Rethinking Islamism II

Misconceptions and fears about sharia.

One of the first, and foremost, fears about Islamism is that its aim is the imposition of sharia law. That in itself is open to question, and I will come to that in a later post. But the very concept of sharia has been so oversimplified by scaremongers that, in the popular imagination, it is inextricably linked with the punishments of beheading, flogging and amputation for crimes such as theft and adultery, and for which Saudi Arabia has long been notorious.

Regimes like that of the Taliban, who banned flared trousers and jailed beard-trimmers, reinforced this view, which is why when the Archbishop of Canterbury made a modest suggestion about whether aspects of sharia could or should be incorporated into British law he faced a hysterical reaction and calls to quit.

As is sadly so often the case, the nuances in the lecture Rowan Williams delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice in February 2008 failed to have any impact on those whose closed minds alit on the word "sharia" and decided he was talking nonsense yet again. In fact, Dr Williams addressed this point very early on when he quoted Tariq Ramadan's chapter on sharia in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

"In the west," writes Ramadan, currently professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, "the idea of sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam . . . It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word."

The example of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has much to do with this. Yet it is important to stress that to look at that country and then assume that its version of sharia is the only one, or the one to which Muslims all secretly aspire, would be akin to holding up a vision of Torquemada's Inquisition and concluding that this was what real Christianity was. It is unrepresentative and, many would argue, a perversion.

"Barbarism"

Equally important is that the punishments which cause the greatest outcry -- flogging, stoning, etc -- come under the hudud laws, which are implemented in Saudi Arabia and were introduced by General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1979, but are the exception, not the rule, in most Muslim countries.

They are, in fact, an embarrassment to the many Muslims who consider them barbaric. So when Ramadan called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic world in 2005, some non-Muslims criticised him for not going further. Why didn't he say the hudud laws should just be discarded or repealed?

He explained this by pointing out that most of the authorities "are of the opinion that these penalties are on the whole Islamic [because of textual references] but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to re-establish. These penalties, therefore, are 'almost never applicable'." He later declared that "Islam is being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim-majority societies in the midst of collusive silence and chaotic judicial opinions on the ground". The present-day use of hudud, therefore, is clearly a misuse of sharia.

But Ramadan provides further explanation for why the simplistic view of sharia is wrong. He has written of "the fundamental distinction that should be established between timeless principles" -- "sharia as a way towards justice", as he puts it -- "and contingent models". In other words, to reduce the whole of sharia to a detailed and specific set of laws, none of which leaves room for interpretation or reform, is, in his opinion, to miss the point.

"The concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed," he writes, "but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics, and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes . . . It really is a way, a way toward the ideal."

Many-splendoured

Cast in this manner, it becomes easier to understand why sharia varies enormously in the countries where it enjoys official status. For a surprisingly favourable account of what it's actually like to experience a sharia court, by a Times reporter, click here.

In Malaysia, to take another example, sharia is co-equal with civil law but is applied only to Muslims, and then mostly in matters concerning family law, marriage, inheritance and so on. Chinese restaurants are free to serve pork, alcohol is widely available, and women are not required to cover up. The former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad insisted on this latter point when I interviewed him in Kuala Lumpur this year.

"My wife does not cover her head. She's accepted," he told me. "It does not determine whether you are Muslim or not."

This may not be the type of sharia that all Islamists would favour, but not only would it suit some, it actually operates in a way that goes beyond what other Islamists advocate (about which, more later). You don't have to go as far as the authors of this interesting article in last July's Foreign Policy magazine, "What Israel needs to know about sharia" -- they argue that understanding sharia is the key to a peaceful coexistence with Hamas -- to appreciate that Rowan Williams did not deserve the barrage of criticism to which he was subjected two years ago (the Sun even set up a "Bash the Bishop" game on its website). Dr Williams was merely indicating that he knew (as I'm sure Christopher Hitchens does, too) that sharia is a highly complex and varied concept.

