I’ve just watched an episode of This World on BBC2 entitled ‘Inside a Sharia Court‘. The programme starts from the premise that a number of British Muslims would like to see Sharia Law implemented in the UK, and that since most westerners understanding of the practice is in terms of the stoning and amputations the programme set out to look at a place where Sharia Law already exists alongside British law, in certain parts of Nigeria.
In Nigeria, Sharia Law applies only to Muslims, indeed even Muslims can appeal their case back into the regular legal system. According to the programme the only two amputations there have been for theft were people who refused their right to appeal and opted to take the Sharia Law sentence. On the ground it seems very popular, but when part way through the programme you see a Christian man who is fighting a case against a Muslim through the regular courts you can understand why. In the regular courts business is conducted in English, a language the man doesn’t understand, and more than that the case is bogged down in legal technicalities. Compare that with the Sharia court where at one point the judge gets through four cases in half and hour, and lawyers are generally not involved and you can see the difference. For the normal person on the ground, the legal system is expensive and inaccessible, whereas the Sharia courts give them swift justice.
Having said that, is it necessarily fair? One case that is shown is a man accused of theft. The prosecutor has no witnesses to the crime, indeed offers no evidence at all. The man confessed, but in his testimony said that he confessed after being beaten and tortured by the Police. The judge offers him a choice of ten lashes or a prison sentence for his crime – he opts for the lashes. The programme also discusses how accusations of rape are handled – the judge states that a woman must report it immediately, and be able to produce four witnesses otherwise her crime is regarded as adultery.
By the end of the programme, the presenter seems at least in part convinced by the merits of Sharia Law and thinking that it might work for British Muslims in the UK.
For my part I think that you need to separate the particular laws from the process. Even in the UK the issues of the mainstream legal system in Nigera are present – what the Sharia system is providing is justice for simple matters at a much lower level, without the formality of a full court case. As an example, a friend is currently having a boundary dispute over his property – and has been quoted a pretty well unaffordable rate for the solicitors he needs to sort it out. In Nigeria, these kinds of disputes are handled by the Sharia court. I doubt that a system that dishes out public floggings and amputations as punishment would ever be acceptable to most British people, but certainly a system that allows the average person to quickly and simply sort out legal disputes would be very welcome.