Archbishop backs sharia law for British Muslims
The Archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Church of England) sparked controversy last week when he said the introduction of sharia law for British Muslims was “unavoidable”. Rowan Williams told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that Muslims should be able to choose whether to have matters such as marital disputes dealt with under sharia law or the British legal system.
His comments were strongly criticised by the National Secular Society but welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which stressed it did not back the introduction of sharia criminal law.
Source: Extract from David Batty and Fred Attewill, Thursday February 7, 2008, Guardian Unlimited
COMMENT: There has been lots of debate about this in the UK press and the blogosphere. Most of the reaction to the Archbishop has been very negative. Other senior figures in the church have criticized him, and PM Gordon Brown and members of all three major political parties distanced themselves from the remarks.
Some of the reaction to his statements has been rather hysterical from people obviously who did not read his speech in full. The Archbishop calls for Sharia courts and arbitration to resolve civil disputes as an alternative option to the British legal system.
However, I do not believe that there can be any sacrifice of core enlightenment principles in our working liberal democracies: rule of the will of the majority combined with institutions to protect minorities; separation of powers; freedom of speech; meritocracy; the ‘harm principle’ as the governing principle of our criminal code; separation of church and state; equality before the law. (Ironically, the Archbishop’s statement is a good reminder we haven’t fully separated church and state yet in England, as well as a threat to the idea of equality before the law). None of these Enlightenment principles are perfect and they all have their limitations in terms of achieving real social justice. However, no other political system seems to have anything better to offer.
The adoption of Sharia arbitration courts offers a direct threat to equality before the law. Hence many Muslims (especially women and gays) in the UK interviewed about the Archbishop’s proposals expressed their reservations about the possibility of implementing it there. Additionally, there is no unified single standard for Sharia: much like Christian teaching, there are potentially endless interpretations of the Koran and Hadith that make any kind of codification or institutionalization extremely difficult.
The Archbishop said that many Muslims ‘did not relate well to British law’ and that the introduction of Sharia courts could ‘help to build social cohesion’. On the contrary, there is a very real danger that other religious, ethnic or identity-based groups may follow suit and demand their own courts. Without the premise of universality, there would of course be no good reason to stop them. This could lead to arbitration courts for Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Christians. As a gay man who grew up in a deeply conservative Christian community, I was very glad that legislation on civil matters such as marriage, the family and sexuality happened nationally according to Enlightenment principles rather than locally according to Judeo-Christian teachings. Neither the decriminalization of homosexual sex, nor the more recent approval of civil partnerships could have happened had legislative power been in the power of local religious authorities.
The Archbishop said that he wanted to open up the issue for debate. If nothing else, he seems has done that. Far from showing that Enlightenment principles are obsolete, his alarming statement is a wake-up call that they are more relevant than ever in a multicultural, twenty-first century society. He has also reminded us of how redundant his own privileged position has become in that same society.