Is Britain Ready for Sharia?

The archbishop of Canterbury causes a stir with remarks about Islamic law.

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The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, is widely known as an intellectual and academic as well as man of the cloth. But he appeared to be surprised by the fury he unleashed both within and outside his church last week when he remarked to a gathering of British lawyers, and then in a radio interview, that the United Kingdom would have to accommodate limited use of Islamic sharia law by its Muslim citizens. Allowing Muslims to use their own courts for civil cases relating to matters such as divorce and finance was not only "unavoidable," Williams said, but necessary for social harmony.

Besieged by criticism—including the outrage of church traditionalists who charged that Williams's proper job was to defend the biblical foundations of British law—the archbishop repeatedly sought to clarify his position. But each successive attempt seemed to provoke even stronger rebukes, including calls for his resignation. While not going that far himself, the former archbishop, George Carey, asserted that Williams had "overstated the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes." And some 150 of the elected church representatives attending this week's general synod were reportedly prepared to sign an open letter of protest if Williams did not issue an apology.

Williams did apologize, though in a way that might be said to typify the Anglican art of mild obfuscation. Regretting any "misleading choice of words that has helped cause distress or misunderstanding," he insisted that he was only calling for a vigorous debate on whether a few legal options should be made available to Muslims. It was not, he emphasized, a call for a two-tier legal system.

Williams has some justification for saying that things were blown out of proportion. Britain for centuries has accepted the limited use of religious law in civil cases, particularly Jewish law. English law allows two disputants to submit their case to the judgment of any third party (or institution) they agree on. If two sides of a civil dispute are Jewish and freely agree to submit their case to a Jewish court, that court's decision is legally binding. So what is fair for Jews would seem to be fair for Muslims—or indeed for Sikhs or Hindus.

But Williams should have known that he was courting controversy when he broached the subject of sharia, the very meaning of which is subject to fierce debate within the Muslim world. Extremists and literalists tend to view sharia as a fixed code of regulations derived from selected passages of the Koran and hadith (the traditional accounts of the life and sayings of the Prophet). Those passages, not surprisingly, tend to be of the most reactionary and puritanical flavor, often reflecting the customary practices of early Muslims rather than the divine teaching revealed to their spiritual leader. Indeed, a more moderate, traditionalist view of sharia (which literally means the "way" or the "path") holds that it is a moral code, or broad ethos, derived from revelation. Traditionalists maintain that sharia, understood in this sense, should inform the specific laws and codes regulating the daily lives of Muslims. And in many parts of the Muslim world, including Egypt and Iraq (at least before the war), sharia was successfully harmonized with civil and even penal codes based on European models.

Because they lie at the heart of the struggle between moderate and extremist Muslims, the rival understandings of sharia are far from resolved. That is why just suggesting the introduction of sharia into western countries sets off alarms, even among many Muslims. Recent efforts to adopt a form of sharia in Canada were almost successful, in fact, until a group of moderate Muslims publicized and beat back those efforts. Similar struggles have gone on, and continue to go on, in Denmark and other European countries.

In his address to the synod, the archbishop offered a seemingly reasonable defense of his earlier remarks: "I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try to bring them into better public focus." If Williams believes this, he needs to be sure he understands what the perceived concerns of those communities really are—and whether those concerns might themselves be subject to intense internal debate.