The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the most senior figure in the Church of England, has said that giving Islamic law official status in the United Kingdom would help achieve social cohesion because some Muslims did not relate to the British legal system.
More than 800 people were present in the Great Hall of the Royal Courts of Justice for the speech. A further 200 poured into the overspill marquee. Plasma screens were erected to ensure people could hear and see Williams clearly, and the audience was encouraged to introduce themselves to those nearby.
Williams said introducing Sharia law would mean Muslims would no longer have to choose between two systems. "If what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of diverse and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable."
He compared the situation to faith schools, where "communal loyalties" were brought into direct contact with wider society, leading to mutual questioning and mutual influence towards change, without compromising the "distinctiveness of the essential elements of those communal loyalties".
Earlier, in a BBC interview, he was more succinct. He said it was a "matter of fact" that Sharia law was already being practiced in Britain. "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 recognised by the law of the land ...There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with some kinds of aspects of other religious law." He did not endorse the "kind of inhumanity" associated with sharia law in some Islamic states.
The Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, had warned last month (January 2008) that attempts were being made to give Britain an increasingly Islamic character. "There is pressure already to relate aspects of the Sharia to civil law in Britain," he said. "To some extent this is already true of arrangements for Sharia-compliant banking but have the far-reaching implications of this been fully considered?"
The bishop, who is no stranger to controversy, also claimed that extremists have created "no-go" areas, which were too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter. He has since received death threats and was placed under police protection.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams’s remarks, first in a BBC interview and then in a speech at the Royal Courts of Justice, that the adoption of Sharia law in Britain seemed "unavoidable", prompted criticism from across the political spectrum in the United Kingdom (UK).
However, some Muslim groups supported Dr Williams' views on Sharia law which sets out a broad code of conduct for all aspects of life from diet to the wearing of the hijab. The Ramadan Foundation, an educational and welfare body, said the speech was "testament to his attempts to understand Islam and promote tolerance and respect between our great faiths". Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University, who was quoted at length by Williams, said: "These kinds of statements just feed the fears of fellow citizens and I really think we, as Muslims, need to ... abide by the common law. And within these latitudes there are possibilities for us to be faithful to Islamic principles."
The United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman swiftly rejected the archbishop's comments, which were delivered in a lecture on civil and religious law at the Royal Courts of Justice. He insisted British law would be based on British values and that Sharia law would present no justification for acting against national law.
"Our general position is that Sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of Sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes. If there are specific instances like stamp duty, where changes can be made in a way that's consistent with British law and British values, in a way to accommodate the values of fundamental Muslims, that is something the government would look at."
The Conservative peer and shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, Sayeeda Warsi, also criticised the Anglican primate. "The archbishop's comments are unhelpful and may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities ... We must ensure that people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law. Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices. But let's be absolutely clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through parliament and the courts."
However, the Archbishop of Canterbury on February 8 night defended his remarks about Sharia law and clarified his position amid mounting criticism, saying he was not proposing Islamic law in Britain, nor was he recommending its introduction as a parallel legal system.
According to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop "sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims".
His office said Williams had no intention of resigning. His lecture was "well-researched" and involved consultation with legal experts, especially people with knowledge and experience of Jewish and Islamic legal systems.
A spokesman for the archbishop added: "We've had more supportive calls, asking for clarification and the full text of his lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice. The pattern has been more measured than you would expect. Before that people were very concerned and some were angry. People were just going on the headlines."
The row is still the most serious threat to his authority and has further angered more conservative elements within the Anglican communion who are already unhappy with his leadership.
Two synod members have called for him to go. Colonel Edward Armitstead, from the diocese of Bath and Wells, told the Daily Telegraph: "I don't think he is the man for the job. One wants to be charitable, but I sense that he would be far happier in a university where he can kick around these sorts of ideas."
Alison Ruoff, a synod member from London, said: "He is a disaster for the Church of England. He vacillates, he is a weak leader and he does not stand up for the church. I would like to see him resign and go back to academia."
The first public support for Williams' comments surfaced on February 8. The Bishop of Southwark, the Right Rev Tom Butler, said Williams was entitled to raise the issue but argued that it had been done clumsily. "What has been explosive is that his examples have referred to Sharia law, which is an emotive concept in our society. He is saying these Sharia councils in some places already exist informally. "It might be better to formalise them under British law, to make sure they do correspond to British law. But there are real practical difficulties."
Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme, condemned the "kneejerk" response to the remarks as a "shame on our nation". He told Radio 4's The World at One: "We have probably one of the greatest and the brightest archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day. The way he has been ridiculed, lampooned and treated by some people and indeed some of the media ... is quite disgraceful."
The Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who has both a Christian and a Muslim family background, said all the codes of sharia "would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence. This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and of expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy."
He had warned last month (January 2008) that attempts were being made to give Britain an increasingly Islamic character. "There is pressure already to relate aspects of the Sharia to civil law in Britain," he said. "To some extent this is already true of arrangements for Sharia-compliant banking but have the far-reaching implications of this been fully considered?"
The Bishop, who is no stranger to controversy, also claimed that extremists have created "no-go" areas, which were too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter. He has since received death threats and was placed under police protection.
David Blunkett, the former home secretary, said formalising Sharia law "would be wrong democratically and philosophically but it would be catastrophic in terms of social cohesion". (With inputs from Guardian, Will Woodward and Riazat Butt, February7 & 9, 2008)
Transcript of BBC Interview
Text of Lecture / Watch
Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams’ Profile