Anglican Church leader Rowan Williams sparked open confrontation with the Labour government Thursday by suggesting that the introduction of some aspects of Islamic (sharia) law was “unavoidable” in Britain to promote social cohesion.
Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is also the head of the worldwide Anglican Church with more than 70 million members, said in a BBC interview that there needed to be a debate on whether the existing legal system could fulfil the demands of a “multi-faiths society.”
Responding swiftly to the call, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that while the application of sharia could be considered on a case-by-case basis, it was unacceptable that Islamic law should be used “as a justification for committing breaches of English law.”
“The Prime Minister believes that British law should apply in this country, based on British values,” said Brown’s spokesman.
However, Williams, known in Britain as the “thinking archbishop,” said an approach which simply said there was one law for everybody was “a bit of a danger.”
Britain, which has 1,7 million Muslim citizens, had to “face up to the fact” that some of them did not relate to the British legal system, said Williams. That meant that Muslims should not be forced to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty” (but why not?).
The comments – which Williams admitted were likely to “surprise” people – drew strong criticism from pro-Christian groups while they were welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Williams proposed that Muslims should be able to choose whether to have issues like marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in sharia-compliant proceedings or the existing legal system.
He said people needed to look at Islamic law “with a clear eye” to gain a better understanding of how and under when it could be applied in Britain, where the issue was currently “clouded by sensational reporting.”
However, the archbishop stressed that “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states, the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women.”
Williams, keen to prevent a “further fracturing of community relations,” was advocating for sharia to be “formalized” into the existing legal system, without it being compulsory or binding on English law, his aides explained. He had been “thinking carefully about inter-faiths relations.”
Williams suggested that there were ways of looking differently at marital disputes, for example, which provided an alternative to the divorce courts “as we understand them.” A spokesman for the MCB said many British Muslims already used sharia in aspects of their day-to-day lives, such as banking and marriage, and the same principle of separate laws could “easily be accepted for other faiths groups.”
He said introducing sharia for marriages would combat the problem of forced marriage because Islam required the consent of both parties.
The National Secular Society, representing the Christian view, said Williams’ call was another example of Britain “sleepwalking to segregation.”
“Our view is simple. You can’t have a country where you have separate laws for separate faith groups,” it said. “The same religious groups who are calling for integration are the same one who want segregation.”
As Glenn Reynolds wrote today, Rowan Williams
“…need have no fear for his personal safety after saying that Sharia is inevitable in England, while had he said bad things about Sharia the reverse would have been true.”
On this topic, see also one “Jimmy Bradshaw” (nickname of a popular Social Democrat) on Pajamas Media:
“On one level, the infamously woolly Archbishop’s ludicrous intervention is part of the final death throes of a failed liberal multiculturalism which has stressed difference over commonality and exceptionalism over universalism. On another, it is a continuation of the British state’s accommodation with religious privilege, a policy that gives the Archbishop, as head of the established church, his “import” and political significance along with his Bishops with their automatic places in the unelected second chamber – the House of Lords.”
“The vagueness of Williams’ argument fuels my suspicion that he quite likes the idea of Muslims and Jews having their own courts so that Christians can create their own exemptions.”
What to do then, at least in UK?
We should see a move towards the full separation of church and state in the UK, the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of the Bishops (including the foolish Archbishop) from the political process. A strong and even-handed secular state is the best defense against the re-emergence of clerical politics.”