The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s new multiculturalism policy, argues that Muslims should enjoy “legal pluralism”.
In an interview with The Australian, the organisation’s president, Ikebal Adam Patel, who wrote the submission, nominated family law and specifically divorce as an area where moderate interpretations of sharia could co-exist within the Australian legal system.
In the submission, the AFIC acknowledges some Muslims believe Islamic law is immutable, regardless of history, time, culture and location.
“They claim that Muslims may change, but Islam will not,” it says.
The AFIC argues this is not the case and sharia can be applied in a way that fits in to Australia and is not extreme.
“This means most of the regulations in Islamic law may be amended, changed, altered, and adapted to social change.
“Therefore, Muslims Australia-AFIC takes the position that Islamic law is changeable according to the requirements of different places and times, and therefore suits the values shared by Australian people,” the submission says.
A hardline reading of sharia confers unilateral divorce rights on men, while women who initiate divorce are stripped of their property and financial entitlements.
A more moderate interpretation and common practice in Islamic countries is to recognise divorce by mutual consent.
In the interview, Mr Patel said: “I’m saying that instead of letting the extremists within Islam take over the agenda, we are saying there is a path whereby it will work for all the communities in a moderate way.
“It is important for someone who is Muslim or a practising Jew that aspects of our religion which can be incorporated within the greater legal system are introduced.
“This is about personal issues about family, and won’t affect any other Australian,” he said.
“It’s about a system that does not impinge on the rights of any other Australian.”
In its submission to the inquiry, the AFIC says criticisms of sharia as being biased against women and treating them as second-class citizens are wrong.
“It is important for Muslims to seriously consider this criticism,” the submission says.
“But it is also important for the Australian government to respect the rights of Muslim women who want to keep and maintain the way they dress, eat and interact with others, as long as such behaviour does not inflict harm to others.
“Muslims in Australia should accept the Australian values, and Australia should provide a ‘public sphere’ for Muslims to practise their belief. It takes two to tango.
“This approach demands a compromise from Islam, which should be open to other values, and also to make a similar demand of Australia.
“It is not only Australian Muslims who should reconcile these identities, but all Australians.”
Mr Patel says the AFIC, as the peak body of Islamic organisations in Australia, “strongly supports that multiculturalism should lead to legal pluralism . . . and twin tolerations”.
The submission cites regulations governing Islamic finance and halal certification in Australia as examples of how legal pluralism can work.
British law since 1996 has allowed for alternative dispute resolution through sharia tribunals, the rulings of which are enforceable in county courts and the High Court.
The submission calls on the inquiry members to consider “hard questions” from Muslim communities.
“Muslims are required to have social integration with the majority of people in Australia: what does this really mean? Should Muslims remove the hijab, dress like others, drink alcohol and go to the pub to demonstrate they have actually integrated?”
In most Western countries, the submission notes, the idea of an “Islamic family tribunal or arbitration is likely to fuel the debate on radicalism and liberalism”.
“But is it true that Australia will never consider Islamic law?” it asks.
“It seems that in two areas, namely Islamic finance and halal food, the Australian government has been actively involved.
“So although the Attorney-General ruled out introducing Islamic law, or sharia, at the same time Australian financial institutions are encouraged to do much more to attract Muslim business by developing innovative products which comply with Islamic law.
“Apart from the economic motive, how can we reconcile the conflicting statement and fact?”