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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.

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Christian leaders generally expressed regret at the remarks. One member of the General Synod, Alison Ruoff, told the BBC Monday: "There are Christians overseas in Islamic countries who cannot believe that their archbishop … has said such a thing when they are suffering from massive persecution in Islamic countries."

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Yet in some ways, Williams was merely stating the facts. Sharia courts have helped resolve divorce cases for Muslims in Britain for 25 years. A council in Leyton, east London, says it has already arbitrated in some 7,000 divorce cases, as well as in contractual, inheritance, and other disputes. The government has also adapted financial laws to make sharia-compliant Islamic banking possible.

Baroness Haleh Afshar, a peer in House of Lords and an expert in Islamic law, says there is no possibility that sharia could override British common law. She likens the system to an arbitration process that complements the law of the land. Rulings, she says, are generally binding "where they do not contravene civil law."

"The fact is that for all religious decisions, they cannot go against the civil code and civil rights, and if either party is unhappy, then they can go to a civil court," she says. "The reality is that no sharia court can allow a man to be polygamous in this country. Even if the view of the court is that men can have four wives, it cannot enforce it."

But many Muslim women shudder at the idea of turning to Islamic scholars for rulings on their private affairs. Attempts to introduce sharia-based law to settle family disputes in Canada provoked protests from women who argued that Islamic law does not view women as equal to men.

"Women have no rights in terms of divorce," says Amra, a Muslim woman who did not want to give her surname. "A man can divorce a woman, but it's much harder for a woman to divorce a man. In terms of domestic violence, it's very hard for women.

"When I worked in a women's refuge [center]," she continues, "there was a woman trying to divorce her husband, so I phoned up the central mosque to get advice, and they basically said she can't."

The problem is that there is no single form of sharia. Muslim law is not written in the Koran, but derived from it, and there are wide variations in the differing interpretations. Cassandra Balchin, a Muslim convert and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women's Network, says the interpretation being proposed in Britain is generally extremely conservative – far more so than in Muslim countries like Morocco or Indonesia.

"They talk about the woman having to ask the man for a divorce, as if women have no autonomous rights," Ms. Balchin says. Compare that with Pakistan, she adds, where the law recognizes divorce rights and where she divorced her first husband with no trouble.

"There would be no contradiction between British law and Muslim law if we take a progressive interpretation of Islamic law," says Balchin. The problem, she adds, is that this is not always the case. "They are so conservative to be dumbfounding."