[Sharia judge] Dr [Suhaib] Hasan, who is also a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain on issues of sharia law, says there is great misunderstanding of the issue in the West.And here is a new, backhanded argument for making some form of sharia law official in Britain:
"Whenever people associate the word 'sharia' with Muslims, they think it is flogging and stoning to death and cutting off the hand," he says with a smile.
He makes the distinction between the aspects of law that sharia covers: worship, penal law, and personal law. Muslim leaders in Britain are interested only in integrating personal law, he says.
"Penal law is the duty of the Muslim state - it is not in the hands of any public institution like us to handle it. Only a Muslim government that believes in Islam is going to implement it. So there is no question of asking for penal law to be introduced here in the UK - that is out of the question."
Despite this, Dr Hasan is open in supporting the severe punishments meted out in countries where sharia law governs the country.
"Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society.
"This is why in Saudi Arabia, for example, where these measures are implemented, the crime rate is very, very, low," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
In a documentary to be screened on Channel 4 next month, entitled Divorce: Sharia Style, Dr Hasan goes further, advocating a sharia system for Britain. "If sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief's hand is cut off nobody is going to steal," he says.
"Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all.
"We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don't accept it they'll need more and more prisons."
"The introduction of sharia law in Britain raises complex questions, as some of its basic tenets are incompatible with the fundamental principles of our liberal democracy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," says Baroness Cox, a leading human rights campaigner.
"There is no equality before the law between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims; and there is no freedom to choose and change religion."
Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain's inter-faith committee, admits that to non-Muslims some laws may seem harsh on women. Those who are married to a man with a number of wives can be treated badly, for instance. But he insists that sharia is an equitable system.
"It may mean that a woman married under Islamic law has no legal rights, but the husband is required to pay for everything in marriage and in the case of a divorce all the woman's belongings are hers to keep."
In fact, Sheikh Mogra argues that sharia in Britain would give rights to women. "A Muslim man can take a second wife under sharia law and treat her as he wants, knowing that she has no legal rights in Britain. It means that she is regarded as no more than a mistress and he can walk out on her when he wants."advertisement
Critics warn, however, that in giving even parts of sharia law official status, Britain would be associating itself with a system that in many ways was intolerable according to Western values.
Professor John Marks, author of The West, Islam and Islamism, points out that apostates from Islam can suffer severe punishment, even honour killings.
"There are more violent cases that are being related to people who choose to convert from Islam," he says.
A survey by Policy Exchange found that 36 per cent of young British Muslims believed that a Muslim who converted to another religion should be "punished by death".
"This clearly goes against the laws of our country. If they come to live in this country they should live by our laws," says Prof Marks.
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of some form of recognition of sharia in Britain is that it would help to regulate a system that operates beyond the law.Who would have thought that Muslims, in their zeal to spread sharia in a secular system, would mirror the arguments of those who want to legalize marijuana?
The Government has expressed concern about imams who may be using the Koran to justify fatwas that clash with British law.
Leaders of four major British Muslim groups published a government-backed report in 2006 that accepted that many imams were not qualified to give guidance to alienated young people.
They agreed to set up a watchdog aimed at tackling extremism and monitoring mosques, but Yunes Teinaz, a former adviser to the London Central Mosque, warns that one of the greatest problems is the imams who arrive in Britain unable to speak English, and with no regard for British law.
"The absence of anyone regulating the mosques and sharia courts means that they can act as a law unto themselves, issuing fatwas that breach people's human rights because they have no knowledge of the law," he says. "They can take people's money despite having no proper qualifications, but worse they can harm the communities that they are in."
Zareen Roohi Ahmed, the chief executive of the British Muslim Forum - one of the four groups on the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body - concedes that sharia courts in Britain are still poorly organised.
"They need development - the government should be supporting them to deliver their service more effectively," she says.
As Melanie Phillips notes:
It is very important that people realise the crucial difference between allowing a minority the right to practise its own precepts while fitting in with the law of the land, and allowing members of a minority to force the law of the land to fit in with them. It is very important that people understand that the pressure to sharia-ise Britain is far more dangerous even than terrorism because – see the government’s embrace of ‘sharia finance’ – its implications simply aren’t understood and it is likely therefore to be accepted. Salami-slice by salami slice, this is how British society will be dismembered.