The archbishop of Canterbury has called for a limited application of Islamic law in Britain – winning immediate praise from British Muslims.
The unusual proposal from Britain’s highest ranking Christian leader would, if adopted, allow British Muslims to choose to resolve marital and financial disputes under Sharia, or Islamic law, rather than through British courts.
Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a radio interview with BBC radio that incorporating Islamic law could help improve Britain’s flagging social cohesion.
Williams said making such a move seemed “unavoidable”.
“Certain provisions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system,” said Williams, who gave a speech on the topic tonight.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman immediately rejected Williams’ proposal.
“The prime minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values,” spokesman Michael Ellam said.
The idea was also rejected by Sayeed Warsi, the shadow minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action. She said all British citizens had to be subject to the same laws developed by Parliament.
Williams said he was not advocating that Britain allow some of the more extreme aspects of Sharia, which has been associated with harsh punishments meted out by Islamic courts in Saudi Arabia and some other countries and also has been used to undermine the rights of women.
“Nobody in their right mind” would want to see that, he said, calling for “a clear eye” when discussing Islamic law.
Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation, said the use of Sharia would help lower tensions in British society.
“It would make Muslims more proud of being British,” he said. “It would give Muslims the sense that the British respect our faith.”
Shafiq said it was important that non-Muslims in Britain understand that Williams is not suggesting Sharia be adopted for resolving criminal charges, but only civil disputes.
This sort of conflict resolution is common in Muslim countries and is also used in some parts of Canada, he said.
Both Shafiq and Williams noted that Britain already allows Orthodox Jews to resolve disputes under traditional Jewish law.
Rodney Barker, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, said Williams’ decision to address such a controversial issue was not surprising.
“He’s not a cautious, conservative priest,” Barker said. “He recognises we live in a society where there is not one dominant religion. He doesn’t say, ‘I have the truth and the rest of you are wicked and deluded.”‘
But there are dangers involved in letting one community apply one type of justice while another uses a different system, said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, who has written extensively about militant Islam.
“It’s a minefield,” he said. “Where do you stop? Where do you set the limit? Britain is a nation of laws, once you say to a community that they can apply their own laws, you are establishing a dangerous precedent.”
He said the image of Sharia in the West has been badly distorted by the way it has been used by militants as justification for their goal of removing secular governments and establishing Islamic governments.
“Unfortunately in the last 10 years the dominant narrative has been one of militancy,” he said. “But I don’t think you’ll find a single Muslim, except for secular ones, who does not believe that the Sharia is sacred and that it encompasses all aspects of life.”
He said it would be impossible to apply all aspects of Sharia in a country like Britain.
“It is extremely complex,” Gerges said. “There is great disagreement among Muslim scholars about these laws that have come down in the last 1,400 years. But from a Muslim point of view, the application of some Sharia law is very desirable.”