Caroline is a member of the class of 2013 in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and is pursuing the certificate in Religion, Ethics, and World Affairs. Originally from Southington, Connecticut, she participated in the Junior Year Abroad Network from London, England during the spring of 2012 and works as a research assistant for Professor Banchoff.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, the number of Muslims living in the United Kingdom is slated to nearly double in the next twenty years, rising from an estimated 4.6% of the population today to approximately 8.2% in 2030. This increased presence of the religious “other” in a society where citizens increasingly indentify as atheist or agnostic has been an important focus of the marked tension between religion and secularism in British society.
Recently, one of my professors invited British solicitor Aina Khan to come speak about a particular manifestation of this tension – the existence of shari’a and Islamic law within the English context. Ms. Khan is a specialist in family law, and she deals primarily with Muslim clients who are seeking to reconcile some of the differences they have encountered between English common law and their own personal religious traditions. Because English common law and shari’a each have their own ways of handling matters of family law, adherence to one and not the other often (unknowingly) leaves many Muslims in a legal gray area.
According to Ms. Khan, in some Muslim communities as many as 80% of Islamic marriages are not legally registered, precluding Muslim couples from their marital rights. In many cases couples simply assume that the imam they have chosen to marry them in a religious ceremony is also registered to do so under English law. Similar issues surface in divorce cases as well. How do you approach the divorce of two people who were never legally married in the first place? What happens if a couple is granted an English divorce but the husband, who in some interpretations of Islamic law is the only party able to grant a divorce, refuses to leave his wife on grounds of shari’a? Despite the numerous complexities, Ms. Khan is very hopeful that English common law and shari’a can coexist, respecting both the secular legal tradition in the United Kingdom and the religious convictions of its new community of Muslim citizens.
In fact, Ms. Khan notes that in her experience it is the generation of Muslim British citizens currently under 40 who are especially keen on finding this middle path between English and Islamic law. “We love all our cultural baggage,” she says, but she also emphasizes that “Islam is a breathing, living faith” that is able to stretch and adapt to fully function under the umbrella of English law. Ms. Khan suggests some solutions for the future, such as the persecution of imams for non-registration. She also advocates for a greater inclusion of female representatives on shari’a councils - bodies that, although they have no power of enforcement, frequently give opinions on matters of Islamic law to individuals navigating the gray areas.
The example of shari’a in the English legal context is but a microcosm of the broader discussion of assimilation, multiculturalism, the separation of church and state, and the compatibility of Islam with democracy and Western politics. The world is getting smaller, and the viewpoints of different cultures are increasingly bound to intersect. The point here, however, is that they are not necessarily bound to clash. With the right amount of creativity and respect, it is very possible that two fundamentally different systems can complement each other to create one coherent whole.
RESPONSE TO CAROLINE PUCKOWSKI FROM JORDAN DENARI - May 25, 2012
Caroline, thank you for succinctly explaining one of the practical implications that result from the increase in Britain’s Muslim population. Many Westerners are unaware about the differences between Islamic law and the legal framework in Western countries, and thus your discussion of this issue is much needed.
From my own studies and research, I have been particularly interested in the way that some Western media organizations and anti-Islam groups in the U.S. have been exploiting the situation in Britain to advance their agendas of Islamophobia. Activists and media personalities often intentionally distort the concept of shari’a, making it—and implicitly, Muslims—appear violent, backward, intolerant, and oppressive. Activists use the situation in Britain then—the increasing numbers of Muslims, and the fact that shari’a courts are in use there—in an attempt to reinforce their argument, co-opting a nuanced issue and turning it into another scare tactic.
Caroline’s post helps American audiences better understand shari’a—for all the talk about it, Americans actually have a poor sense of what the legal framework means. Through the example of marriage law, he shows how shari’a can be practically implemented, and more importantly helps Americans begin to lose their association between shari’a and the list of scary characteristics I previously mentioned.
The discussion Caroline has begun here is one that I hope can continue, through the support of the Berkley Center.
