In the Name of Allah: Islamic Mediators and Germany’s ‘Two Legal Systems’
June 22, 2012
Demir furniture store in the western German city of Recklinghausen is the go-to place for people in need of either inexpensive furniture or, for some Muslims, advice on how to handle a disobedient daughter.
In his 400-square-meter (4,300-square-foot) warehouse-like shop, Haj Nur Demir, a 61-year-old Lebanese man, sells items like used desks, washing machines and armchairs from estate sales. The furniture dealer is tall, slim, gray-haired and sports a mustache. He also exudes authority. It’s a good trait to have in his second profession.
Demir estimates that he has settled more than 2,000 conflicts in Muslim families in Germany and Lebanon since 1972. Sometimes Demir merely provides information on the phone, and at other times he practically has to throw himself between the parties to prevent them from coming to blows.
Demir’s typical clients are husbands whose wives have left them and fathers of couples who are having problems. They often complain about their wives and daughters, namely Muslim women who rebel against corporal punishment or want to free themselves from the confines of marriage, even if they have children.
First, Demir speaks with the fathers, and then with the couples. The ultimate goal, says Demir, is to keep the family together. He says that he tells the men they have to treat their wives better and to not use violence, and he explains to the women that as divorcees with children they will not be able to find a new husband in their community. At the end of Demir’s missions, the wife usually returns to her husband.
He has authority, but Demir has no legal training whatsoever. Men like him have established a parallel family justice system in Germany in recent years. Imams, arbitrators and so-called justices of the peace become active before German courts are even involved. They perform marriages and divorces, and they propose rules for child custody. They also try to convince women and girls who rebel against their families to return or stay.
An Imported Tradition
Immigrants from Turkey and Arab nations imported arbitration to Germany. It is based on a thousand-year-old Islamic legal tradition rooted in customs and the Koran. In cases of marital strife, for example, the Koran calls for “an arbitrator from his family and an arbitrator from her family.”
The Yazidi, Roma and Albanians have similar arbitration traditions. Sometimes there are months-long peace talks before the arbitrator makes a decision, which then has the effect of a court ruling. For example, a daughter who has fled to a woman’s shelter returns to her parents and is permitted to begin vocational training programs, while a pregnant daughter is required to marry and move in with her boyfriend’s family.
All of this is going largely unnoticed by the general public. Last week, German police made headlines when they conducted an operation against radical Islamists. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), said: “Salafists pursue the goal of overcoming the democratic constitutional state in favor of an order that, according to their standards, is ‘ordained by God.’” The Salafists want a theocracy in which Sharia is the rule of law.
People like arbitrator Demir are not aggressively fighting the constitutional state or the constitution. But is their parallel system of justice compatible with the German constitution? The Muslim shadow judges are mainly protecting the patriarchal structures of a culture whose proponents are not truly interested in becoming integrated in Germany. Most arbitrators tolerate restrictions of the basic rights of women, and they urge women to accept these constraints.
‘Two Legal Systems’
Arnold Mengelkoch, the official in charge of immigrant affairs in Berlin’s Neukölln district, is familiar with the “informal Islamic family justice system” in his neighborhood. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Muslims in the religiously conservative community use the system to resolve their conflicts.
“There are two legal systems,” says Sabine Scholz, a family law attorney in the northern city of Flensburg, “a German one and an Islamic one, which puts women at a disadvantage.”
For some Muslim immigrants, Islamic law is more important than German law. Mathias Rohe, an Islamic law expert in the Bavarian city of Erlangen, encountered cases in his field studies “in which Muslim parties performed marriages or divorces, for example, exclusively in accordance with traditional Islamic norms.”
Some Muslims mistrust government organizations, says Rohe, who sees himself as an intermediary between Islamic and German legal cultures. According to Rohe, some people are trying “to establish a religious parallel structure, because they do not want to submit to the institutions of a secular, non-Islamic state.”
As a result, imams and arbitrators in Berlin, the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein apply Sharia law on a daily basis, even though it is sometimes incompatible with the German constitution and German family law. In particular, Islamic law discriminates against women in the following ways…