I saw two stories in the mainstream press today that were about the state of the British Muslim religious establishment. One was in the Daily Mail by Baroness Cox which was based on a story in the Sunday Times last weekend, exposing imams at two obscure mosques that offered to preside over marriage ceremonies involving 12-year-old girls. The other was by one Hasnet Lais in the Independent’s Notebook section, which criticised irrelevant imams and compared them to the Catholic church’s problems in keeping up with their flock. The first is an obvious bit of Islamophobic propaganda based on a barrel-scraping “exposé” by a desperate group of spies. The second makes some valid points but also deserves some criticism.
To deal with the first one first, the story in last weekend’s Sunday Times claimed that imams at two mosques offered to officiate at Islamic marriage ceremonies in which the bride was 12 years old, and advised the spy that the marriage be presented as an engagement rather than a marriage as such. The original story is behind a paywall, but a later development (namely the imam’s suspension) was reported in the Daily Mail. The mosque involved is the Husaini Islamic Centre in Peterborough, and the other mosque is the “Shoreditch Mosjid Trust Islamic Educational, Cultural and Community Centre” in east London. The first is a Shi’a mosque as the name implies and their website makes clear, although they denied that they did actually offer marriage ceremonies in such circumstances. The second is an obscure mosque in a shop unit which does not even have a website. It appears that the spies hired by the Sunday Times, or some think tank, had to hunt high and low to produce this story if the only proper mosque they could find is run by Shi’ites, who are a small minority among British Muslims, and is in a fairly obscure place; the other establishment is a Bengali-run mosque in the heart of the Boundary Estate on the Shoreditch / Bethnal Green border, and is run by local elders and residents and some former residents, but I have been told that they do not normally conduct marriages there.
In Islam, there is no minimum marriage age, and traditionally, and certainly in rural settings, Muslim girls tended to be married at or not long after puberty, while boys waited until their late teens or twenties when they had learned a trade and gained some means of supporting their wife. Nowadays, the marriage age is older for girls (late teens) and much older for men, who are often unable to pay for the cost of the wedding until their thirties. Still, the law of the land mandates that sex not happen until both parties are at least 16, so a marriage of anyone before that age may be only symbolic at that point, although it does allow them to enjoy each other’s company and touch each other, something the religion would not allow them to do without it (of course, they could go to a country where the age of consent is lower, or non-existent). In some cultures, parents also get their children engaged as children, and there is no expectation that the couple will move in together, let alone have sex, until much later. To put it simply, early marriage does not mean early sex, and the imam was doing nothing illegal and was not facilitating something that was illegal.
The headline to Cox’s article in the print edition today calls her “a distinguished peer fighting to protect women”, but a brief search for her name in Islamophobia Watch, however, reveals that she has a long history of provocation against the Muslim community and was one of the peers who invited Geert Wilders to the UK to screen his film Fitna (Trouble) in 2010, and has also railed against the “persecution” of Christians in the UK, complaining that “Christian students” do not know the names of the Gospels and “feel uncomfortable when they are asked about the ‘crusades’ by their Muslim peers”. So, this is not a campaigner for Muslim women’s rights at all, but a provocateuse whose main concern is the primacy of Christianity, or at least traditional “western culture” as the two are often considered synonymous, who is not afraid to associate with bigots and extremists to achieve that aim. The article is accompanied with stock photographs which appeal to stereotypes of Muslim custom, such as a picture of a woman in niqaab with the caption: “Campaigners argue that children can’t decide whether they want to be married (posed by model)”, as if the majority of females who wear niqaab are children, or have ever been involved in child marriages. They are not. Many wear it by choice and did not start until well into adulthood.
The article also alleges that they have overstepped their original remit of overseeing marriages, divorces and settling some other personal disputes into child custody and criminal law, and naturally assumes that this will work out a lot worse for women, and as usual blaming multiculturalism for tolerating the widening of these councils’ missions. However, the law only allows the councils to preside over the personal and marital disputes, and if they are going against the law, Cox should be approaching the police, not writing newspaper articles casting a broad swipe against all the Shari’ah councils and citing a few anonymous reports. The official courts still exist to rule on child custody (if the parents cannot settle the matter between them without going to the courts), and if a Shari’ah council awards residency in a manner that is contrary to the child’s best interests, the courts could overrule them; they also cannot suppress British criminal law either. It is true that women cannot get a divorce automatically in the Shari’ah (unless her marriage contract stipulated it), but this is also true in the Jewish law as well and cases of Jewish women being kept ‘chained’ for years to husbands that remarry but refuse them a religious divorce are well-known of. Legislation may be needed to deal with this particular problem; men might give divorces more readily if they could be threatened with prison. Jewish personal law courts, known as Beth Din, operate under the same legal provision as the Shari’ah courts do.
