Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Muslims in N.J. increasingly seeking help from the courts

Associated Press Writer

NEWARK (AP) -- When Amira Attia, a 33-year-old pharmaceuticals worker, and Ashraf Amin, a 35-year-old hospital research assistant, got married in 2002, they pledged their love for each other.

They also pledged that if the marriage went sour, Attia would get a $50,000 delayed dowry under an Islamic law concept called a mahr.

Two and a half years later, the couple split up, and Attia went to court seeking payment of the mahr.

But in a ruling made public late today, a court in Essex County declined to enforce the Islamic dowry. It was the latest case in a growing trend in which American Muslims are turning to the courts to intervene in religious disputes which previously would have been resolved by community elders or spiritual leaders.

"More and more Muslims are living here and are going to use secular courts to address their issues, including religious ones," said Sohail Mohammed, a Clifton lawyer who was not involved in the case. "When I first started my practice 11 years ago, we saw maybe two matrimonial cases a week involving Muslim families; now we see two dozen a week.

"This is probably just the beginning," he said. "There will be a lot more to come."

The latest case differs from a 2002 ruling in Passaic County which upheld the $10,000 mahr as a legally enforceable contract between the husband and wife.

Lawyer Hamdi Rifai, who represented the husband in the Essex County case, said the courts were asked to rule on Islamic law, but correctly applied basic contract law instead.

"The court is saying 'We can't enforce Sharia law because we are a secular nation and we believe in giving people their rights,' " he said.

Attia falsely accused her husband of beating her, and even reported him to the FBI as a terrorist, Rifai said. Her lawyer, Nirmalan Nagulendran, declined to comment on the case.

Amin was not available to comment today but is scheduled to speak at a press conference Thursday involving the ruling, Rifai said.

The judge granted the couple a divorce and laid out a conventional settlement including division of Attia's 401k account, a requirement that Amin pay $81 a week in child support, and setting custody and visitation schedules regarding their 2-year-old son.

Yaser El-Menshawy, chairman of the Majlis Ash-Shura of New Jersey, the state's council of mosques, said the significance lies not so much in the details of each case, but in the growing willingness of Muslims to involve secular courts in religious matters.

"This might become a two-edged sword," he said, adding that by granting power to secular courts over marriage agreements, the courts could then rule on other religious matters as well in which Muslims do not want guidance.

Published: June 21. 2006 6:05PM

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