On Monday 15th June, Queen Mary, University of London’s School of Law hosted the launch of Professor Ralph Grillo’s book, Muslim Families, Politics and the Law – A Legal Industry in Multicultural Britain. The book is a culmination of years of research into the British Muslim community, specifically focusing on gender relations and the roles of various ‘actors’ that have helped shape the different aspects of Muslim families.
The author’s principle assertion may be narrowed down to what he calls the ‘MILLI’, an acronym for ‘Muslims, Islam and the Law: A Legal Industry’. This legal industry he refers to is a socio-legal-political entity composed of ‘actors’ from all walks of life and society who have something to say regarding Muslims, the law and how they shape the political landscape. The ‘MILLI’ consists of almost every sector of society including the State (government, parliament, and the civil service), NGOs, academics, legal practitioners, Muslim organisations and international actors such as the European courts. The main aim of the ‘MILL’, the author notes, is to define, restrain and confine the boundaries of what people see as ‘Sharia’ law, with the various ‘actors’ becoming increasingly involved in discussions and debates on personal matters especially related to marriage, divorce and other family matters.
The book looks deeply into the impact that ‘Sharia’ councils have had on the proliferation of the application of Muslim personal law within Britain and seeks to contextualise the debate by discussing the Mediation and Arbitration Services (Equality) Bill which is being pushed through the House of Lords by Baroness Cox. The book demonstrates that campaigners who are for the Bill are a strange mix of both Muslims and non-Muslim groups and NGOs who oppose any sort of application of ‘Sharia’ law or what the author comments on as an imagined law obsessed with corporal punishments. However, there are also many critics of the Bill who include lawyers and academics who argue that Sharia councils should be allowed to operate so long as there is more transparency. Overall, the author seeks to understand the beliefs and ideas of other faiths and tries to be balanced in order to comprehend all mind-sets and views. The book explores how Muslim families have been scrutinised both internally and externally by being caught up in a web of institutions. An increased lack of sympathy and concept of ‘otherness’ has overshadowed the debate and more dialogue is needed to address the issues that face multi-cultural Britain.
Werner Menski, the renowned lecturer and professor of comparative law, expanded Grillo’s idea of the MILLI with his own Kite Model which consisted of four aspects of society that exist in the Muslim debate: Ethics/academics, customs/local conditions, state actors/agents and the international dimension. He divides the legal world into three categories:
- The global North – uniform law that makes exceptions
- USA, Canada – special exceptions for indigenous people
- The global South – a combination of general and personal laws
He asserted that State law is no longer the only law, yet the law has failed to recognise the power of communities and cultures by acting self-righteously. A system of one law with exceptions cannot continue to apply when living in an increasingly globalised and transnational world. Menski highlighted an interesting and important case, Vishwa Lochan Madan (2014) that was heard in the Indian Supreme Court where the Court was inclined to ban the authority of religious Fatwas but had to admit that they couldn’t since Muslim personal laws form an integral part of the country’s system. As such, Baroness Cox’s Bill is unlikely to succeed because there is an increasing recognition of diverse legal systems.
Dr Frederica Sona continued the discussion by commenting on the international aspect of legislation and policy towards Muslim families in Britain. She noted that the debate in Britain affects decisions made in continental Europe by giving an example of how a Moroccan woman is in the middle of divorce proceedings in Italy whilst her Somali husband has obtained a Talaq divorce from a Sharia council in London. This transnational is important as it demonstrates that more Muslims are increasingly turning towards their faith as a way of reconciling the many aspects of their identities.
The last speaker, Islam Uddin, an Imam and academic, brought in the Islamic perspective of the significance of the Nikkah (Islamic marriage contract) as not just a contract, but a spiritual goal that Muslims aspire to. There has been much debate over the place of the Nikkah within the English legal framework and Uddin highlighted the problem of only 1 in 10 mosques being registered for the civil marriage due to a lack of demand. He also spoke about problems such as underage ad polygamous marriage contracts existing where there was a general lack of understanding between State actors and the cultural dynamics of the practices within the Muslim community.
Overall, the book launch underlined the fact that it is Muslim women who largely benefit the most from the existence of Sharia councils as they create an increasing demand for services relating to divorce as a way to function within the communities that they live in. It is not just an informal piece of paper, it provides them with the certainty that they have fulfilled their religious obligations. The book seeks to discourage the proposed criminalisation of Sharia councils, rather more dialogue is needed between the actors within MILLI, and although there must exist limits, a solid understanding of the socio-cultural context of British Muslim families is needed if there is to be progress.