It is quite rare that a former Archbishop of Canterbury will speak about the comments and practices of his successor. But the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams about sharia law brought a very thoughtful and weighty response from his predecessor, Lord George Carey, in the Sunday edition of The Telegraph, a British newspaper. Carey, an evangelical, understands the serious danger of Rowan Williams’ comments in the context of modern Britain.
Lord George Carey
The storm of criticism that greeted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture on sharia law in Britain will no doubt have disappointed him but, in fact, he may have done us a great favour by airing this whole area of controversy. He might even be regarded as prescient for discussing sharia, even before demand builds among Muslim communities for special provision in British law. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says there is no Islamic consensus on the application of sharia
Indeed, some opinion polls have the number of British Muslims wanting to live under sharia as high as 60 per cent. Furthermore, sharia councils are based in almost every city and town with a sizeable Muslim population. Famously, Canada’s politicians came perilously close to introducing Islamic law for matrimonial cases, headed off eventually by an alliance of women’s groups and the opposition of ordinary Muslims.
Dr. Williams’s chief concern is the protection of religious communities against an increasingly aggressive secularism which last year, for instance, saw Roman Catholic adoption agencies put out of business by an insistence that they act against their conscience by placing children with gay couples.
And in his defence, it has been said that his prescription does no more than recognise the rights of people to settle private and domestic disputes in the way Jewish courts currently operate. Yet his proposal for a legal marketplace in which people can opt in and out based on religious affiliation opens the door to a parallel system of justice.
The question that must be asked is whether separate systems promote harmony or continue the creation of ghettos for Muslim communities – the result of disastrous policies of multiculturalism that the Bishop of Rochester highlighted in The Sunday Telegraph last month.
The problem with an accommodation to sharia is manifold. Firstly, there is no universally agreed system of sharia. In many of the countries where sharia is in force it disadvantages women and minorities and contradicts principles of human rights. Dr. Williams is right to criticise some of the more extreme aspects of sharia and to insist that this is not what he has in mind. Furthermore, a debate might bring existing sharia councils under public scrutiny to ensure that they operate under British law.
Even in Muslim-majority countries the introduction of sharia law has not been without its pain for minority groups.
In Pakistan, that country’s blasphemy law has been used to persecute Christians. In Nigeria, where sharia has been introduced in certain northern states, community tension, church burning and widespread violence have been the result. I remember a young Roman Catholic priest, Father Linus, telling me how despite the insistence of the governor of Zamfara state that sharia would have no effect on the Christian community, the opposite had been the case. Christians no longer had any freedom, he said. They could not broadcast on radio or television, they could not build churches and women felt under pressure to assume the veil.
The watchword for any dialogue, worth its name, between Muslim and Christian communities must insist on reciprocity – that rights guaranteed to all in the West should be granted to minorities in Muslim lands. We have yet to see real steps toward that form of equality.
The second main objection to accommodation with sharia is the fact that while there are considerable numbers wanting to avail themselves of Islamic codes, many ordinary Muslims want to embrace the West and adapt their faith and customs to Britain.
Tariq Ramadan, a very significant moderate reformer, points to the fact that western law can already be seen by Muslims as compliant to more progressive notions of sharia. The late Zaki Badawi of Regent’s Park Mosque always pointed out that the religious tradition had very little to say about living as a Muslim minority. This was a matter of urgent attention, he said, for Muslim scholars. It is by no means certain that the answers eventually reached will point to sharia law at all. Muslim communities post-9/11 are still engaged in a strenuous dialogue among progressives, moderates, traditionalists and extremists. We should not seek to foreclose that debate.
The third main objection is that accommodation would lead to further demands. That is absolutely inevitable, since questions to do with the separation of "church and state" are largely new to Islam. While Christianity and Judaism recognise the truth in "rendering unto Caesar", it is resisted by mainstream Muslim countries. Sharia law trumps civil law every time.
So, significantly, this would open up the problem of competition between British and sharia law if the time ever came that they operated side-by-side. Many Muslim interpreters of sharia believe that it supersedes secular law and assume that its "God-given" status would lead to its replacing civil law. Reports that sharia has been used to settle some criminal matters is already a considerable concern.
Finally, you would not think from media reports that Muslims constitute less than three per cent of the population. Most Muslims are heartily sick of being in the spotlight, but an ambitious programme of incorporating sharia tribunals into civil law seems a little like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – and what it would do for social cohesion doesn’t bear thinking about.
* Lord Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, is co-chair of the West-Islam Community of the World Economic Forum. He is chairman of the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East, working with Canon Andrew White, and is also patron of the Three Faiths Forum founded by Sir Siggy Sternberg. He is a noted evangelical author and has been actively involved in the worldwide ecumenical movement among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians.