Friday, 8 February 2008

The archbishop and sharia law

The big news in the UK today, splashed across the front pages of the morning rags, is yesterday’s observation by the leader of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, who said that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Sharia Muslim law would be incorporated into British legislation.

Almost instantly the comments have been greeted with shock and condemnation from nearly every corner of British society. Christian groups, secular groups, the head of the equality watchdog, several high-profile Muslims and MPs from all parties have all strongly condemned the statement. A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this morning, “sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.”

The essential question is whether Muslims living in Britain should have a different set of laws that apply to them that are in accordance with Sharia law. The issue is especially pertinent in divorce proceedings, which under Sharia law are extremely strict and not very favorable to women.

But it would appear that basically nobody but Dr. Williams and a handful of fundamentalist Muslims thinks this is anything but utter lunacy. Former Labour home secretary David Blunkett warned that formalising sharia law "would be wrong democratically and philosophically but it would be catastrophic in terms of social cohesion.” Andy Burnham, the current Culture Secretary, agreed on Question Time that Dr Williams was "wrong" to advocate the adoption of elements of sharia law, saying, "This isn't a path down which we should go. The system, the British legal system, should apply to everybody equally. You cannot run two systems of law along side each other. That in my view would be a recipe for chaos, social chaos.”

Williams is no stranger to controversy, in fact he has been one of the most outspoken heads of the Anglican Church in memory. He’s had a strange habit of championing the causes of both secular humanists and fundamentalist Muslims – an odd choice for the leader of one of the biggest Christian denominations of 77 million people - managing to offend just about everyone in the process. His insistence in recognizing gay unions and ordaining gay ministers has threatened to tear the church apart as the more conservative African members of the wider Anglican church (aka Episcopalians) have refused to do so. Yet at the same time he has gone out of his way to argue for a more formalized role for the fundamentalist rules of Islam in Britain. Three months ago he gave an interview to Muslim magazine Emel in which he compared Muslims in Britain to the Good Samaritans, and praised the Muslim ritual of praying five times a day, but attacked “Christian Zionists.”

The problem may be that Williams comes from academia and is an intellectual, and his ethereal, pontificatory statements have been confusing for Anglicans/Episcopalians around the world. All of Europe is currently grappling with the issue of how to assimilate the large and growing Muslim population in their midst, and it tends to be the most incendiary issue of the day. The right-leaning tabloids in the UK were practically falling all over themselves to heap as much scorn as possible on the archbishop today. “Victory for Terrorism!” declared The Sun, for instance. It seems the Archbishop couldn’t have handed a better gift on a silver platter to the tabloids. And with Tory leader David Cameron recently saying London could eventually be turned into “Londonistan,” his comments are a great gift to the Tories as well.

Of course it should be pointed out that at no point did Williams ever advocate for Shariah law, as the tabloids are reporting, he merely argued that such a development was “inevitable”. But it’s hard to see the logic in even this statement. Indeed, the idea that the UK would apply different laws to different citizens based on their religion is rather absurd. But in an age of heightened sensitivities about Islam’s place in the West, it’s interesting to see how even speculation about this possibility gets everybody so worked up.

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