Painting Islam and Muslims as evil, misogynistic and dangerous has been big business for hundreds of years. Prophet Muhammad has been openly reviled, the Quran has been mocked, Muslims have been villified and demonised. Machteld Zee is just another of the tribe looking for quick fame and fortune.

Her book “Choosing Sharia?” is a PhD thesis which is factually inaccurate, distorts case studies, makes wild accusations about individuals, misinterprets history, manipulates world events to conform to her agenda and is generally a huge farce. Zee displays a phobia, bordering on mania, to the large presence of Muslims in Europe. She finds nothing positive to say about Islamic history or achievements, indeed describing an Islamic golden age as something that has yet to be proven. Leiden university would do well to recall her PhD and send Zee and her cronies to the swamps from which they emerged.

At first glance, Zee belongs to the common ilk of Donald Trump and other Islamophobes. So why waste one’s valuable time on reading, let alone analysing, her words? We learn that Caroline Cox of the House of Lords has planned to launch Zee’s book at the House of Commons amidst much fanfare and publicity. Months before the launch, newspapers of every description were contacted, from the respected Independent to the comics of the Daily Mail. They were offered juicy case studies from Zee’s blog page, private interviews and promises of rich pickings that are guaranteed when Muslims hit the headlines of newspapers. Readers love tales of bogey-men, vicious hidden customs and stories of sexual slavery, and the book certainly provides lots of them. We contacted the various newspapers, made complaints, and even contacted IPSO. All our complaints were simply ignored.

The book is presented carefully with a very specific agenda. She begins with a historical account of the development of multiculturalism, and the theoretical premise behind it. Britain is known for following the multicultural model where different and diverse cultures and religions co-exist in general harmony. Zee would prefer the French model where all religious symbols are banned from the public space, and where Muslims are generally treated as second-class citizens, and so she sets out to educate the British mind about how misled it has been in allowing Muslims to practise their religion. Zee wags a bony finger as she analyses the Islamic faith and finds it to be intrinsically misogynistic, hateful to Jews and all other religions, violent and obsessive about proselytizing. Muslims are incapable of rational or independent thought, she asserts masterfully.

“In Islam, there is the concept of an individual with legal obligations, but not of the moral person who may freely choose his own path in life. There is no sense of an individual who can make rational decisions and accept moral responsibility for his actions. Ethics is reduced to obeying orders.” (p 120) One can just imagine the hordes of Muslims marching through Europe with eyes fixated ahead, their heads filled with Isis propaganda, their hands saluting the swastika.

Zee takes the reader through a terrifying journey into Saudi Arabia and its human rights abuses, including the abuse of domestic workers, second class status of women, ban on free speech, and frequent use of capital punishment. In a world view that is quite reminiscent of James Bond’s adversaries, her thesis is that the Saudis and the Egyptian Brotherhood have signed a pledge to take over the world using petrodollars. Any religious leader who has travelled to Britain from either of these two countries is therefore a hate preacher.

She writes that “Muslims are instilled with the following ideas and convictions: it is a religious obligation for Muslims to hate Jews and Christians, and they are warned against befriending, imitating or helping ‘infidels’ in any way….Moreover, it is the right thing to hold contempt for America, as it is ruled by civil law, rather than by totalitarian Wahhabi-style Islamic law. As long as the United States is ruled by infidels, citizenship should be avoided, and instead Muslims should work towards the creation of an Islamic state.” (p127) So all those thousands of Muslims who have lived comfortably and peacefully in America and Europe for many decades have simply been biding their time to oust those in power and take over the world? Zee has no understanding of the plethora of different interpretations within Islamic law, making it one of the richest and most diverse legal systems. If Saudi Arabia commits an outrage, then all of Islam and Muslims must answer for it.

Zee is an expert of confusion. She weaves into her tapestry a variety of threads, including Al Qaida, Jamat Islami, Ash Shabab, Boko Haram, Isis, and the Taliban. These groups are not simply a threat, but are representative of all Muslims of the world. All Muslims, she confidently asserts, wish to take over the world, spread hatred and confusion, and ultimately establish Sharia. Her statements are dramatic, even apocalyptic. Britain, be frightened. Be very very frightened. Muslims are about to pull the rug from under your feet and establish a cruel and harsh Islamic state right under your nose. You have been warned.

