UNITED KINGDOM: Law needs to accommodate religious legal codes such as 'Sharia,' Canterbury says

February 7, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has said that U.K. law needs to continue to find accommodation with religious legal codes such as the Islamic system of Sharia if community cohesion and development are to be achieved.

Speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation ahead of the opening lecture in a series on Islam in English Law being given to legal academics, in which he calls for the legal establishment to engage with these issues, Williams said that the ability of the law of the land to accommodate religious perspectives, as it had already done with the Jewish Halacha, was essential.

"[C]ertain provision[s] of Sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law; so it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system; we already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognized by the law of the land as justified conscientious objections in certain circumstances in providing certain kinds of social relations," he said.

Whilst speaking in the main about principles of Sharia law, the point, Williams says, applies generally to other religious principles.

"We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country legally and in a regulated way because there are modes of dispute resolution and customary provisions which apply there in the light of Talmud," he said. "It's not a new problem, not to mention the questions...about how the consciences of Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty over issues like abortion are accommodated within the Law; so the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community; that's already there."

That, he said, did not mean that he was advocating the wholesale adoption of Sharia and certainly not the kinds of practical expressions of it seen in some parts of the world. "[N]obody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states [with] the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."

Safeguards he said, were vital and U.K. law was in a strong position to provide these. "I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license so to speak a system of law for some communities which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general."

Williams said that U.K. law needed to engage properly with the religious concerns and motivations of members of the communities which made up society.

"What we don't want I think is either a stand-off where the law squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill in the commons as it were a secular discourse saying 'we have no room for conscientious objections'; we don't want that, we don't either I think want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes a way of intensifying oppression within a community..."

The full transcript of the BBC interview is available here. The full lecture is available here.