The principle of the rule of law applying without fear or favour to all is a fundamental pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy. Indeed, in the UK, an independent, robust judiciary and a sense of fair play is respected around the world. My initial thoughts on hearing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s view that the incorporation of Sharia law into the British legal system is ‘inevitable’ was that law is not something that should be cherry-picked. We have to accept that, in order to promote community values, there has got to be a certain set of common standards to which we all subscribe whatever one’s views or faith. The British legal process, well-honed over centuries, is forever open to evolution, but should not be tinkered with lightly.
I am also doubtful whether proposals so controversial should have been made with quite so little foresight as to their impact from a man whose more radical opinions are possibly better placed for airing in an academic, rather than political, sphere. The Archbishop has a track record of inspiring controversy with his comments, most notably as a result of his opinions on the Iraq war and tolerance towards homosexuality amongst the clergy.
In an age when the media thrives on neatly-packaged soundbites, the opaque nature of Williams’ argument has played a part in this dispute. Once again, we have seen the media seize on a complex idea and re-package it in simple terms to form a news story. These news stories, when accompanied, somewhat sensationally, by scenes of amputations and floggings, suggested that the Archbishop had been open-minded to such penalties being imposed in this country. Stories and opinion then fed off false assumptions and panic to the extent that the message, by the time it reached the average man on the street, had been almost completely obscured.
His original words were hardly ambiguous: “I think we need to look at this with a clear eye and not imagine either that we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia, or whatever… Nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states – the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women.” The affronted masses would do well to read and reflect on these verbatim words.
When debate gets this heated, we must disentangle what was actually said – or at least what was meant – from the consensus. Only when we get past what people think they heard can we really evaluate Rowan Williams’ suggestions.
Williams was not advocating a parallel set of laws. However, recognising that Sharia governs all aspects of a devout Muslim’s life, he proposed that religious courts might be used to arbitrate in matters of morality, such as matrimonial disputes. In other words, courts might recognise valid lawful contracts, just as English law has recognised private contracts for generations, but – and this is where the confusion seems to have occurred – not in conflict with existing civil law. Williams was not suggesting that the distinction between civil society (tribunals that seek to arbitrate or to mediate) and the civil law (under which we all work) be in any way compromised.
As the Archbishop pointed out, in two important areas British law already has incorporated religious legal considerations. British food regulations allow meat to be slaughtered according to Jewish and Islamic practices and in recent years our law has recognised Sharia-compliant financial products such as mortgages and investments. I know as I was then the Conservative frontbench spokesman on the legislation in question. In addition, there are already Sharia courts in operation in various parts of Britain dealing with civil and ecclesiastical matters. In such situations, a panel of judges – often aged, well-respected figures in the minority community – provide religious interpretations as to whether forms of conduct are permissible in Islam. Likewise, the Jewish network of courts (‘beth din’) is entirely voluntary and expressly subordinate to the British legal system, and is said to meet the needs of modern life in a way that fits the faith.
I believe there to be numerous problems with such a proposal. The tolerance of any separate system opens up the scope for enormous abuse, most notably in the field of human rights. Williams took pains to point out the presence of choice. Yet under such a system, a whole family within a community could potentially disassociate itself from one person and lay a ‘moat of fear’ around the ‘guilty’ party. Imagine if this were to be a woman embroiled in an arranged marriage dispute. In such a situation, her freedom to choose would stop at the doorstop of her house, as allowing her family the choice to extend Sharia law would take away her own choice of freedom by default. If Sharia law is available a practising Muslim is not in a position simply to opt out of it, making the apparent ‘choice’ illusory.
We must also look at the effects of granting an increasing number of concessions to minority groups. Despite the good intentions, it seems that similar concessions are not necessarily granted to Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty accepting issues like abortion and embryo research. Why should the proposed leeway set out by the Archbishop not also be taken up by other minority religions, political parties or communities? Society is already worryingly fragmented, yet accommodating something which is external to our culture and contrary to the development of a common citizenship (when, at times, the minority does not even want to be pandered to) has the potential to inspire resentment among other groups and contribute to even further fragmentation. Double standards or affirmative action cannot contribute to harmonious community relations. There is also the worry that granting such a concession may encourage aggressive Islamicists to push for more and more.
As such, it is hardly surprising that the thought of apparently bypassing the democratic process on the basis of religion has horrified so many. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled quite simply that Sharia is incompatible with democracy and therefore it would be very difficult to see it incorporated within a domestic legal system in any meaningful way.
There is clearly a discussion that needs to be had. Few can fault the Archbishop’s desire to stimulate such a debate. Rowan Williams regards it as part of his role as the voice and face of the Anglican church to address issues from which others may shy away, regardless of whether it is out of his sphere of expertise or whether he comes out of it looking unpopular. However, it must be questioned whether it is his role to do so. In this instance, ‘Sharia’ has sadly acted as a trigger word which has closed down the public’s receptiveness to an idea before it had even begun to assess the merits. A more skilled politician may have pre-empted the reaction of the media and sought to put his comments into a broader historical context.