The basic premise of the book is that all Muslims wish to establish Sharia, and that the Sharia Councils were the first, very insidious attempt, at making this dream into a reality. The seeds of Islamic state are thus already in Britain. She explains that most Muslims wish to establish Sharia in Britain, which she has already tearfully explained, is everything that is wrong with Saudi Arabia. Everytime the reader hears the word Sharia, they must picture a Saudi woman wearing black, being forced into a child marriage, then marital rape, then execution for whatever reason. Her husband wields a sword, hates Jews, abuses their domestic worker, kills a couple of apostates before lunch every day and was responsible for the deaths at Charlie Hebdo. This is the nightmare of Sharia.

But Zee wants to be a scientist, not just a teller of fairy stories. She quotes a number of polls that were conducted among British Muslims, in which increasing numbers of those interviewed said they would like to live under Sharia in the UK. Now I find these polls fascinating. There has never been any attempt to ascertain what it means to Muslims when they speak of wanting to live under Sharia. Let me just educate Zee and Cox before I move on.

Sharia means the Islamic way of life. For the average Muslim Joe Bloggs, this means praying five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, giving charity generously, not lying, not cheating, not drinking alcohol, respecting elders, respecting authority, personal hygiene, modesty in dress, taking care of the environment, not wasting resources, eating halal food, loving God, remembering God in order to be close to Him, cleansing the soul from greed and envy, not backbiting, earning a lawful income……..the list is very long indeed, but you should have a picture by now.

I expect that when Muslim Joe Bloggs is accosted in the street by a person holding a clipboard and asked about living under Sharia, these are the things that come to his mind immediately. Whether he is devout or not, he cannot say that he does not wish to live under Sharia, as that would make him a sinner in the eyes of God. So he replies Yes. And to be perfectly frank, what can be remotely objectionable about Sharia? Is a good and honest life not to be praised and encouraged? Perhaps Zee does not like these noble concepts because she is a huge fan of deceit and manipulation. But what is important is that Muslim Joe Bloggs is not thinking of amputating limbs and stoning alcoholics when he is being interviewed. These are the last thing on his mind; it is the prayer and not committing adultery that has been ingrained into him.

Her own statistics are confused. She cites one poll in which 50% of young people wanted Sharia; in another poll, 65% “brusquely repudiated the imposition of Sharia in Britain.” She then quotes Shaaz Mahboob, who was at the time the vice Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, who stated that “there have been no calls from members of the British Muslim communities demanding the introduction of Sharia as a parallel justice system.” (p 160) So if Muslims are not calling for the introduction of Sharia in Britain, what on earth is Zee getting so worked up about?

But to return to the discussion in hand. Apart from the private codes of practice and strict requirements of worship, Sharia also incorporates a legal methodology, state function and a penal code. These are the domain of state functionaries such as the policy, judiciary and law-makers, as Islam does not permit vigilantes to usurp authority and power. Ordinary individuals cannot take the law into their own hands. This means that in Britain, Muslims can be a part of the judiciary, police, Parliament and so forth, but they cannot replace them with something they claim is Islamic. To cause dissension in society and practise terror are against every command in God’s Book. Sharia is about justice, freedom of religion, public welfare and goodness. Any country that permits Muslims to follow their personal faith and be treated as valuable members of the community is following natural guidance and should be supported. Any country that practices intolerance, injustice, discrimination or cruelty is not living under Sharia, no matter what the label may say.

Furthermore, the Islamic concepts of state rule, justice, and police are not different to those found in the West today. Muslim countries are ruled by a plethora of monarchies, democracies and dictatorships, as are non Muslim countries. There has never been one Islamic model of rule or governance. Muslims have migrated to Western countries for a number of reasons, which include the impact of colonialism, escaping war, looking for higher education, travel and escaping poverty. They have settled in countries like Britain because they have been successful and comfortable; yes, there has been some discrimination and some distrust. But in the main, most Muslims of Britain see Britain as their home. They may have Asian, African or Arab roots, but their present and future is in Britain and they are happy with it. Writers like Zee who wish to muddy the waters and develop distrust and hatred between Muslims and their neighbours should not be allowed to succeed.

