Shari’ah law For Britain?

“Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law” – British subject Tom Harrop

In a series of threads in this blog (A Picture Worth a Thousand Words, London Bridge is Falling Down and Muslim Britain) we have discussed the problem of integrating a growing muslim population into the historical British culture. This photograph, published in The Daily Express, shows Muslim radicals demonstrating in favor of establishing Shari’ah law in the UK. The proposal to introduce Shari'ah law is also discussed in an article in the NY Times of February 8, 2008 entitled “Top Anglican Seeks a Role for Islamic Law in Britain” where John Burns writes about the proposal from the leader of the world’s Anglican to permit the practice of Shariah law in the United Kingdom:

The archbishop of Canterbury called Thursday for Britain to adopt aspects of Islamic Shariah law alongside the existing legal system. His speech set off a storm of opposition among politicians, lawyers and others, including some Muslims. The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans, said in his speech that the introduction of Shariah in family law was “unavoidable.” But he said such “constructive accommodation” should not deprive Muslims of their right to take their cases to the existing court system.

The archbishop compared allowing Muslims to take carefully defined issues to their own religious courts to the established practice among Orthodox Jews here of referring religious disputes to rabbinical courts. Roman Catholics might also benefit from what he called “plural jurisdiction” in matters affecting religious conscience, he said. He noted that the Church of England, formally headed by the monarch, also has its own ecclesiastical courts. Shariah is drawn from the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. It prescribes religious and secular duties, along with punishments for their breach.

In countries where Islamic militants have gained power, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, harsh forms of Shariah law have been imposed. These have included stoning to death for adultery and the chopping off of hands for theft, along with severe restraints on women’s rights and provisions subjugating them to the will of men. But much of Shariah law deals with issues like marriage, divorce and inheritance, and many Muslims in Britain, a small but often isolated minority of 1.5 million in this nation of 60 million, have for many years taken disputes in these areas to Shariah councils in neighborhood mosques.

Nobody in their right mind,” the archbishop told the BBC, “would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states — the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.” But equally, he said, “I don’t think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights simply because it doesn’t immediately fit with how we understand it.”

The 57-year-old archbishop, an Oxford-educated theologian, was met with immediate repudiation from political and legal leaders. A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking anonymously in the tradition of Downing Street, told reporters that Mr. Brown did not “welcome or support” the proposals, and added that Mr. Brown “believes that British laws should be based on British values.” Spokesmen for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, the main opposition groups, issued similar responses. Baroness Sayeeda Hussain Warsi, a 36-year-old lawyer who is a rising star in the Conservative Party and one of its most influential Muslim figures, issued a statement calling the archbishop’s remarks “unhelpful.” “Of course the important principle is one of equality, and we must ensure that people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law,” she said. “But let’s be absolutely clear: All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”

The archbishop’s proposal, if adopted, would set a precedent in the West. In 2005, Muslims in Ontario appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough when the province’s attorney general proposed Shariah-based law for use in Muslim family disputes. But the provincial government abandoned the proposal, saying there should be one law for all Canadians. Legal recognition of Shariah has been a longstanding demand among some Muslim groups in Britain, and their spokesmen endorsed the archbishop’s proposals. Faisal Siddiqui, a lawyer, told the BBC that sensational stories about extreme punishments had distorted the benefits of Islamic law. “The reality is that it has enriched civilization and humanity for 1,400 years,” he said.

The archbishop’s speech was made at the Royal Courts of Justice, before an audience of leading judges and lawyers. Typically, it was steeped in historical and philosophical nuances that risked being lost in the headlines. He argued, for example, that the principle enshrined during the 18th-century Enlightenment, that all citizens should be under the uniform law of a sovereign state, was a reaction to despotism. He said that a modern democratic society should “acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration with procedures or practices that are in tension with demands of particular religious groups.” This, the archbishop said, could be extended to create new legal rights for all faiths, not only Muslims. He cited Catholic adoption agencies that have resisted accepting gay couples as adoptive parents, a stand that has brought them into conflict with the law in Britain, and other religious groups that have resisted stem cell research.

But within hours of the BBC interview, the broadcaster’s Web site was inundated with angry postings. One man, Tom Harrop, left a mocking comment that was typical of many others: “Right, I’m off to get a burqa for the mother-in-law,” a reference to the head-to-toe veil worn by many conservative Muslim women.

Could Shari'ah law be viable in Britain?

Posted February 8, 2008


Brian McKay said...

This is an example of political correctness going mad in the UK and it also goes to show why the UK is fast becoming a secular nation when it has church leaders acting like buffoons.

