EDITORIAL MONDAY 08.03.10.
The open day at Lakemba Mosque over the weekend was supposed to be an opportunity for people to see for themselves that ordinary Muslims are just like other ordinary everyday Australians and share a desire to live together in peace and tolerance, even though they have a different set of religious beliefs and customs. It was a good idea, and there should be more opportunities for people to interact with each other and develop an understanding of each other. But it seems that not everyone left with a good impression.
I did not attend, so I have no first hand knowledge of the event, but the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that non-Muslim members of the crowd were shocked to hear a prominent Muslim leader speaking in favour of aspects of Sharia Law being legally recognized in Australia. Dr. Zachariah Matthews is quoted by the Herald as saying: “Sharia Law could function as a parallel system in the same way that some traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law was recognized in the Northern Territory.” He said, “I don’t think we are so unsophisticated that we cannot consider a multilayered legal system as long as it doesn’t conflict with the existing civil system.”
To be fair to Dr. Matthews he was not advocating the introduction of the sort of Sharia penalties as death by stoning or the cutting off of hands for stealing. He was apparently talking about elements of family law and inheritance law, and mentioned child custody issues as an example. Unfortunately it was enough for some people to hear the words “Sharia Law” for them to be alarmed about just what Dr. Matthews might be suggesting. Despite the apparent misunderstanding, those who were shocked are right to be concerned, and Dr. Matthews is wrong to propose a parallel legal system.
Leaving aside issues of religious tolerance and prejudice, it is not only unnecessary to create a so-called multilayered legal system, it would be socially damaging. Although Dr. Matthews used the qualification of avoiding conflict with civil law, the perceived need for special recognition of Sharia Law, or any other code for that matter, can only arise if there is a conflict. Muslims are free to live by their own moral and religious code and they don’t need special recognition in Australian Law to do that. The only thing that Australian Law insists upon is that they don’t interfere with the rights and liberties of others, including members of their own faith. Only if Sharia Law somehow is at odds with civil law would there be a need for special recognition.
The example of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law actually bears this out. The attempt in the Northern Territory to achieve racial harmony by recognizing tribal law meant allowing tribal elders to carry out punishments which in the normal course of events would be considered illegal. It was an attempt to reconcile mutually exclusive concepts from across a vast cultural divide, and was only attempted because of that inherent conflict. It has had some success, but it has also resulted in perceptions of double standards, fears of injustice, and divisions in the community.
It seems strange that an exercise which was supposed to promote harmonious relations between Muslim and Non-Muslim communities in Australia could be the platform for such a suggestion. It is bad enough that Dr. Matthews’ remarks have been misinterpreted and unfortunately contributed to increasing distrust of the Muslim community. But those remarks are also a matter of concern when you do understand what he was proposing, because it is a proposal which can only promote division in the community, not overcome it.