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Germany

Parallel Justice? Germany Says No To Sharia Law

In the region of Bavaria, there is an often hidden parallel justice system, where imams and self-appointed judges circumvent the German legal system and Islamic law prevails.

A Berlin stroll (Libertinus)
A Berlin stroll (Libertinus)
Peter Issig

MUNICH - Imam Sidigullah Fadai gives other imams lessons in civic duties. He believes it would be un-Islamic not to obey the laws of the country you live in.

But he also has an insight into what goes on in many mosques, and who is saying what. And German laws are not always the measure of things, he says: "Insiders say that there's a parallel justice system pertaining to all areas of life." Particularly when marital or family problems are at stake, what imams or self-appointed "judges' have to say often provides the moral compass, he says.

Fadai himself knows of young Muslim women who are divorced and would like to remarry but cannot because they are obeying the law imposed by a local religious figure. He also says that money conflicts -- for example, when a worker without papers has a salary issue with the person who's hired him -- are sometimes solved in backroom situations within the Muslim community to protect all concerned, none of whom wish to put the matter before a Bavarian court. In such instances, a judge is called in.

In other words: "the state doesn't have the monopoly on justice," says Imam Fadai.

But that monopoly is precisely what Bavaria's Minister of Justice, Beate Merk, wishes to ensure: no, sharia courts should not be tolerated. "A parallel justice system that circumvents our system is not acceptable," she says.

Merk asked state prosecutors, lawyers, integration officials, and others familiar with immigrant communities for their input, and was alarmed by the feedback: judges and imams promulgating their own laws are very common, but it's also very hard to prove.

However, whenever cases of "parallel justice" have come to light, they were shown to be in serious violation of prevailing legislation. The Justice Ministry received reports of court cases in which judges exercised behind-the-scenes influence on both parties so that both the defendant and the accused -- who had already given accounts of events to police – suddenly refused to talk in court, or gave false testimony.

These "mediations' worked out by judges require the parties to stay silent or lie so that charges against the accused are dismissed and the victim is paid compensation money. There's something in it for the imams, too: donations are more than welcome. "For many imams, often without much other education, these deals constitute a significant portion of their income," says Bavarian integration commissioner Martin Neumeyer.

Shadow justice

The most common cases that come up are civil: family issues but mainly marital problems. And here the danger is particularly acute for women, whose interests may well not be fairly represented as when a judge bases himself on traditional Islamic law or espouses patriarchal interpretations of the law or morality.

"The arbitrators are men, and their decisions are always in favor of the men," says Joachim Wagner, author of a German-language book Richter ohne Gesetz (Lawless Judges) that portrays Islamic parallel justice as a threat to the state.

The actual level of activity of imams and judges in Bavaria is unclear; the Ministry of Justice has no reliable figures. Achieving any sort of clarity is also difficult because those involved are careful to act in secret. Nevertheless anonymous information points to enough activity to warrant investigation.

Munich's district attorney Christoph Strötz is also certain that "shadow justice" is at work in various ways: "but whatever form it takes, there should be zero tolerance," he says.

He has told his prosecutors to pay close attention when a witness suddenly refuses to talk or a complaint is withdrawn. He also stresses the importance of getting witness testimony heard quickly in the presence of an investigating judge, and securing material evidence.

Justice Minister Merk says that no changes to existing laws are necessary to deal with the problem. The awareness program she has launched aims "to create a climate of trust and to talk with, not about, all those concerned," she said.

In 2011, a "Parallel Justice Round Table" was created with both state and Munich city representatives of the law, education authorities, Islam specialist Mathias Rohe of Erlangen University, and Bavaria's integration commissioner Martin Neumeyer.

A working group was created to promote confidence in the German legal system among Islamic communities. Another group was created to work on sensitizing and educating judges and state prosecutors. "Immigrants often have the feeling the state doesn't understand them, oppresses rather than helps them," says Rohe, an Islam expert who acts as a consultant on the issue for the Ministry of Justice.

Merk stresses that the issue of parallel justice is not a religious or Islam-specific issue, but an integration issue. And while measures being undertaken focus on the Muslim community, there is no suspicion of any targeted activity against the law – the problem of imams handing down the law can be ascribed to lack of knowledge and information.

She also cited the positive case of an imam in Munich who talked a young man out of killing his wife because she wore western clothing in order to allegedly seduce other men. The imam told the young man that in Germany he had the option of divorce – which would save a life, and prevent him from going to jail. The man followed the imam's advice.

"That's an example of just how easy it can be to persuade immigrants of the advantages of following the law," said Merk.

Read the article in German in Die Welt.

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