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Archbishop controversy: does sharia have a role in Britain?

The head of the Church of England answers critics of a speech in which he said it might be applicable in certain areas.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2008

Archbishop: Says he is not talking about a parallel system of sharia law in Britain.

Chris Radburn/AP

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British deliberations on how better to assimilate the country's Muslim minority have been unsettled by the head of the Church of England, who said the application of sharia, or Islamic law, in Britain was becoming unavoidable.

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Rowan Williams's remarks have provoked a national outcry and elicited a cool response from the government, which, under Gordon Brown has been trying to reverse the tendency toward Muslim segregation.

But among British Muslims, the reaction has been far more mixed. Some, particularly women, say they don't want any kind of sharia justice in Britain. Others say an informal system of Islamic legal arbitration already functions happily alongside British common law (as do traditional Jewish tribunals).

Many praise the archbishop for thoughtfully trying to reach out across a faith divide that sharpened after the July 7, 2005, attacks, and express sadness at the knee-jerk vilification of him. "We are not calling for sharia and saying we must have it," says Raza Nadim of the mainstream Muslim Public Affairs Committee. "We welcome the debate, but it's sad that someone who is trying to help Muslims and non-Muslims integrate is being painted as the extremist."

Yunes Tainaz, a former adviser to the London central mosque, said he congratulated Dr. Williams "for his sincere and brave stand" and insisted that sharia could help social cohesion and obviate cultural anomalies like forced marriage.

"It would resist the problem of forced marriage, because Islam requires the consent of both parties," he says. Sharia, he says, provides people with a means to "work out their own way to settle a dispute in front of an agreed third party, as long as both sides agree to the process."

Williams was under pressure Monday to clarify his Feb. 7 remarks, in which he argued that certain aspects of sharia law appeared "unavoidable" in Britain. Almost 2 million of Britain's 60 million population are Muslim, and a 40-year policy of multiculturalism has enabled them to preserve and pursue traditions largely unfettered by the secular state.

"Certain provisions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system," Williams said.

In comments Monday to the General Synod of the Church of England, Williams noted that some of what had been attributed to him differed from what he actually said last week, but apologized for any "unclarity."

"We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions, and I tried to make clear that there could be no blank checks in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women," he said.

Much of the British press reported his remarks as a defense of the more extreme manifestations of sharia justice, such as beheadings and amputations. Prime Minister Brown's spokesman said Monday that religious law "should be subservient to British criminal and civil law."