So, the article is a hatchet job on the Muslim community and its attempts to run its affairs, dressed up in fake concern for Muslim women’s rights. If these women are so concerned for the welfare of Muslim women, why do they not set up refuges for Muslim women who need to flee violence, or funds for the education of those whose families will not pay? Surely some of them have the money — but it’s not as easy as writing newspaper columns and attacking the Muslim community at large.
The article in the Independent (I am not sure if it’s in print) claims that the British Muslim public are “disillusioned by an enfeebled Muslim scholarship” and compares our situation to that of the Catholic laity who are being let down by the clergy:
From my experience, scores of British imams are not keeping tuned in to the frequencies of rank and file Muslims. Consigned to the cosy confines of mosques and a few honorifics, complacency has beset their existing order. As priests must accept culpability for the diminishing appetite to church life, imams must also concede how they’ve become a spent force in the imagination of many Muslims. Though I consider myself devout, I can testify to how my initial hunch for faith was sapped by a dwindling segment of out of touch mullahs, mired in pointless intra-faith polemics. In this sense, I empathise with estranged Catholics who chide the principle of papal infallibility and find no spiritual gusto in condom-condemning scholars obsessed with birth control. It’s common for a Muslim’s experience with religious stasis to derive from their dissatisfaction with reactionary imams, who are bogged down with the very inanities that are at the heart of what they see as Christendom’s alienation with the papacy.
There are, of course, fundamental differences between Muslim imams and scholars and the Catholic priestly hierarchy. One is that there is no tradition of celibacy in Islam, and the vast majority of Muslim imams including the most renowned scholars are married, many have children, and although some live in accommodation in the mosques, most are responsible for paying for food, bills and so on like every other Muslim. Catholic priests are all celibate (apart from a few who are converts from Anglicanism who were already married before converting) as are all bishops and cardinals. Most, therefore, do not have personal experience of running a house, raising children, relating to a member of the opposite sex on an everyday or intimate level, and making their own living and making ends meet. They live in a presbytery and their needs are met by the Church, sometimes quite luxuriously in the case of senior bishops who are known for their taste for designer clothing. On the other hand, priests do speak the language their parishioners speak; imams, if they are brought in from abroad, often speak poor English, while the youth, even if they are of Indian or Pakistani origin, often speak only English and little Urdu (and not all Asians ever spoke Urdu anyway). This does make their ability to give religious instruction and guidance limited and opens up the possibility for extremists, who do speak English, to gain influence, as I’ve mentioned before.
Some of the loss of prestige the Catholic church has suffered in Europe has a lot to do with changes in moral attitudes in society; the church’s position on extramarital sex and homosexuality, for example, has not changed in 60 years while both have become commonly accepted in Europe. Churchmen are not meant to be representatives of popular sentiment but upholders of (what they regard as) the truth, even if their followers dislike it and desert them as a result. However, much of it is to do with scandals that are entirely the clergy’s fault, both for perpetrating it in the first place and then for covering it up, by moving priests from one parish or diocese to another and telling victims and other witnesses to keep quiet. Populations that were once devout and obedient now accept that it was a huge mistake to put such trust in those men. Although there have been some incidents of imams abusing children while in positions of trust, Muslim organisations are much smaller and there is no central authority which has the ability to tell Muslims what to do or where to work, so this type of scandal could not happen on that scale in the Muslim community. Islam is a set of beliefs; the Catholic church is an organisation.
Still, the article is right in that some imams do need to address the needs of the youth better and stop hiding under the sand on matters of politics. They may well be thinking that mosques are houses of Allah and are meant for quiet prayer and contemplation, not political arguing, and certainly spaces need to be set aside for the former (and they may also be keen to stop HT- and Muhajiroun-type agitation), but historically, the imam was also the political leader who gave sermons on Friday in which politics were mentioned prominently. The mosque is also, often, the only community centre, and to entirely ban discussion about politics is to deprive the community of a much needed space to talk about the issues that affect it, including their relations with the police and wider society. However, it is not fair to suggest that all imams are irrelevant, when some have made a serious effort to address the concerns of young and English-speaking Muslims and bridge the historical sectarian divides within the Asian Muslim community. Despite having a smaller base, Muslims have a higher ratio of practising to nominal Muslims compared to many other religious communities, including Christians, and Muslims can get fairly reliable religious knowledge online if their local imam does not fulfil their needs.
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