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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pakistan recently gave in to the pressure of Islamist militants. Indeed to buy off peace, Pakistani authorities allowed the imposition of Shari'a (Islamic law) in the Swat Valley.
How long the cease-fire will last is anyone's guess. But in any case, Pakistan has allowed a precedent that could extend to other provinces; in fact the Swat Valley is only about 160 kilometers from Islamabad, the capital. But Shari'a is not making inroads only in Pakistan - it is creeping into the West.
One area particularly touched by this phenomenon is the judicial system in Europe. Two recent cases in Italy and France are particularly troublesome.
In Italy, three members of a Brescia-based Maghrebi family (father, mother and eldest son) were accused of beating and sequestering their daughter/sister Fatima because she had wanted to live a "Western" life.
In the first trial, the three were sentenced for sequestration and abuse. The court acknowledged that the teenager had been "brutally beaten up" for having "dated" a non-Muslim and, in general, for "living a life not conforming with the culture" of her family. But on appeal, the family was acquitted because the court deemed that the young woman had been beaten for "her own good."
The Bologna public prosecutor's office then disputed the acquittal of the three accused parties, but the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation dismissed it and ruled in favor of the charged parties.
Interestingly, two Italian political leaders on opposite sides of the political spectrum - Isabella Bertolini, vice president of the MPs of the right-wing party Forza Italia, and Barbara Pollastrini, a post-communist former minister - condemned the Supreme Court decision, calling it "one of the darkest pages in the history of the law in our country." Bertolini was upset that the court had "allied itself with radical Islam." Pollastrini is now pushing for parliament to pass a law condemning violence against women. "Now more than ever, it is urgent to defend the rights of a large number of immigrant women victims of an intolerable patriarchal culture," she says.
Muslim women were quick to denounce the Supreme Court's decision. Among them was Souad Sbai, president of the Organization of Moroccan Women in Italy. She said, "It is a shame, this verdict is worthy of an Arab country where the Shari'a is vigorously enforced. In the name of multiculturalism and respect for traditions, the judges apply two kinds of rules: one for the Italians and one for the immigrants. A Catholic father who had acted this way would have been severely sentenced."
According to her organization, at least nine Muslim women have recently been killed in Italy by close relatives. The number of young girls forced to wear the hijab "as early as eight or 12" is on the rise, as is the number of female teenagers fleeing home, and "lots of them are looking to flee to France." But France might not be the panacea either. Indeed, in one widely publicized case last June, a French judge ruled in favor of a Muslim man who wanted the annulment of his marriage because his wife had turned out not to be a virgin. What this decision amounted to was an endorsement of the repudiation concept.
This decision triggered a huge outcry from politicians and various organizations. In November, a French appeals court overturned the decision. Interestingly, a large majority of French Muslims, about 80 percent, are very secular and totally reject any kind of Shari'a law being implemented in France the "homeland" of human rights.
But the United Kingdom is a different story; indeed, close to 40% of young Muslims there are in favor of Shari'a law being implemented. The idea also seems to be making headway among non-Muslims. Last year, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said the legal recognition of Muslim religious courts "seems unavoidable." He added that the UK had to "face up to the fact" that some of its citizens did not relate to the British legal system.
Williams argued that adopting parts of Shari'a law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Shari'a court.
But contrary to what Williams advanced, Sadiq Khan, a British Muslim MP, said Shari'a courts would discourage Muslims from developing links with other cultural and ethnic groups. He feared also that women would be "abused" by such courts, which may give unequal bargaining power to the sexes.
In Switzerland, Christian Giordano, an anthropology professor at Fribourg University, echoed Williams by writing that a special jurisdiction for Muslims could be envisioned there. He added that including elements of Islamic law could allow the multiculturalism issue to be better managed.
Other occurrences of Shari'a law taking precedence over the law of the country have been reported. For example, in Denmark, some imams have allegedly sentenced delinquent Muslims, hence bypassing the country's judicial system.
So Islamists, much to the detriment of the majority of Muslims in Europe, seem to be making headway in pushing Shari'a law into the continent's judicial systems.
The writer is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant.
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