There are plenty who will object to any legal system or way of life that has a religious basis, regardless of how it operates. But the one word that is, above all, associated with sharia, stressed by Ramadan in his writings, Mahathir in his interview with me, by Bernard Lewis in his latest book and by countless others, is "justice".

I think we can agree that it is not just Islamists who are in favour of that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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Why we can't let Liam Fox negotiate post-Brexit trade deals behind closed doors

MPs have little control over agreements struck with the US and others. 

Today Liam Fox will start discussing a trade deal with the United States. We don’t know who will attend or what’s on the agenda, and neither do our elected representatives in parliament. Nor do MPs have the power to guide the talks, to set red lines, to amend or to stop an eventual deal.

International Trade Secretary Fox is acting with regal powers. And that should scare us all. 

What we do know is that this deal, if completed, will affect pretty much everyone in the country. Like most modern trade deals it won’t be primarily about tariffs. Far from it, it will be about our environmental and consumer protections, about how we’re allowed to spend taxpayers' money, about how we run our public services and the power we give to big business. 

We also know that those feeding into these negotiations are overwhelmingly big businesses.  

New analysis of ministerial meetings published today by the Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Justice Now, shows that 90 per cent of meetings held by trade ministers in the last six months are with businesses. Most of these are massive companies including Starbucks, Walmart, Amazon, BP and HSBC.

So businesses have nine times the access of everyone else. In fact, it’s worse than it appears, because “everyone else” includes pro-big business consultants from the Legatum Institute and the Adam Smith Institute, together with a handful of campaign groups, trade unions and public institutions.

We can guess from Donald Trump’s approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiations, which start in a couple of weeks, what the US agenda will look like. Corporate courts – which give big businesses power to sue states for decisions they don’t like – are fine, but state-to-state resolution isn’t. That’s because the US sometimes loses in the latter, but not in the former. 

Trump is also pushing Canada and Mexico for one-sided access for US companies to bid for government spending contracts (Buy America is allowed, but not Buy Canada or Buy Mexico it seems). He also wants better access for US financial corporations and further liberalisation of energy markets.

This is “America First” in practice. With Britain, it’s highly likely that access to the NHS and the UK’s higher food standards will be on the agenda. After all, Fox is likely to agree with Trump on those issues.  

Indeed, this is big politics for Fox. He knows that outside the EU, Britain must choose whom to align itself with – the US or Europe. Fox’s preference is clearly the former, because that would push us down the path of lighter regulation, lower standards, and “the market knows best”. That’s why failure to secure an EU trade deal while agreeing a US deal has enormous implications for our society.  

Finally, we know that this is only the first of ten trade working groups with 15 countries which will meet in coming weeks and months. Others involve Saudi Arabia and Turkey, hardly human rights bastions, where we have a big arms market. It also includes countries such as India, where Britain is desperate to increase intellectual property rules to help big pharmaceutical corporations clamp down on generic medicine provision. 

The long and the short of it is that none of this should be discussed behind closed doors. This is not a game of poker involving tariff levels. Huge issues of public policy are at stake. Yet even the most basic information about these meetings is apparently so sensitive that it is exempt from Freedom of Information laws. And don’t accept the assurance of Fox, who has form in this area. He promised a parliamentary debate on the Canada-EU trade deal last year. The debate never came. Fox simply signed the deal off on behalf of this country with no scrutiny or discussion. MPs should refuse to accept his assurances a second time. 

Anyone who suspects this is a Remoaner making up scare stories about Brexit should remember the process is the exact same one that will be used to agree our trade deal with the EU when we leave. That means our MEPs will have more power over that deal than our MPs. As will the MEPs of all other EU member states, and their national parliamentarians. In fact, the parliamentarians of the Belgian region of Wallonia will have more power than British MPs. Taking back control it ain’t.

But don’t despair. We have 18 months in which the government is not allowed to sign off any trade deals. We have a Trade Bill which will be introduced to parliament in the autumn. And we have a hung parliament. And a cross-party motion has already been tabled calling for scrutiny of trade deals like this. There is every chance we can overturn this archaic method of negotiating trade deals. But the clock is ticking. 

Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now