Place: Bedford Way LG04, 26 Bedford Way, University College London
Alongside One Law For All, a human rights campaign opposing Sharia Law in Britain with the view that it violates the principles of equality grounded in UK law, UCLU ASHS hosted a debate on the motion 'Sharia Law Negates Human Rights.' Debaters in proposition were Maryam Namazie, human rights campaigner and spokesperson for One Law For All; and Anne-Marie Waters, human rights lawyer and also a spokesperson for the campaign. Debaters in opposition were Ayazz Mahmood, representative from the UK Ahmadiyya Muslim University of Theology and Languages; and Jonathan Butterworth, UCL Law Faculty lecturer and member of the human rights charity Just Fair.
Moderator of the debate, 4th year medical student Jacob Ressa, introduced the topic by referring to the recent media attention dedicated to the prospects of implementing Sharia Law into the Western legal systems. He clarified that this was not to be a debate on the existence of Sharia, but its nature and whether it is compatible with human rights.
Each debater was given 20 minutes to put forth their argument, before the floor opened up for Q&A.
Namazie stated that the two terms, Sharia Law and human rights, are 'antiethical, contradictory, and oppositional', highlighting features of Sharia Law's criminal code, which includes stoning individuals to death for adultery and executions for homosexuality. Drawing a parallel between Sharia Law and the history of Christianity, she emphasised that Sharia Law is 'brutal, it's medieval, it's barbaric.'
Further, Namazie stressed that Sharia Law not only negates human rights, but also women's rights, referring to how a woman's testimony is worth half the that of man as, supposedly, 'women are governed by emotion, men are governed by the mind', and that men have unilateral right to divorce while women do not. To further illustrate the subjection of women by Sharia Law, she strongly questioned the Sharia Law argument that 'marital rape is not an aggression, because sexual intercourse is a part of the marriage; calling it 'rape' is an aggression.' A qualifying argument that is often raised, is that individuals subscribing to Islam are free to attend Sharia courts or UK courts as they see fit. Namazie countered this, however, by noting that Muslim women often do not have a choice, but are driven into these courts by their husbands to renegotiate decisions already made in a UK court.
The danger of human rights proponents not speaking up against Sharia Law, Namazie argued, is that it would leave an open space for far-right movement to take on that role. While right-wing extremists have unfavourably hijacked the view of opposing Islam and Sharia Law, she considers right-wing extremism and Sharia Law to be equally anti-human rights and racist.
Finally, Namazie emphasised that while she is of the perspective that 'religions are equal and equally bad', her attack on Sharia Law is not an attack on the religion of Islam, but rather an attack on how Sharia Law 'violates rights left, right and center.'
In opposition, Mahmood stated that Namazie and other human rights activists have a gross misunderstanding of the nature of true Sharia. The Law as presented by Namazie and as acted out in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, he argued, is not representative of Islam and Sharia. He emphasised that Islamic jurisprudence consists of different schools of thought, each with their own interpretation of Sharia Law. The only authentic source of Sharia is The Holy Koran, according to which Sharia Law does not negate human rights, as it is fundamentally based on principles of humanity.
Mahmood then proceeded to address each of Namazie's and other Sharia Law opponents' criticism of the Law's criminal code with the argument that none of the human rights-violating codes practiced are prescribed in the Koran. For instance, forced marriages are not condoned - rather, the Koran states that the consent of the bride is necessary for marriage. Moreover, on the violation of women's rights, Mahmood pointed out that Islam afforded rights to women 14 centuries ahead of Western countries. He attributed Sharia opponents' objections to their lack of detailed study of the Koran and misunderstanding of facts; and noted that misuse of Sharia Law is not representative of the true Sharia as originated in the Koran. To draw a parallel, he argued that secular laws have been equally misused in history, e.g. in the world wars and the USSR - but that these are not representative of Western secular values in general.
Nevertheless, Mahmood highlighted that an Islamic government is a secular government, based on equal justice and adherence to human rights, and with no religious compulsion: 'religion does not need to be the predominant legislatory power in a state.' He then emphasised the necessity to join forces and reach a common ground against violations of human rights, by promoting the true Sharia.
Waters countered Mahmood's argument that Sharia Law cannot negate human rights as it is originated in the Koran, by stating, 'Sharia is what Sharia does', i.e. 1400-year-old philosophical origins are not an argument against what is actually happening under Sharia Law in the UK today. While Namazie gave a passionate and moral argument against Sharia Law, Waters set out to provide a legal point of view, to prove that the motion is a matter of fact. Referring to paragraphs in the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as the UK adheres to, she demonstrated how Sharia Law - as it is practiced today - violates these. Examples of violated articles from the UN Declaration include:
- Article 4 'No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms': Waters noted that children are still allowed to be married in Yemen, with the argument 'because this happened to the Prophet, we cannot prohibit children to be married'
- Article 5 'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment': in Afghanistan, thousands of women are imprisoned because they have been raped.
Aware of the counterargument from Sharia proponents that such practices do not represent true Sharia, Waters repeatedly stated, 'Is this not true Sharia? The Sharia councils seem to think so - if you don't like it, then take it up with them.' To emphasise the importance of protecting human rights and its relevance to Sharia Law, her concluding statement was, 'Human rights are all we've got and human beings are all we've got. If human rights apply to women, then we need to get rid of Sharia, because they trample on the rights of women, and that is a fact.'
Finally, Butterworth brought forth the view that both opponents and proponents of the motion arguing for the same case; however, kept talking past each other as they were referring to different notions of Sharia Law. As a recent converted Muslim, he believes that the acts performed in the name of Sharia is 'disgusting' - 'But is it true Sharia? No.'
Echoing Mahmood's closing statements, Butterworth stated that freedom is the basis of both human rights and Islam, and that Islam thus guarantees universal human rights. Referring to J.S. Mill's harm principle as an essential component of freedom, Butterworth acknowledged that Islam is often criticised for violating this principle by advocating religious compulsion. He countered this by quoting the Koran: 'there is no compulsion in religion', i.e. Islam advocates choice and secularism. He further referred to the Koran to demonstrate its promotion of universal human rights - for example, the Prophet Muhammed famously declared that all people are sacred and inviolable.
Butterworth then set out to argue for Sharia's protection of economic and social rights, children's rights, and women's rights. For instance, 2.5% of every Muslim's wealth goes to promote social and economic rights for the most vulnerable members of the population - thus, Sharia takes an explicit human rights approach by acknowledging the rights of those who ask for help and need it. With regards to women's rights, the Koran states that women and men are in equity, but that men are above women in responsibility: 'If Sharia was applied properly, it would be the men who would be complaining.' Finally, the Koran deals with children's rights by stating that those dealing with minors should care for them equally as if they were their own. Thus, Butterworth argued, true Islam and Sharia seek to protect human rights - if it does not, it means it is not true Islam. He concluded by commending the One Law For All campaign for working against the human-rights violating acts that are practiced in the name of Sharia Law today.
It became apparent that the two sides of the motion maintained different concepts of 'Sharia Law', i.e. as it is practiced versus as it is truly described - which concept is the most relevant today is a question to brought forward.
Many thanks to One Law For All and the debate panel for partaking in this successful event on such an important topic.