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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

living with sharia law? « Previous | |Next »
February 14, 2008

In the foundation lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued for the possible use of sharia law to resolve some civil matters as a way of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all or nothing basis. It is an interesting and complex lecture.

WilliamsR.jpg Martin Rowson

The general reaction in the UK has been intermperate and hostile, despite Williams' main argument being about ensuring the tolerance of the civil law towards religious concerns. It looks as if there has been a media overreaction drive by sensationalism, given the renewed strength of religion in politics.

However, religion playing a prominent role in public discourse and in politics does not necessarily undermine the principle of the unity of the law. Moreover, much of the UK law's attitudes towards sex, gender, drugs etc are rooted in the Christian moral code.

What Williams is saying is quite reasonable: that sharia law might be negotiated into a niche in the gothic facade of the English legal system. He says the general issue is one:

about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes. As such, this is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups, including Orthodox Judaism; and indeed it spills over into some of the questions which have surfaced sharply in the last twelve 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 adds that there is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a 'covenant' between the divine and the human (as in Jewish and Christian thinking; once again, we are not talking about an exclusively Muslim problem).

The archbishop considers that it was part of his job to stand up for the place of, and space for, religious faith within the framework of the laws of an increasingly secular society. Islam cannot be arbitrarily excluded from that discussion and so it is necessary to debate how some of its moral traditions can be accommodated.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:44 AM | | Comments (4)


A Leader in the Observer says:

Since sharia has become a fact of life for many British citizens, the state cannot ignore it. Finding ways to smooth the passage of immigrants into British civic structures may aid social cohesion. It should, for example, be easier to have a marriage in a mosque recognised as a bona fide legal union.

On the other hand:
the most selective recognition of sharia, limiting it to matrimonial matters, for example, would quickly collide with British traditions of civil rights. Women's status, for example, is unambiguously inferior in Islamic is quite wrong to suggest that God's word could be equivalent to parliamentary statute in regulating a diverse society

It says that the passions unleashed by Dr Williams's intervention prove that the debate is necessary. It is telling that politicians of all stripes hurried to oppose the archbishop, not by rebutting his view, but on the grounds that its mere expression in public was divisive.
In other words, the secular establishment is afraid of debating Dr Williams on his own terms. Showing shrewd judgment and cowardice in equal measure, Westminster chose collectively to keep secret its feelings about Islam, God, the church and the state. Politicians running scared from a debate is evidence that it is necessary.

What happened is that the majority British secular culture turned with near unanimous scorn on a minority, with some opponents of the archbishop using crude stereotypes of Islam.

I would imagine that feminist arguments would be the strongest ones to be made against Williams in contemporary secular society, as Nan points out. But it's also true that we're prepared to make exceptions when it comes to various derivatives of Christianity. The strongest objections I've seen to the Exclusive Brethren are about their involvement in politics, when there's plenty to say about their attitudes towards family (where both men and women can be considered to not exist at all, let alone as inferior).

Williams' argument is also up against current perceptions of Islam and the broader distrust of multiculturalism which is stronger in Europe than it is here. The worst thing about his argument is the timing.

Am I correct in thinking that Sunday trading was originally the preserve of non-Christian minorities? Do we currently accommodate some aspects of traditional Aboriginal law? Have the Exclusive Brethren been granted an exemption from compulsory voting? Can any of these examples be objectively separated from the central role of family and gender roles?

Well someone had to open up a public debate and then hold the ground in a post Enlightenment culture. No politician would have the political courage to do so after 9/11.

Nan, The Observer is absolutely wrong in saying that "Women's status, for example, is unambiguously inferior in Islamic divorces".


Cassandra Balchin, a Muslim convert and spokeswoman for the Muslim Women's Network, says the interpretation being proposed in Britain is generally extremely conservative – far more so than in Muslim countries like Morocco or Indonesia.

"They talk about the woman having to ask the man for a divorce, as if women have no autonomous rights," Ms. Balchin says. Compare that with Pakistan, she adds, where the law recognizes divorce rights and where she divorced her first husband with no trouble.

"There would be no contradiction between British law and Muslim law if we take a progressive interpretation of Islamic law," says Balchin. The problem, she adds, is that this is not always the case [in the UK]. "They are so conservative to be dumbfounding."

And from

It is often assumed that modern feminism has no place, and thus can make little headway, in societies undergoing a religious revival, particularly in the Islamic world. But the real progress made in recent years on women’s rights in Morocco suggests otherwise: a unique combination of activism by secular and religious women, the calculations of political parties, and a significant role for the King has led to real progress.

This first generation of Moroccan feminists was guided by a key insight: the interactions of men and women were not dictated by religion, but by social practices that had often used religion as a means of reinforcement. For example, women and their sexual purity were linked with the honor of men and their families – a connection that was defended by grounding it in Islam. For these activists, such linkages were intended to maintain control over women, and were part of Moroccan society, not Islam....

Women’s advocacy has also shaped a new approach to poverty alleviation in Morocco, in the form of the National Initiative for Human Development, which integrates efforts to improve education with better sanitation and housing. It is no exaggeration to say that the Moroccan women’s movement has become the cutting edge of reform, engaging Islamization, modernization, democratization, and feminism.

Indeed under liberal Islam many women might be better off than they are under the Western secular culture. I do not dispute though that it is an enormous task to shift many Muslim societies from a conservative, if not fundamentalist interpretation of Islam to a liberal one.