allowed hundreds of researchers, students and journalists access to interviews over the last few years. Professor Ralph Grillo and Professor John Bowen have both written extensively about the work of the ISC; the latter has spent months at the ISC meetings, unlike Zee who spent only two afternoons.
- The headline claims that the “findings make disturbing reading for anyone who believes that we are all equal under the ” The article has been written deliberately to create fear about the ISC, calling it secretive and condemning women to marital captivity. The truth could not be further than this. The ISC has never treated anyone as a second class citizen and we would like evidence to prove this assertion. We help women obtain religious divorces when their husbands refuse to cooperate. How can this be treating women badly?
Ms Khola Hasan 08 December 2015.