Behind the UK's underage Muslim marriage epidemic

Published October 7th, 2013 - 09:31 GMT
An undercover UK investigation revealed that Imams at some of Britain's biggest mosques were willing to marry off girls as young as 14. (Shutterstock)
An undercover UK investigation revealed that Imams at some of Britain's biggest mosques were willing to marry off girls as young as 14. (Shutterstock)

With recent stories coming to light about the terrible plight about child brides across the Middle East, one would be forgiven for thinking that Muslim clerics may think twice before attempting to wed off young girls.

A British investigation has shone a light onto the 'match-making skills' of dozens of Muslim clerics who were caught on camera agreeing to marry of girls as young as 14.

Four of the imams caught on ITV's Exposure programme are now under investigation from the police after they offered to arrange the illegal ceremonies, the UK's Daily Mail reported Monday.

Posing as the mother and brother of a 14-year-old girl who was ready to be married off, two undercover reporters visited some 56 mosques across Britain asking clerics if they could perform an Islamic marriage ceremony, known as a nikah.

During the course of the filming, Imams at 18 of the mosques agreed to perform the ceremony, despite the fictional girl barely having reached puberty.

One of the Imams who agreed to the nikah ceremony was willing to perform the rituals despite being told that the 'bride' was being forced to move in with a man against her wishes, the Daily Mail reported.

When told the girl did not want to get married, Mohammed Shahid Akhtar, of the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, replied: “She’s 14. By sharia, grace of God, she’s legal to get married.

“Obviously Islam has made it easy for us. There is nothing against that. We’re doing it because it’s OK through Islam,” according to the Daily Mail.

Akhtar then referred to his preference for sharia law [Islamic law] over English laws.

‘You’ve got the kaffirs [non-believers], the law, the English people that ... you know, you can’t get married twice but, by the grace of god, we can get married four times,’ he said, according to the Daily Mail.

The Exposure programme shines a light on how common underage marriages are in Britain – campaigners allege that every year, thousands of young British girls are forced into the illegal ceremonies. The wedding ceremonies are not recognised by UK law, reports the Daily Mail.

In Britain, marriages are only able to be officially registered if both parties are over the age of 16, also the age of sexual consent. 

Under sharia, a girl is able to get married as soon as she hits puberty.

The Birmingham mosque at which Akhtar practices is one of the UK's largest and has a capacity of 6,000, the Daily Mail reported, adding that the Imam has been suspended following the investigation. The mosque adamantly denies that any underage marriages have been performed there. 

Another cleric, Shams Ul Huda Khan Misbahi, who works near Leeds, promised the reporters that the marriage of the 14-year-old would be “real”. The Exposure programme saw the cleric give his approval over the girl moving in with her future husband, despite being told that she had only met him once.

According to the Daily Mail, Misbahi has previously spoken out publicly against force marriage and has acted in an advisory role with the West Yorkshire police on community outreach. He admitted on camera that he would be unable to attain a lawful UK wedding certificate but stressed that “We’ll make everything OK by Islam. We’ll write their names down and put it in our records”.

The mosque at which Misbahi preaches at said it had launched a 'thorough invesigation' into his comments, according to the report.

The Muslim Council of Britain’s Ibrahim Mogra said: “UK law does not allow the marriage of underage girls and that’s all that matters to us here. In this country, it is illegal, it is forbidden and no imam should be allowed to conduct the marriage of an underage child,” the report added.

The Karma Nirvana charity, which supports forced marriage victims, says it has worked with girls as young as eight and that it receives over 600 calls every month.

Founder Jasvinder Sanghera told the Sunday Times that the issue had become “wrapped up in this moral blindness of cultural sensitivity,” according to the report.

Since 2008, courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been able to issue civil orders to prevent forced marriage. Breaches can result in a two-year prison sentence for contempt of court.

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