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Mehdi Hasan: it’s time to lay the sharia bogeyman to rest

Why are our lawmakers obsessed with “sharia law”?

You might think that US Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012 would have piles of political and economic problems to focus on: home repossessions, job losses, petrol prices and the like. Why, then, are so many of them apparently obsessed with sharia, or "Islamic" law?

The former senator Rick Santorum, who announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on 6 June, has denounced "creeping sharia" in America. Another GOP presidential candidate, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, has demanded "a federal law that says sharia law cannot be recognised by any court in the United States".

This isn't just right-wing rhetoric. A dozen US states are considering measures to ban sharia - which they define as the "legal-political-military doctrine" behind Islamist terrorism. But defenders of the various bills and proposals are unable to cite a single court case in which sharia has been invoked.

Take Oklahoma, which became the first state to make it illegal for its judges to rely on sharia in November 2010. Yet Muslims make up less than 1 per cent of the state's population - a minuscule 30,000 out of 3.7 million Oklahomans. The residents of the Sooner State are as likely to be judged according to Jedi law as they are by Islamic law.


The hysteria around sharia has become the modern-day equivalent of the 1950s Red Scare, with Islamists replacing communists "under the bed" - on both sides of the Atlantic. First there was the focus on jihad and "holy war". Then the hijab and the niqab. And now, sharia. The very word sends chills down the spine of not just conservatives but liberals, too. It conjures up horrific associations of hand-chopping, flogging and stoning.

In the words of the Islamic scholar and Oxford academic Tariq Ramadan, "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."

It isn't just Muslim intellectuals who have been pilloried for committing the cardinal sin of trying to have a calm and rational discussion about sharia. Take the Archbishop of Canterbury. Our esteemed guest editor might not thank for me raising the subject again (indeed, he might even be pulling at his non-Islamic beard as he reads the headline on this column), but in February 2008, ahead of a speech on Islamic law, Rowan Williams told the BBC that the adoption of some elements of sharia by the British legal system "seems unavoidable".

The political and media response was astonishing - frenzied, hyperbolic and Islamophobic. The Sun raised the spectre of "medieval punishments" being inflicted on the British public and claimed that the archbishop was "giving heart to Muslim terrorists plotting our destruction". Alison Ruoff, an obscure member of the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, called on him to resign. Politicians, including the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, queued up to distance themselves from Williams's supposed gaffe.

The archbishop's nuanced yet thought-provoking speech in 2008 referred to a "real debate among Muslim scholars" over the meaning and scope of sharia and argued that "there is no single code that can be identified as 'the' sharia".

Most non-Muslims in the west seem united with hardline Islamists in the misguided belief that there is one monolithic, unchanging sharia. But Williams was right: there isn't. Sharia, which translates not as "Islamic law" or "religious code" but as "pathway to the water", extends beyond the realm of criminal and civil law and covers personal and ethical matters such as sexual relations, diet, hygiene, prayer, fasting and charity.

In the mainstream

There is no Muslim equivalent of the Ten Commandments codifying Islamic law. Nor does the Quran pretend to be an all-encompassing legal or penal code. Sharia, therefore, is constantly evolving, with different Islamic scholars - Sunni/Shia, conservative/liberal, Arab/ non-Arab - offering differing interpretations. Yet here in the UK, ahead of the government's publication of its updated strategy for tackling extremism and terrorism on 7 June, officials briefed friendly reporters that any "advocacy of sharia law" would be deemed a failure to “reflect mainstream British values" and seen as a sign of extremism.

It is absurd to describe those who express the slightest support for sharia, in any shape or form, as "extreme" or "un-British". Is Gordon Brown an Islamic extremist? When he was chancellor, Brown repeatedly urged the City to become the "gateway to Islamic finance" and encouraged the proliferation of sharia-compliant banking in the UK.

Then there are those practising and observant Muslims - moderate, integrated, non-violent - who would consider themselves to be adherents of sharia in an ethical or social sense. Are they extremists, too? Polls show that most British Muslims oppose the introduction of sharia in this country; the minority of those who do express support for Islamic law tend to be referring to the resolution of civil disputes. I have yet to come across any mainstream British Muslim group advocating the execution of Ryan Giggs.

So sharia isn't what many think it is. Nor is it coming to a courtroom near you. Tackling the crises in employment and housing should be the priority for legislators. It's time to lay the sharia bogeyman to rest.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide