As for Mrs May, she recently (in her old job as home secretary) raised secularist hackles by the emollient terms in which she announced an 18-month enquiry into the operation of Islamic family law in Britain, led by a distinguished Muslim academic, Mona Siddiqui. The adjudication of divorce and inheritance matters by “sharia councils” does pose a dilemma for many liberal-democratic governments. On one hand, Britain (unlike France) allows people to bequeath their property to anybody they choose, and if they choose to make a will on Islamic principles that is formally speaking a free exercise of this entitlement. On the other, a person who grows up deep inside a traditional Muslim sub-culture may feel under overwhelming pressure to accept the adjudication of family affairs on Islamic lines, so there are questions about how free the choice really is.
For secularists (and for Christians of a more militant hue), Mrs May spoke too mildly when she responded by suggesting that the only problem lay in the abuse of a phenomenon which was in itself neutral or benign. What she said, inter alia, was: “Many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit a great deal from the guidance they offer. [However] a number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern.”
Secularists immediately retorted that some aspects of Islamic family law (for example giving a woman half the inheritance rights of a man, and making it much easier for a man to initiate divorce) are intrinsically discriminatory; the problem lies in the rules, not in their unfair application.
But for someone of Mrs May’s background, there can be no rush to judgment. More than her secularist colleagues, she finds it self-evident that some groups in society can find comfort in “codes and practices” as well as texts, rituals and traditions which seem alien to outsiders.