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Williams provokes row over sharia law

08 February 2008

by Paul Handley

Taking the stand? The Archbishop of Canterbury PA

Taking the stand? The Archbishop of Canterbury PA

THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury sparked off an impassioned debate about the adoption of sharia law in the UK on Thursday, when he suggested in a lecture that some form of accommodation was desirable.
In an BBC interview before the lecture, Dr Williams said: “Certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law; so it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system. . . 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 made it clear that there was no question of adopting the extreme punishments or treatment of women found in some Islamic states.

Dr Williams’s view was quickly countered by politicians. The Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: “To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong.”

Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, was quoted in The Guardian as saying: “Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices. But let’s be clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “The Archbishop’s thinking is muddled and unhelpful. Raising this idea in this way will give fuel to anti-Muslim extremism, and dismay everyone working towards a more integrated society.”

 Dr Williams’s views were contained in a long lecture to legal academics at the Temple Festival at the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday evening. His essential points were that: sharia law was not a monolithic legal system; that it was possible to imagine two overlapping legal codes; and that the concept of a universal legality was poorly understood.

The lecture in detail

DR WILLIAMS began by criticising sensational reporting of sharia cases. “What most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal punishments.” He quoted the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan: “Many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the merest mention of the word.”

But the matter of accommodating religious moral codes was important, not only because it spilled over “into some of the questions which have surfaced sharply in the last 12 months about the right of religious believers in general to opt out of certain legal provisions, as in the problems around Roman Catholic adoption agencies which emerged in relation to the Sexual Orientation Regulations last spring.”

He argued for a better understanding of sharia. “On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned.
“To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system.”

Islamic societies in general recognised a degree of religious pluralism, with the result that “the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.” Though this would be “hotly contested by some committed Islamic primitivists . ....the great body of serious jurists in the Islamic world would recognise this degree of political plurality as consistent with Muslim integrity.”

Thus it was acknowledged that: “On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned. To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system.”

Danger arose when religious leaders assumed that religion was the significant category for a society, and that other forms of socio-political arrangement were a betrayal of this. But it also arose “when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity”.

Referring to earlier comments he had made on the issues surrounding legislation about incitement to religious hatred, Dr Williams said: “If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour — for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief — it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process . . . and so . . . fails in one of its purposes.”
 Dr Williams then tackled the question of whether it was possible to live under more than one jurisdiction, and he looked at three difficulties:

“Vexatious religious scruples”, such as the reported refusal to handle Bibles in Marks and Spencer or, more seriously, forced marriages. The UK already has an Islamic Shari’a Council, he said. “We should need a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version of such a body, with increased resource and a high degree of community recognition, so that ‘vexatious’ claims could be summarily dealt with. The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance. There can be no blank cheques given to unexamined scruples.”

Depriving members of religious minorities from national liberties. Dr Williams raised the matters of the inheritance of widows and “a more neuralgic matter still . . . the historic Islamic prohibition against apostacy”. He argued that the latter was a throwback from the time when apostacy was comparable to treachery in wartime. For accommodation to work today, “there has to be a recognition [by Islamists] that differenc of conviction is not automatically a lethal threat.”

In the UK, “if any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.

“This is, in effect, to mirror what a minority might themselves be requesting — that the situation should not arise where membership of one group restricted the freedom to live also as a member of an overlapping group, that (in this case) citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline, any more than religious discipline should deprive one of access to liberties secured by the law of the land, to the common benefits of secular citizen.”

Subverting legal universalism. “So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; that everyone stands before the public tribunal on exactly equal terms.”

But the post-Enlightment view of the world was unexamined, and not adequate to deal with complex societies.

“The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural . . . this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.”

Dr Williams also pointed out that the idea of universal legal right had its roots in the Abrahamic faiths.
IN CONCLUSION, Dr Williams called to mind the right of medical staff to refuse to perform abortions — “a perfectly reasonable example of the law doing what I earlier defined as its job, securing space for those aspects of human motivation and behaviour that cannot be finally determined by any corporate or social system. It is difficult to see quite why the principle cannot be extended in other areas. But it is undeniable that there is pressure from some quarters to insist that conscientious disagreement should always be overruled by a monopolistic understanding of jurisdiction.”

Read the full lecture below


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