First, the big news:
Islamic law has been officially adopted in Britain, with sharia courts given powers to rule on Muslim civil cases.
The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence.
Rulings issued by a network of five sharia courts are enforceable with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court….
Under the act, the sharia courts are classified as arbitration tribunals. The rulings of arbitration tribunals are binding in law, provided that both parties in the dispute agree to give it the power to rule on their case.
Next, some thoughtful analysis from the students at the GW Patriot blog:
[T]he act in question–sanctioning Muslim Sharia courts to serve as officially-recognized arbiters in British civil cases–shouldn't be so repugnant to thinking people. As liberals (and, in global terms, all of us here at the Patriot are liberal), we ought only to worry whether these courts are really as "voluntary" as they claim to be, which are similar to the Beth Din courts that decide civil cases between consenting Jews. We might find Sharia law itself repugnant, but the degree of cultural relativism inherent in liberal political institutions is there for a good reason. If we don't like it, we don't have to consent.
It's an open question just how voluntary these sorts of arrangements really can be. The possibility that participation in these courts could be coerced is there, which is worrisome enough to justify significant state oversight. That is not sufficient reason, though, to dismantle the courts entirely. We have to swallow our principles here and admit that–since we allow people to make self-harming decisions elsewhere all the time–it would make sense only to a xenophobe to stop at sanctioning a Sharia arbitration court.
Critics should examine not just the voluntary aspect of sharia, but also its fairness. How many Muslim women will be coerced by their fathers and husbands into submitting to sharia instead of taking their chances with the British court system? And how many of them, as a result of this cultural insulation, will end up being punished for—or as a result of—their gender? Anecdotal evidence suggests quite a few women will end up worse off under sharia:
There are concerns that women who agree to go to tribunal courts are getting worse deals because Islamic law favours men.
Siddiqi said that in a recent inheritance dispute handled by the court in Nuneaton, the estate of a Midlands man was divided between three daughters and two sons.
The judges on the panel gave the sons twice as much as the daughters, in accordance with sharia. Had the family gone to a normal British court, the daughters would have got equal amounts.
Almost as disturbing as the people who advocate for sharia on principle are the people who ask why the Jews get special treatment and the Muslims don't. Where are the advocates for dissolving both Beth Din and Sharia?
Addendum: The astute Jesse Walker brought this H&R post to my attention, as well as this defense of alternative forms of arbitration. Despite his seductive intellectual prowess, I maintain my disdain for sharia.