UNITED KINGDOM: Archbishop of Canterbury's Sharia comments stir furious response

February 8, 2008

A suggestion by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that certain aspects of Islamic Sharia law be incorporated into the British legal system has triggered a political fury and a heated debate on religious tolerance.

Williams, who is leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, made his comments first on the BBC radio program The World at One on February 7 and then expanded on them later in the day during a lecture at the Temple Festival Series in London. His suggestion was that a small portion of Sharia, which itself is a portion of Islamic law based on text in the Qu'ran but which is not codified, could be incorporated into British law.

While the British press on February 8 highlighted on front pages some interpretations of Sharia that have resulted in amputations and floggings for theft and adultery, most Muslim leaders in Britain maintained a low profile.

Williams called for a "constructive accommodation" with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes, while stressing, "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."

Ibrahim Mogra, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain seemed to concur with Williams when he said, "Within the British legal system, we believe we should have a debate on whether we can accommodate a very small aspect of Muslim family and personal law to do with marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance."

The Times newspaper on February 8 quoted Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, saying about the archbishop: "I am staggered he has said this. The Jewish community has learnt the value of both participating in the British legal system but at the same time, in certain matters where the State gives it the right, to sort out those matters with its own rabbinic authorities. But we accept that British law has priority."

It is not yet clear whether Williams consulted other Church of England leaders before he made his speech but high ranking sources said his statements would feature prominently next week at the Church of England's General Synod.

The office of Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement on February 8, "The prime minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values."

Andy Burnham, the British Cabinet minister responsible for culture and the media said: "You cannot run two systems of law alongside each other. That in my view would be a recipe for chaos, social chaos. British law has to be based on British values." He added, "If people choose to live in this country, they choose to abide by that law and that law alone."

The opposition Conservative Party's spokesperson on community cohesion, Baroness Warsi, described Williams' statements as "unhelpful" and she asserted on the television program Newsnight that they might add to further "confusion" among Britain's different ethnic and religious communities.

She was quoted on her party website as saying freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices, but she stressed, "Let's be absolutely clear -- all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts."

Nick Clegg, the leader of another opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, commented: "There is a huge difference between respecting people's rights to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law."

The Pakistan-born Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, who received death threats after claiming earlier this year that some areas of Britain had become "no-go areas" for non-Muslims, said: "We welcome progressive views on the development of Sharia. These will enable Muslims to relate better to the contemporary world...They are not, however, an argument for disturbing the integrity of a legal tradition which is rooted in the quite different moral and spiritual vision deriving from the Bible."

The full text of Williams' lecture is available here.