Review – Maryam Namazie – Secularism is Our Right; Freedom is Our Culture

It is not pleasant to be placed in a position whereby one is forced to use words like ‘primitive’, ‘backward’, and ‘uncivilised’: taken together they invoke memories of British Imperialism, as well inviting plain abuse from those who want to ensure that Britain does indeed not go down the path of imperialism ever again. However, Maryam Namazie’s speech to a large and appreciative crowd on Sunday had the effect of forcing her auditors to take concepts like ‘primitive’, ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ seriously. She was, of course, discussing Sharia Law (although lawyers trained in either Roman or English law tend to reject the appellation ‘law’, on the basis that Sharia does not have sufficient ‘law-like’ characteristics).

Commencing with an account of various revolutions across the Middle East, Ms Namazie outlined how they had been in every instance hijacked in one way or another by the military or, more commonly, Islamists. I was not aware, for instance, that liberals, Marxists, and secularists made common cause against the Iranian Shah with Islamists in 1979: the latter, being better organised, then usurped power and simply killed or exiled their opponents. Ms Namazie was herself a victim of this process: she fled Iran with her family in 1980. She has harsh words for those on the political left who would make common cause with any Islamist ‘community organisation’, and I must say that what little, lingering affection I once had for ‘Unite Against Fascism’ has now evaporated entirely. UAF have become a left-wing version of the EDL.

Ms Namazie then outlined—briefly, but with great vividness—the dangers of accommodating Sharia in any form in Britain, and highlighted something of which I (and I am a lawyer) was hitherto unaware: the abuse of the Arbitration Act1996 in order to facilitate the enforcement of Sharia rulings in family law matters. Now arbitration is an entirely valid (and welcome) legal process that allows complex commercial matters to be dealt with by persons who are experts in the field. It is commonly used in cross-border commercial contracts and admiralty disputes, for example. The 1996 Act also explicitly excludes its use in family and child custody matters, although as Ms Namazie made clear, this is not being enforced, and it may require specific legislation (as she campaigned for successfully in Canada) to ensure that the 1996 Act operates on its terms.

What does Sharia do that is so offensive to both English and Scots law? Ms Namazie provided some details. Among other things, it holds women’s evidence to be worth only half that of a man, contrary to the established rule of law principle that evidence be assessed on its merits; it treats Muslims and non-Muslims differently in legal rulings, contrary to the established rule of law principle that like cases be treated alike; it seeks to mandate child custody without recourse to the established legal principle that the court should look to the best interests of the child; women lose most or all of their property rights on divorce; and it mandates that women should inherit less than men, contrary (in Scotland) to the Succession (Scotland) Act 1964. [In fact, I submit that Scots law would provide a stronger prophylactic against this sort of thing than English law does. The latter has always allowed for a degree of discrimination under the doctrine of freedom of testation. The unromantic Scots (and surprisingly unromantic Romans) long made it impossible for parents to disinherit their children or spouses to disinherit each other.]

Ms Namazie is a discomforting speaker, because she forces one to confront the consequences of British diffidence and politeness (‘no, Virginia, not all legal systems are equal’), while at the same time having no truck with racists who would exploit her arguments to close off immigration from Muslim countries. It is a delicate balancing act, but one she carries off with great skill.