At Large

The Archbishop and Sharia: A Pas de Deux?

Dr. Rowan Williams is indeed no expert on Islamic law.

By 2.12.08

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, stirred up a hornets' nest when he commented in a BBC interview on February 7 that he could foresee a place for aspects of Sharia Law in Britain in the future. Responses to his comments have been diverse, with some opponents calling for his resignation and his supporters crying foul, saying that he has been misquoted.

Inaccurate reporting is indeed a common flaw of a media hungry for a good story. Let us therefore return to the Archbishop's statements and consider exactly what was said. A full transcript of the interview can be found online. There are a number of points that emerge from the statements of the Archbishop.

The first point is a certain lack of self-confidence on the part of the Archbishop. Rowan Williams is a humble man. This is in evidence when he says "I'm no expert on this," thereby seeking to add a disclaimer to his statements about Sharia Law. So from the outset we are made to wonder about the Archbishop's credentials to quote Muslim jurists, make reference to the Koran and Hadith, allude to aspects of Islamic history, and highlight Islamic diversity.

A second point to emerge from the interview is the Archbishop's sense of self-assurance that Sharia Law is little different from other legal codes, and as such should not be seen as threatening. He declares that "it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system," and then goes on to call for "a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with some kinds of aspects of other religious law," reminding his audience that "we have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country legally." So although he has declared himself no expert, we should be comfortable in his assurances that there's no need to fear the accommodation of aspects of Sharia Law in Britain.

A further point to emerge from the interview is his declared concern that Muslim wishes are accommodated in Britain, declaring that "it's very important that you mention...the word 'choice.'" His concern for Muslim perspectives is clear and, in reference to the statement by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali recently that certain Muslim neighborhoods were "no-go areas" for non-Muslims, Dr. Williams states that "many Muslims say that they feel bits of British society are 'no go' areas for them -- places that they can't go."

The Archbishop's comments need to be taken seriously, and affirmed where appropriate. The first statement deserving of affirmation is that Dr. Williams is, indeed, no expert. His inclination to neatly equate Islamic Law with legal systems of other faiths is superficial and sloppy. The fact is that other faiths are just that: religious faiths. Islam, by its own account, is much more than a religious faith. It is a system that insists on society's compliance in every sector of human activity: legal, religious, economic, political, and social. Although Muslims may disagree on how to implement Islam as the total package, they do not disagree that Islam is much more than just a private expression of religious belief.

So while we may wish to compare Christianity with Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Hinduism, Islam should be compared with (a) all those religious faiths (b) Western political systems (c) Western legal codes and so forth. Islam as a total package is indeed "a rival system" for British religion, state, and society. It will remain so until it undergoes a major transformation, one that would need to entail an acceptance by the Islamic mainstream of a separation between Faith and State.

ANOTHER OF Dr. Williams' statements that should be affirmed is that "we [British] have got a fragmented society at the moment, internally fragmented, socially fragmented in our cities and fragmented between communities of different allegiance." This is absolutely correct. However, the Archbishop's proposed remedy -- making space for aspects of Sharia Law -- is only likely to increase the very fragmentation of which he is so critical. Were aspects of Sharia Law to be integrated within Britain, then it is highly likely that we would see the Theory of Rising Expectations come into play: there would then be demands for more aspects of Sharia Law to be integrated; then more, and more, and more...

We should also consider the Archbishop's desire to take account of the wishes of Muslims. In a November 2004 ICM poll of British Muslims for the Guardian, 61% of respondents supported the use of Sharia courts in Britain to resolve civil cases within the Muslim community. In a February 2006 ICM poll for the Telegraph, 40 percent of Muslim respondents supported the introduction of Sharia Law to certain areas of Britain. These results caused shockwaves in Britain when they were announced. But in the context of Dr. Williams' recent statements, we need to remember that on the above figures somewhere between 40-60 percent of British Muslims do not support the implementation of Sharia in Britain. Where do such Muslims fit into the Archbishop's vision for the future of Britain?

Clearly Dr. Williams does not speak for the many British Muslims who do not want to see Sharia Law in Britain. Nor does he speak for vast numbers of non-Muslim British, on the basis of the torrent or criticism that his comments have triggered. It should be noted that much of this criticism has come from within his own constituency, the Church of England. Dr. Williams has some serious thinking to do. So does the Church of England.

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About the Author

Peter G. Riddell is professorial dean of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Bible College of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and a senior fellow of the Kairos Journal.