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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

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.