In the Name of Allah Islamic Mediators and Germany's 'Two Legal Systems'

By Joachim Wagner

Part 2: 'We Missed Something Here'


In 2009, German politicians made it even more difficult for young Muslim women to resist forced marriages. Under an amendment to marital status laws, any Protestant, Catholic or Islamic wedding can now take place before the civil ceremony. As harmless as this seems, it's disastrous for girls who are to be married against their will.

The Islamic wedding can take place without German authorities knowing anything about it. In the families' eyes, the marriage is considered contracted, and there is no turning back for the girl. "We missed something here," admits Dieter Wiefelspütz, a Social Democratic (SPD) lawmaker and legal expert. Terres des Femmes is calling for a rapid return to the old law.

In February, SPD politician Jochen Hartloff, the justice minister of the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate, publicly pondered the possibility of "Islamic arbitrators" applying "Islamic legal concepts" to German civil law.

After a public outcry ensued, Hartloff clarifed his position, saying that he had neither "advocated Sharia law," nor did he believe that "Sharia judges are conceivable." He insisted that he was only talking about "out-of-court dispute resolution influenced by lawmaking shaped by Islam." Hartloff apparently didn't know that this had already been going on in Germany for a long time.

But Hartloff was applauded by the chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. "Extrajudicial conflict resolution should be welcomed," says Aiman Mazyek, "because it relieves the burden on our courts and is often capable of keeping the parties involved in the dispute satisfied in a more lasting way." Family consultant Chaaban from Neukölln also says that his mediation is successful in 80 percent of cases. An imam from Essen estimates his success rate to be 70 percent.

An Increase in Violence

The burden on German courts is indeed reduced, but at what cost? Many women have to soft-pedal when imams become involved, and the violence often escalates after that. Arbitration could be the first step on the road to self-administered justice, and to the attitude that Muslims can handle their own problems.

In isolated cases, family conflicts can intensify and end in an extreme form of self-administered justice, the so-called honor killing. According to a study by the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation, there are seven to 10 such cases a year in Germany, although experts suspect that the number is much higher.

The not-so-spectacular cases are much more common. In Berlin, a Kurdish woman recently went to an attorney to file for a divorce. She said that her husband had beaten her repeatedly. After a few weeks, the husband called and asked for the bill, saying that at a family conference in Turkey it was decided that the couple should try to patch things up first. The wife contacted the attorney again after two weeks, this time with a broken nose.

Many experts have a low opinion of arbitrators, especially when it comes to forced marriage. "Any form of mediation with the families of the victims" is "extremely dangerous," states a brochure issued by the Hamburg Senate and titled: "Actively Against Forced Marriage." Actual practice shows that "mediation exposes the victims to a high level of risk and, in extreme cases, can lead to violence and murder in the name of honor."

Gathering Information

In talks about establishing aid for Muslim women at the EU level, the British government has said that it will not agree to a recommendation "that in any way advocates mediation as a means to resolve forced-marriage cases."

German legal policy experts are still examining the issue. The Bavarian justice ministry has established a parallel justice task force to gather information. The Berlin parliament had experts testify to determine whether the phenomenon needed to be investigated any further.

Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), warns of a parallel judicial system, and her ministry is in the process of establishing a position on Sharia law. The lawyers and ministry officials want to learn more about lay judges like furniture dealer Demir from Recklinghausen.

Sometimes Demir takes great pains to push a young woman into a life she doesn't want. In one case, a woman fell in love, even though her uncle had already chosen her as a bride for his son, and her father had agreed. Demir traveled back and forth between Höxter, Hildesheim and Recklinghausen 30 times as a mediator. In the end, the girl bowed to the pressure from the three men.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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