The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal: an exercise in “Legalwash”


By LSS member Daniel Anderson *

I think we have all heard of the terms Whitewash and Greenwash.

Whitewash: A deliberate attempt to conceal unpleasant or incriminating facts about a person or organisation in order to protect their reputation.

Greenwash: Disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

(Source: Oxford Dictionary)

 I now wish to introduce to you a new term which I claim to have coined: Legalwash.

Legalwash: A deliberate attempt to present an organisation as being able to make legally binding rulings when it cannot.

I hope that the term Legalwash will be adopted by the legal profession in its fight against all parallel legal systems.

But first, let’s look at an example of Legalwash in practice by examining the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal.

The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was set up by Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi in 2007, and you may recall from my previous post his comments on the Arbitration Act 1996:

“We realised that under the Arbitration Act we can make rulings which can be enforced by county and high courts. The Act allows disputes to be resolved using alternatives like tribunals. This method is called alternative dispute resolution, which for Muslims is what the sharia courts are.”

And in the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal’s own words:

“The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was established in 2007 to provide a viable alternative for the Muslim community seeking to resolve disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law [Sharia]. Under the remit of the Arbitration Act 1996, MAT acts as an effective, efficient and unique Alternate Dispute Resolution organisation which deals with Islamic Sacred Law within the context of the English Legal System.”

So in effect the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is simply the renaming of Sharia Councils to make them appear able to make legally binding rulings. Each of the three components of this renaming exercise is highly significant.

Firstly, the word Arbitration gives the impression that they are authorised under the Arbitration Act 1996 to give legally binding rulings when, as I argued in my previous post, this is not the case.

Sharia Councils (or whatever they are called) will not be able to give legally binding rulings because such rulings will be against the ‘public interest’, and/or they will be made with serious irregularity/unfairness, and/or they will be made without jurisdiction to do so.

Secondly, the word Tribunal makes them seem synonymous with actual – and secular – tribunals established by Parliament. Such tribunals established by Parliament include the Employment Tribunal, the Immigration Tribunal and the Social Security Tribunal.

These three tribunals are subject to detailed rules made by Parliament, and their judges are appointed by the Judicial Appointments Commission – an independent commission created by Parliament.

In contrast, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal has simply been set up by a private individual, it is subject to its own rules, and it appoints its own “judges” (whoever they are is not clear). So the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is nothing like the tribunals established by Parliament.

And thirdly, the word Muslim makes the broad brush assumption that all Muslims completely agree with Mr Siddiqi’s interpretation of ‘Islamic Sacred Law’ and that they wish to have their disputes settled according to his own interpretation. And putting the whole issue of “interpretations” aside, it also makes the broad brush assumption that all Muslims are happy in principle for their disputes to be arbitrated under sharia in some shape or form, rather than in a secular forum.

It is worth noting that it is not actually stated on the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal’s website what Mr Siddiqi’s interpretation of ‘Islamic Sacred Law’ is. But we get a hint when we learn that women, unlike men, do not have a unilateral right to divorce.

And I think I can presume from this piece in The Guardian that not all Muslims agree with Mr Siddiqi’s endorsement of polygamy, or more precisely, polygny (i.e. the practice of having more than one wife at one time).

Is it any wonder, following such a clever renaming exercise, that so many people think the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is able to make legally binding rulings? We have therefore now seen how Legalwash operates in practice and how vigilant the legal profession must be against it.

Incidentally, Mr Siddiqi is a barrister. However, with such a slick renaming exercise of Sharia Councils to the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal I respectfully suggest he take up an alternative career in PR instead, well away from the law.

The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal’s website even has the audacity to state that one of its four “Values and Principles” is equality:

“Equality: All matters will also be considered without any prejudice to race, religion, ethnicity, gender or age.”

Yet I didn’t come across any objections by Mr Siddiqi or the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal to the Practice Note on “sharia succession principles” issued in March 2014 by the Law Society, which recommended (at paragraphs 5 and 6 of Section 3.6) that women inherit half as much as men and that non-Muslims, adopted children and “illegitimate” children could not inherit at all. Sometimes, someone’s silence speaks volumes. I am very proud that the Lawyers’ Secular Society was at the forefront of the campaign which saw the Law Society withdraw its practice note and apologise for issuing it.

It is time that the legal profession stopped tolerating such slick attempts to present organisations as being able to make legally binding rulings when they cannot. It is time that the legal profession called out such attempts as what they really are: Legalwash. And when such attempts are made to establish manifestly unfair parallel legal systems, the legal profession must vigorously renew its efforts of defending and upholding the secular legal system for everyone.

* Daniel Anderson was an LSS member from Oct 2014 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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