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.

Chris Radburn/AP
Archbishop: Says he is not talking about a parallel system of sharia law in Britain.
Toby Melville/Reuters/File
Side by Side: The Masjid-e-Umer mosque rises above rooftops in east London. The Archbishop of Canterbury was vilified for saying Islamic law could have a place in Britain, but Islamic courts have operated to some degree for decades.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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