There are two separate issues here that must not be conflated. The first is a matter of scale. We must not be spooked into mobilising the mechanism of the state and sledgehammer a nut. As with Philip Hollobone's bill to ban women in burqas from his constituency, the emotive concerns regarding the face veil escalated the non-issue into one where an egregious and discriminatory law was on the verge of coming to pass. We need to address how widespread a problem "sharia creep" is, while acknowledging the fact that there are some elements of sharia that are inherently incompatible with UK secular law. Sharia courts in the UK only have an advisory capacity and address mainly property and financial matters, and rulings are then only enforceable by civil courts.
However, and this is the second issue, in some cases there might be an element of coercion, particularly where women are concerned. The justification that the resort to sharia tribunals is voluntary is not a convincing one when it comes to women's rights, for there are many ways in which women can be pressurised to keep dealings within the sharia court. Having said that, and this may sound churlish, I am increasingly wary of politicians using isolated incidents and then extrapolating them into a phenomenon, particularly when the flag of women's rights is waved. There have been too many times when the emotive power of concern for women has been hijacked to mobilise opinion for or against a political move.
To expressly state that the intention of the bill is "to tackle the discrimination suffered by Muslim women within the sharia court system" suggests that sharia courts (85 in total across the country) are summarily and consistently victimising women.
The baroness goes further than to suggest this by saying: "We cannot sit here complacently in our red and green benches while women are suffering a system which is utterly incompatible with the legal principles upon which this country is founded." So is the bill entirely based on legal concerns about the potential of the development of "quasi-legal" courts, of any religion, that function outside mainstream UK law, or is it primarily addressing sharia courts? Therein lies the confusion.
Moreover, the main purpose of the bill is to stop sharia courts claiming that they have the right to rule in matters of criminal or family law, allegedly to stop women being "hoodwinked" into thinking that sharia courts are the ultimate arbiter and have more jurisdiction than they do. How widespread an issue is this? Of the sharia courts in the country, how many are claiming and actually ruling on criminal matters? This is a survey that none who have jostled to get behind the bill (One Law for All and the National Secular Society to name two) have conducted or offered to undertake. Technically, the law is already clear on the matter: religious courts can only rule on civil matters. Jewish Beth Din courts have the same scope as sharia arbitration tribunals. But there are "concerns" that the latter are "straying". To get comfortable with this, I would like to see some examples of cases where this has happened. Otherwise this is a bill that seems to preempt a problem that could happen in some cases. And because there are problematic issues with some aspects of sharia law, which are not currently in force, we should apparently be alarmed.
A less inflammatory, and possibly more relevant approach would be a practical one, one that focuses on the technical issues and examines how quasi-legal courts are being accommodated and incorporated into UK law in a way that accommodates both; discarding what is not compatible and allowing for what is permissible, albeit unfamiliar. There is already a sensible separation of civil and criminal matter. But if there are "concerns", perhaps we should examine whether they can be addressed at all or whether the issue of the sharia courts is a red herring – coercing people into following religious rulings on issues can happen outside a religious court. This is something the baroness fails to consider.
Underpinning this debate, as ever with Muslim minority debates, is the problem of integration, and how accommodating certain religious considerations enables and fortifies an isolationist attitude. But we must not let this dictate the agenda and bait people into straying themselves into the realms of discrimination.