Or has he simply failed to choose his words carefully? The ABC reports:
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams says the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia (Islamic) law in the UK seems unavoidable.Dr Williams says Britain has to face up to the fact that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.
He argues Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.
Dr Williams says Muslims should not have to choose between cultural loyalty or state loyalty.
“An approach to law which simply said there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger,” he said.
“There’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do.”
There has been considerable reaction to the Archbishop’s comments, as you can well imagine. The National Secular Society argues (rightly, in my view) that the Archbishop’s remarks undermine the notion of equality under the law that is crucial to a plural society. On the other hand, a spokesperson for the Christian Voice insists that “[Britain] is a Christian country with Christian laws [. . .] Christian law has been eroded by secularism and this country was founded on Christian values.” In other words, Christian Voice wants its own version of sharia law imposed on British citizens.
But The Scotsman points out that something very akin to the Archbishop’s proposal already exists in Britain:
It is already the case that voluntary civil arbitration in the UK can be handled by religious courts. Many British Jews use their own “courts” – the Beth Din – to resolve matters covering issues from business disputes to divorce settlements. But the service provided by the Beth Din is restricted to binding civil arbitration and they do not replace UK laws. The same holds true for Sharia courts in the Muslim community in Britain.
Perhaps at a loss to account for the intuitive lunacy of the Archbishop’s proposal if taken at face value, The Scotsman suggests that he
might have been thinking about extending and codifying this useful and acceptable voluntary approach. However, as this option is already available to Muslim and other communities, it is difficult to see it as the major change implied in Dr Williams’s choice of language.
Archbishop Williams’ suggestion itself comes from an interview with the BBC. There he maintains that sharia is “a method rather than a code of law,” and where its implementation has led to practices such as stoning, he insists that “that’s one particular expression of it which is historically conditioned, not at all what people would want to see as part of the method of trying to make actual the will of God in certain circumstances.” The Archbishop also emphasises that the use of sharia law should be voluntary (that is, that individuals who opt to settle decisions in sharia courts still enjoy “the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general”), though he admits he does not know enough about sharia law to say how this would work.
His words on this matter, he seems to be saying, need to be read in the context of a wider debate about how secular law accommodates “the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities”–he cites as cases in point Christian objections to abortion and stem-cell research, and the Catholic Church’s demand for special exemption from gay rights laws. For Williams:
that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that
That’s simply contradictory: either one accepts as a principle of liberal democracy (“Western” don’t enter into it, mate) that people should be treated equally under the law, or one doesn’t. Furthermore, whether equal treatment under the law is “an important part of our social identity” is surely irrelevant; what matters is whether it is a good idea.
What do you think about Archbishop Williams’ suggestion? And how compatible is the notion of “religious courts,” or, for that matter, special exemptions from the law on religious grounds, with secular liberal democracy?
UPDATE: Hey, if Christian sharia law works in the US, why can’t Islamic sharia law work in the UK?