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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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.