May 31, 2012
I stood on a gravel path between two perfectly straight rows of gravestones, hands shoved into my pockets as I tried to hide from the blustering wind. Despite the unseasonably cold weather, a number of visitors strolled about the cemetery. Flowers and candles adorned the majority of graves, testaments to friends and family who had recently come to pay their respects. I, too, had come to do the same. On this particular afternoon, my aunt, her mother, and my ten-year-old cousin accompanied me, weighed down by shopping bags full of flowers and candles of our own to put on the graves of our family members.
This visit to the northwestern town of Koszalin, Poland, was my first in three years. My mom had grown up on these streets before moving to the US in her early twenties, and almost her entire family still lives here. From the outset of my study abroad experience, I knew that I wanted to take some time off from the London fog in order to see my relatives. My distance from home and my immediate family made it all the more refreshing to see my grandma, aunt and uncle, and all the other people my mom had grown up around. I didn’t get to see my family much, but they welcomed me to Poland as though a literal ocean didn’t exist between us.
My grandma and aunt thought it was especially important that I visit the grave of my grandfather, who had passed away since I last saw him three years ago. When we arrived at the cemetery, I watched as my cousin immediately set about arranging the flowers on our grandfather’s grave that had been blown askew by the unrelenting wind. An upbeat little chatterbox, she enthusiastically explained to me that at least one member of our family came to the graveyard every week to tend to the graves and to pray for the lost. I smiled, appreciative that she was so excited and willing to share this important and touching aspect of her culture. My immediate family certainly hadn’t been to a cemetery for any reason other than a funeral in years.
And then, stronger than the roaring, gusty wind, it hit me – we used to do this.
Watching my cousin arrange flowers on my grandfather’s grave triggered a memory that I didn’t even know I’d kept. My mind flew back to a cold and rainy All Soul’s Day in suburban Connecticut, many years ago. I saw myself dutifully trudging through a cemetery hand in hand with my mother. I heard myself complaining because it was early, because the weather was awful, and because none of my friends had to do strange things like go to Polish mass outside on cold autumn days in creepy graveyards to honor the dead. I remembered my mom telling me that back in Poland on All Soul’s Day, she and the Polish Girl Scouts would go to the cemetery to put flowers on all the graves that didn’t have any. And that’s exactly what we were doing – in the rain, in the middle of suburban Connecticut, I was placing flowers on strangers’ graves at the request of my mother and her deep sense of tradition. I could not have cared less and wanted nothing more than to go home.
We hadn’t done any such thing in years, though, and, standing in front of my grandfather’s grave in Koszalin, I felt like some sort of bridge between my family’s Polish past and American present. I remembered not being able to go to sleepovers with my friends on Friday nights because I had to wake up early on Saturday mornings to go to Polish school. The day I figured out that most other kids only went to school five days a week rather than six stands out as a devastating moment in my young life. A lot had changed since those days, though. After my brother and I graduated from Polish school (eight long years!), my family gradually stopped speaking Polish at home. In that graveyard, I realized a truth that I had in fact been living for many years – my family, whose Polish heritage I was so proud of, had Americanized, had assimilated.
Part of me felt a sense of loss. Over the years, we had let go of traditions and an identity that I didn’t think I really wanted to let go. Standing next to my cousin in that cemetery felt at once foreign and familiar. I stood as both observer and participant in a foreign culture, unable to fully fulfill one role or the other. Was I just a tourist, or was I really one of them? Back in the US, playing the role of “that Polish girl” contributed an important facet to my identity.
There in that cemetery, I’m sure my family saw me as “Marzena’s American daughter.” I had never fully understood what being Polish-American meant to me until that moment. I sought to tread two identities and embrace them both. Maybe I would never totally fit in to either, but I realized that I did find some personal fulfillment in bringing them together. I knew that my grandfather would recognize the Polish in me. He’d laugh at the American, but he’d appreciate it, too. Taking a Polish flower from my cousin with my American hands, I placed it on my grandfather’s grave said a prayer for my family in my Polish-American heart.