Zee is up in arms about Muslims using the term Islamophobia to describe discrimination or violence against them due to their faith. She has no objections to Jews using the term anti-semitism or South Africans condemning apartheid, but she does not like Muslims having a word all to themselves. She explains that the term Islamophobia “was created by Islamists to create an atmosphere of victimisation, where Muslims are continuously portrayed as victims suffering from hatred, discrimination and negative stereotyping.” (p 144) I am sure the Runnymede Trust will have something to say on this matter.

Zee refers to Elham Manea (p 161) who wrote that there are generally three groups of people who call for the introduction of sharia councils in Western legal systems: the Islamists, academics and multiculturalists. The problem with continuing this discussion is that if the foundational premise of a discussion is nonsensical and false, then the entire discussion becomes nonsensical and worthless. So for the benefit of those readers who do not have concrete inside their brains, Muslims are not calling for sharia councils to be incorporated into the legal systems of Europe and they are not calling for the introduction of Sharia in Britain. I write on behalf of the Islamic Sharia Council, which was the first, and remains the largest, most visible and most visited of all sharia councils in Britain. All the other sharia councils are small, serve their local communities, and do not have a presence in the media or in academic journals. So a simple question is raised here: if neither the ISC nor any of the small sharia councils have ever called for the introduction of a parallel legal system, why are they repeatedly accused of this throughout the book? Does evidence not have any bearing in Zee’s world? The tirade by Zee is long and farcical. She talks of “juridical autonomy to Islamic judges, qadis and Muslims seeking legal solutions.” She quotes Helfand regarding the state granting “autonomy and self governance to minority communities”. One wonders what planet Zee sits on when she makes these absurd allegations.

The Islamic Sharia Council was established in 1982 after a group of ten Islamic Centres collectively founded it. Zee’s assertion that two individuals founded it on their own is incorrect. Zee’s main problem with sharia councils is, “The issue is that in reality women’s rights are not secured in an alternative Islamic jurisdiction..” Zee is adamant that Islam is inherently misogynistic and that women will be treated badly in any Islamic context. The fact is that the ISC is there to help women who cannot get religious divorce from their husbands for whatever reason. The marriage may have been a religious one only so there is no recourse to a civil court for this; in many cases a large Mahr (dower) is written into the religious marriage contract (Nikah) but the husband is attempting to renege on this. The ISC ensures that women get the rights to which they are entitled; one applicant received £30,000 and another applicant received $70,000 in Mahr payments recently. If a civil court had awarded this, a third of it if not more would have been swallowed by legal fees. The ISC does not take a penny of the dower amount, no matter how lengthy the mediation is to obtain this, and the applicant gets to keep 100% of the Mahr awarded to her. The fact that thousands of women continue to use the services of the ISC proves that it is working for their benefit. Zee asserts that the only reason women go to the sharia councils is because their communities coerce them to do so. Perhaps Zee needs to realise that Muslim women are not stupid and they are perfectly capable of acting with agency, rationality and for their self-interest.

The main function of the sharia councils is to provide impartial mediation and counselling when a marriage is struggling. Once it is apparent that the marriage is over, the Islamic Sharia Council will dissolve it under religious law. If the couple had a civil marriage, they will be required to begin civil divorce proceedings at the same time. Islamic law does not permit a woman to be left stranded if her husband disappears or goes missing. Many women will go to civil courts for help but will find it to be a difficult and lengthy process because the court papers cannot be served on the husband. Under Islamic guidance, the scholars of the ISC will make efforts to trace the missing husband, but will dissolve the religious marriage through a judicial dissolution. This also applies if the husband is present but is being un-cooperative. English law does not recognise religious marriages, be they Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim. Most minority communities have religious ceremonies at the time of marriage, and they will wish to have a comparable religious divorce as well if the marriage fails. This fact is not unique to Muslims. But as the Muslims are one of the largest faith communities in Britain, and incidentally very visible as well, they have become the target of the wrath of people like Zee.

