More than a dozen Muslim clerics at some of the biggest mosques in Britain have been caught on camera agreeing to marry off girls as young as 14.
Undercover reporters filming a documentary about the prevalence of forced and underage marriage in Britain for the television program ITV Exposure secretly recorded 18 Muslim imams agreeing to perform an Islamic marriage, known as a nikah, between a 14-year-old girl and an older man.
Campaigners against forced marriage -- which is not yet a crime in Britain -- say thousands of underage girls -- including some under the age of five -- are being forced to marry against their will in Muslim nikahs every year, and that the examples exposed by the documentary represent just "the tip of the iceberg."
The documentary, entitled "Forced to Marry," was first broadcast on October 9 and involves two reporters posing as the mother and brother of a 14-year-old girl to be married to an older man. The reporters contacted 56 mosques across Britain and asked clerics to perform a nikah. The imams were specifically told that the "bride" did not consent to the marriage to an older man from London.
Although the legal age for marriage in Britain is 16, according to Islamic Sharia law girls can marry once they reach puberty. The imams who agreed to marry the girl openly mocked the legitimacy of British law, reflecting the rise of a parallel Islamic legal system in Britain.
One of the Muslim clerics who agreed to perform the underage marriage is Mohammed Shahid Akhtar, the imam of the Central Jamia Masjid Ghamkol Sharif Mosque in Birmingham, the second-largest mosque in Britain with a capacity of more than 5,000 worshippers.
On being informed that the girl did not want to get married, Akhtar 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 okay through Islam."
The documentary also shows Akhtar expressing his contempt for British marriage 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."
Another cleric who agreed to marry the 14 year old girl is Mufti Shams al-Huda al-Misbahi, who preaches at the Jamia Masjid Kanzul Iman Mosque in Heckmondwike, a town near Leeds in north-central England.
When the undercover reporter, posing as the brother of the girl to be married, says, "She's not willing now, but she will be," Misbahi responds: "If you make her willing, she will be willing." He is then filmed saying that he would perform the marriage without providing an official marriage certificate valid under British law. "We'll make everything okay by Islam. We'll write down and put it in our records." Misbahi goes on to tell the undercover reporters that the girl will be able to live with her new husband after the ceremony.
Misbahi is a senior Muslim cleric who has worked with the West Yorkshire Police as an advisor on community cohesion, a British concept that refers to the integration of Muslim immigrants within a multicultural society. Before being caught on camera advocating forced marriage, Misbahi had publicly condemned the practice for many years.
Another imam at the Al Quba Mosque and Shahporan Islamic Center in Manchester was filmed saying: "I can get you someone to do the nikah for you, that's not going to be a problem."
The documentary includes an interview with Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northwest England. "Forced marriage is probably the last form of slavery in the UK," he says.
In an interview with the Yorkshire Post, Aneeta Prem, founder of the Freedom Charity which educates children about forced marriage, said: "I think whoever is involved in this, you are talking about child abuse and exploitation and it is something we need to stop. People are too culturally sensitive when dealing with this, they are worried about offending particular groups. We have to say it's immoral and illegal and stamp it out. I think what we are hearing about is the tip of the iceberg, it is a huge problem."
At least 250 children are known to have been subjected to forced marriage in Britain in 2012, including a two-year-old girl who is believed to be the country's youngest victim of the practice.
The statistics were provided by the British government's Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) as part of an ongoing effort to create a law that would criminalize forced marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The custom is already illegal in Scotland.
Overall, the FMU said it gave advice or support related to nearly 1,500 cases of forced marriage during 2012, although experts say the vast majority of forced marriages in Britain go unreported. A study produced by NatCen Social Research, a British think tank, estimates that the real number of forced marriages in Britain probably exceeds 8,000 per year.
Most of the instances of forced marriage in Britain involve Muslim families from South Asia, particularly Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Many of the cases involve Muslim children who are taken abroad by their parents and forced to marry against their will. During the 2013 summer holidays, for example, an average of five girls were believed to have been taken out of Britain every day to be forcibly married abroad. Forced marriages also often involve horrors such as kidnapping, beatings and rape.
Prime Minister David Cameron has compared the practice of forced marriage to modern day slavery and has said people should not "shy away" from addressing the issue because of political correctness. "For too long in this country we have thought, 'Well, it's a cultural practice and we just have to run with it,'" Cameron said. "We don't. It's a crime."
In May 2013, Cameron submitted a bill to Parliament that would make forcing someone to marry a specific criminal offense. The measure is part of the Anti-Social Behavior, Crime and Policing Bill slowly working its way through the House of Commons, the lower house of the British Parliament.
To be sure, not everyone in Britain is in favor of making forced marriage a crime. According to a research document published by the House of Commons Library on September 16, 2013, some campaigners on the issue are worried that victims could be deterred from coming forward because they will not want to risk relatives going to prison. Others argue it may lead to youngsters being taken overseas at an earlier age to be put through forced marriages. Still others question how allegations of forced marriage would be proven to the criminal standard of proof: beyond reasonable doubt.
Another reason why Britain is taking so long to outlaw forced marriage involves multicultural sensitivities. Many promoters of British multiculturalism say the move to criminalize forced marriage will unfairly single out Muslims.
A journal article entitled "A Civil Rather than Criminal Offence? Forced Marriage, Harm and the Politics of Multiculturalism in the UK" argues that the reluctance in Britain to criminalize forced marriage is due, in part, to the influence that multicultural ideals have had on current British approaches to the practice.
The article also attributes the British preference for civil remedies rather than criminal legislation to the tendency of the state to conceptualize the harms of forced marriage principally in terms of a violation of choice, rather than as a matter of long-term violence against women.
The question arises as to whether, by adopting such an approach, the state may be giving rise to a two-tier system of rights, in which minority group women are afforded a lesser protection of their human rights, as a result of their racial or cultural background.
Back in 1999, former Labour Party Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien criticized the lack of action on the problem forced marriages. "Multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness," he said.
Fast-forward to 2013. In an interview with the Sunday Times on October 6, Jasvinder Sanghera, an activist who has been instrumental in the decades-long campaign to criminalize forced marriage in Britain, sums it up this way: The issue has become "wrapped up in this moral blindness of cultural sensitivity."