Systems of parallel justice threaten the rule of German law, say Christian Democrat politicians. At a conference in Berlin, they came together to talk with experts about how widespread Islamic arbitration is.
When conflicts emerge between Muslims in Germany, they may turn to Islamic Sharia courts rather than state authorities. These informal tribunals can get involved when families disagree about, for example, an inheritance or other financial affairs. But the self-appointed arbitrators have also been known to get involved in issues normally dealt with by the police and prosecutors, like assault, threats or theft.
When German authorities uncover evidence of such crimes, they are often met with a wall of silence by those preferring the system of parallel justice. People refuse to give statements, and due to a lack of evidence, no sentence can be reached. Perpetrators go unpunished by the legal system.
Judges without law
Germany's center-right CDU/CSU parliamentary fraction addressed the issue at a conference in Berlin on Monday. German journalist and lawyer Joachim Wagner, who took on the topic of parallel justice in his 2011 book, titled Richter ohne Gesetz (Judges Without Law), was one of the speakers.
His research concentrated on Berlin, Essen and Bremen, where the majority of Germany's population of Lebanese Kurds live, many of whom hold to traditional social structures. Authorities have identified what they believe are around 20 to 30 highly criminal families that rely on Islamic tribunals. Wagner said that when crimes are committed within the community, families may try to place the blame on the person likely to receive the mildest punishment - generally the youngest member of the clan.
Wagner also said that the Islamic tradition of arbitration dates back to when there was no state, no justice department and no police force. The clans had to regulate everything among themselves. "This parallel justice that I describe … which is not just an Islamic phenomenon but common to other clan structures, consists of three pillars: the arbitration, financial compensation and vigilante retribution," he said.
Wagner also notes a second important dimension of the Sharia courts: namely, that they reflect the power relationships operative among families and clans. Those with more power can dictate the outcome of the tribunals to less powerful groups.
Vigilante retribution may involve blood justice, kidnappings or forced marriages brought about by violence.
Wagner said the tribal and clan structure is still very much alive among several ethnic groups. "In certain areas such as Kreuzberg and Wedding [in Berlin] or Essen, migrants no longer accept our system of justice."
The CDU responds
Krings stressed the state's monopoly on using physical force
Günter Krings, deputy chair of the CDU/CSU fraction in the German parliament, urged action.
"We demand of all citizens in Germany, regardless of which religion they adhere to, that they follow the law and accept the state's monopoly on the use of force - that's especially true in criminal matters," Krings said, adding that parallel structures that cancel out German criminal justice cannot be accepted.
It is unsatisfactory that the federal government has yet to produce empirical results as to how widespread Islamic tribunals are in the country, said Andrea Vosshoff of the CDU/CSU's task force on legal issues.
The Bavarian justice department is one step ahead of Vosshoff's demand and has begun extensive research on parallel justice since the publication of Wagner's book, according to the state's attorney general, Beate Merk.
"A shadow form of justice that threatens victims of violence and puts them under pressure must be stopped," Merk said.
However, Merk differentiates between forms of independent mediation promoted by Bavarian authorities for years as a means of resolving conflicts without the aid of the courts. Mediators who work within the German legal framework, in a public fashion and under the eyes of judicial authorities remain welcome.
Parallel justice systems as Merk understands them involve arbitration that is not carried out in a mutual and fair way, and women, in particular, may suffer from inadequate recognition of their rights.
"We cannot accept decisions that do not orient themselves around the equality of men and women and on the well-being of children," Merk said.
Authorities may be addressing a problem that is limited in scope, though. The Bavarian research group composed of a wide-ranging array of experts and tasked with investigating parallel justice systems has not yet found evidence that Islamic tribunals are a mass phenomenon, the attorney general said.
Legal expert Peter Scholz says that the phenomenon of settling conflicts without the help of the state is primarily based on traditional clan structures of the Middle East - a point on which Bavarian Justice Minister Beate Merk agrees. Parallel structures tend to spring up in immigrant communities that are poorly integrated into mainstream culture, she says. But religious value systems can exacerbate the problem.
Merk believes programs that build trust in official legal institutions are the key to combating parallel justice structures. "We have to inform people about the strengths of our legal system and build trust in our laws. It has to be clear where the bounds are between permissible mediation bodies and punishable behavior," she said.
Michael Frieser, a delegate on integration in the CDU/CSU fraction, has proposed that Islamic arbitrators should be able to register themselves for an official certification.
"Then they can become active in those areas in which the legal framework sees fit. That can be seen as an invitation to integrate more thoroughly into society," Frieser explained.
Women especially affected
Turkish-born German lawyer and publicist Seyran Ates knows from long first-hand experience what parallel arbitration means for women. Islamic arbitrators are often called upon precisely because German courts provide too much room for women's rights in the view of conservative Muslims, she said.
"The question is what kind of effects these practices outside of official courts will have on gender relations, and it is especially women and girls who are going to feel the impact," Ates said.
The CDU/CSU rapporteur to the parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee, Patrick Sensburg, said: "We need to make it clear: State authority - including the monopolies on force and punishment - lies with the state, and not with people who proclaim themselves to be authorities."
Sensburg's party colleagues want to keep the issue of parallel justice in view by allocating part of the federal justice department's budget to monitor private arbitration - a move that has been approved.
But the opposition warns against sowing panic. Aydan Özoguz, deputy chair of the SPD and daughter of Turkish immigrants, has said the debate about parallel justice has grown too emotional.
Author: Sabine Ripperger / gsw
Editor: Simon Bone