Domestic violence is one of the main reasons why women apply to the ISC for a religious divorce. It is accepted as one of the reasons for a marriage failing; others include desertion, adultery, lack of financial support, impotence, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and being in prison. Zee asserts that women are coerced into returning to abusive husbands by the ISC as Islam condones violence against women. This is another false and quite cheap attack. This is not the place for a long theological debate on this issue, but suffice it to say that the Quran does not permit violence against women for any reason by their husbands. Verses have been deliberately misinterpreted over the years to suggest this, and the scholars of the ISC have often been at the forefront of challenging any narrative that purports to condone violence against women. Domestic violence is sadly common in most societies; the men who practise it do so because they have personal issues in their own lives, including anger management. No faith on this earth permits domestic violence, and Muslim men who abuse their wives do not do so because they believe their faith permits it.

One of Zee’s most libellous remarks (and there are many) is this:

“The essential difference is that the representatives of the Islamic Sharia Council support, promote and activate the political ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, of political Islam.” (p 179)

It is quite extraordinary that such a deluded and incoherent woman has managed to obtain a doctorate through her rants. She can provide no basis for her assertions, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

On page 187 she describes the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal as an umbrella organisation of Sharia councils. Once again this is complete and utter falsehood.

Zee further claims that under Islamic law, the wali (legal guardian of the bride) may contract a marriage with the groom, leaving the woman completely out of the equation. (p 196) It is hard to be serious when a writer is making such insane statements; under Islamic law, the consent of the woman is one of the crucial elements of the marriage contract. In fact, the Islamic custom is to ask the bride three times if she consents to the marriage, to ensure that a forced marriage does not take place. But Zee is oblivious to the subtleties of truth.

On p197 Zee makes quite a disgusting assertion: that under Islamic law, if a woman wishes to re-marry the husband from she has a divorce, she has to marry another man, consummate the marriage, and then ask for a divorce. She will then be free to marry the first husband. This is called nikah halala. Zee is outraged because it is indeed a shameful concept. The little fact that Zee omits to mention is that halala is forbidden and those who participate in it are cursed in Islam. Here are the basic facts:

If a couple are divorced by one or two talaqs, they may re-marry with a fresh marriage contract. The consent of both parties is vital. If they are divorced by three talaqs, they may not re-marry as the problems between them are clearly serious. However, the Quran made an exception for a couple who had been divorced many years previously, had parted and had embarked on new relationships. Many years later when both were single again due to divorce or widowhood, they met again and decided to re-marry, feeling that the passage of time had made them more mature and wise. The Quran expressly gave permission for such a couple to re-marry. Aware that the rule could be abused by some people wishing to speed matters by paying someone to marry the woman and then divorce her, the Prophet Muhammad declared in no uncertain terms:

“May Allah damn the man who makes hulla and the one for whom hulla is made.” (Ibn Majah)

Halala is therefore cursed and forbidden in Islam. For Zee to claim that it is sanctioned or arranged by the ISC is a despicable lie. She needs to apologise for deliberately distorting Islamic tenets to suit her agenda. We appreciate that Zee has a job to do; to wit, defame the ISC and its scholars. It must be a hard struggle for her, but manufacturing evidence is obviously her strong point.

Crucially, Zee claims to have spent time in a Beth Din as part of her extensive fieldwork (p 158). We have contacted both Rabbi Lichtenstein at the Federation of Synagogues and David Frei at the London Beth Din. Both deny Zee’s claim to have spent time with them, so what do we make of her claims? Are we permitted to expose and condemn her for the liar that she is? How valid is a thesis if the fieldwork she claims to have done is simply non-existent?

Zee’s book contains a wealth of false claims, ignorant assumptions and deliberate distortion. I have stopped here to allow Zee to digest what has been said so far. If she and Caroline Cox are prepared for more scrutiny of this so-called academic treatise that is being honoured with a launch in the House of Commons, I will be happy to oblige.

Khola Hasan

January 2016.

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