Islamic Justice in Europe: 'It's Often a Dictate of Power'

Using Sharia law to settle disputes can be innocent, but it can also undermine Western ideas of fairness. Journalist Joachim Wagner, author of a new book on parallel justice, discusses the influence of Islamic arbitrators on Germany's legal system.

Tension between systems of justice also represents a clash of values, according to Joachim Wagner. Zoom
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Tension between systems of justice also represents a clash of values, according to Joachim Wagner.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Wagner, you spent nine months researching the Islamic shadow justice system. What kind of a world is it?

Wagner: Very foreign, and for a German lawyer, completely incomprehensible at first. It follows its own rules. The Islamic arbitrators aren't interested in evidence when they deliver a judgment, and unlike in German criminal law, the question of who is at fault doesn't play much of a role.

SPIEGEL: What laws do the arbitrators follow?

Wagner: First, they get an idea of the facts. They talk with the perpetrator's family, who are generally the ones to have called the arbitrator, and with the victim's family. They ask: Why did this happen? How bad is the damage? How serious is the injury? But for them, a solution to the conflict, a compromise, is the most important thing. Who's right and wrong, guilt and atonement, these aren't particularly relevant.

SPIEGEL: What's wrong with two parties attempting to resolve a dispute between themselves?

Wagner: Nothing, initially. The problem starts when the arbitrators force the justice system out of the picture, especially in the case of criminal offenses. At that point they undermine the state monopoly on violence. Islamic conflict resolution in particular, as I've experienced it, is often achieved through violence and threats. It's often a dictate of power on the part of the stronger family.

SPIEGEL: How prevalent is the phenomenon?

Wagner: As far as I know, very prevalent. There are no reliable statistics, since these mediations take place almost exclusively in secret. But criminal investigators who specialize in organized crime and violence within Muslim immigrant families have confirmed for me that in nearly every conflict in this milieu, the first attempt is to find a solution outside the German justice system.

SPIEGEL: You write that Islamic arbitration poses a threat to the constitutional legal system. Why?

Wagner: These arbitrators try to resolve conflicts according to Islamic law and to sideline German criminal law. We see witness testimony withdrawn (from German courts) and accusations trivialized to the point where an entire case runs aground. The justice system is "powerless," partly because it hasn't tackled the problem vigorously enough.

SPIEGEL: Some reports from judges and public prosecutors in your book sound like a cry for help.

Wagner: They're overwhelmed, because they don't know how to react. They're in the middle of a legal case, and suddenly there's no evidence. Eighty-seven percent of the cases I researched either were dismissed or ended with an acquittal when Islamic arbitrators were involved.

SPIEGEL: How can we combat this shadow justice system?

Wagner: Prosecutors need to investigate Islamic arbitrators more intensively. If they had done so sooner, the arbitrators would have been convicted of obstruction of justice long ago. And certain lawyers need to stop behaving as if they were mere servants to a parallel justice system. They allow themselves to be directed by their clients' desires, regardless of truth and justice. And finally, my plea would be for judges to hear witnesses earlier, which would reduce the arbitrators' influence.

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