I watched the BBC’s report on this matter and agreed with most of what was said. Rowan is said to be in a ‘state of shock’ that his remarks caused such a strong negative reaction and his parishioners are ‘bemused and upset’. Even British Muslims think Rowan doesn’t know much about Shari’ah law and that he has probably set relations between the Muslim, Christian, and Secular communities back significantly. His own reputation according to the BBC has been damaged with the perception that he is totally out of touch and naïve.

Why don’t people stick to their knitting.


Peter said...

William Crawley’s blog sums up this sad and sorry man!

Take care,

Brian McKay said...

The Economist has a fine commentary on this matter with which I am in complete agreement:

In every democratic and more-or-less secular country, similar questions arise about the precise extent to which religious sub-cultures should be allowed to live by their own rules and “laws”. One set of questions emerges when believers demand, and often get, an opt-out from the law of the land. Sikhs in British Columbia can ride motorcycles without helmets; some are campaigning for the right not to wear hard hats on building sites. Muslims and Jews slaughter animals in ways that others might consider cruel; Catholic doctors and nurses refuse to have anything to do with abortion or euthanasia.

Even in determinedly secular states like France and the United States, the political authorities often find that they are obliged, in various ways, to cope with the social reality of religious belief. America's Amish community, fundamentalists who eschew technology, has generally managed to get around the law with respect to social security, child labour and education. In France, town halls serving large Muslim populations ignore secular principles as they get involved in the ritual slaughter of sheep.

Apart from exceptions to existing laws, another sort of problem arises when religious (and other) communities establish bodies that work very much like courts—and may be called courts—that enforce ancient rules that are often called laws. All these questions, but especially the last of them, have been on the mind of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At first, there seems not to be any huge problem about the existence of institutions whose members freely choose to respect a set of norms—so long as participation really is voluntary, and the rules do not horrify the rest of society. (Intuitively, most Western societies accept the circumcision, on religious grounds, of baby boys, but they would not tolerate the genital mutilation of baby girls.) But in almost every democracy which aspires at the same time to be fair, secular and tolerant of religious diversity, it is getting harder to mark out and preserve the boundary.

Until recently, religions with deep local roots—like Anglicanism in Britain or Lutheranism in Scandinavia—could rely on well-honed survival instincts; clerics had developed a keen sense of how much “soft theocracy” society could accept, and when to beat a tactical retreat. Even the existence of court-like institutions, dealing in particular with marital and property issues, caused little fuss as long as everybody involved recognised the absolute primacy of the law of land. In Britain, for example, religious courts or beth din used by Orthodox Jews have been recognised by statute—and in 2002, divorce law was adjusted in a way that acknowledged the role of these bodies. (If a Jewish husband refuses to seek a religious divorce—thus denying his wife the chance to remarry in a synagogue—a civil judge can now delay the secular divorce.) The Church of England uses ancient canon laws to govern the use of church property and its internal workings. But like the monarchy, it knows that the way to retain some vestigial authority is to give up most powers that could be controversial.

What has upset the old equilibrium is the emergence all over the world of Muslim minorities who, regardless of what they actually want, are suspected by the rest of society of preparing to establish a “state within a state” in which the writ of secular legislation hardly runs at all. The very word sharia—which at its broadest can imply a sort of divine ideal about how society should be organised, but can also refer to specific forms of corporal and capital punishment—is now political dynamite.

That has rendered controversial some things that were once well accepted, like the existence of arbitration services which lighten the burden of the state by providing an alternative arena in which disputes can be settled. The Canadian province of Ontario is the clearest case of an English-speaking place where fear of Islam made religious arbitration untenable. An uproar began in 2003 when Syed Mumtaz Ali, a retired Ontario lawyer, said he was setting up a sharia court to settle family law disputes for Muslims. Such arrangements were allowed by the province's 1991 arbitration Act and could carry the force of law. The proposal caused an instant backlash, right across the religious and political spectrum; many Muslim groups were opposed too.

In southern Europe, says Marco Ventura, a religious-law professor at the University of Siena, Catholics are now more worried about the perceived advance of Islam than about maintaining old entitlements for their faith. “Their dilemma is whether the rights which their faith enjoys can be justified when new ones, like Islam, are appearing in Europe.” Some of Italy's Muslims, meanwhile, have been demanding “secularism” in the sense of diluting the Roman Catholic culture of the state, which is epitomised by crucifixes in court rooms, classrooms and hospitals. A Muslim convert, Adel Smith, has been fighting a long battle to get such symbols removed. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has dismayed secularists by stressing the country's Catholic heritage in some recent speeches. But the late (Jewish-born) Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, was a staunch defender of the secular state as a bulwark against all forms of fundamentalism. Defining the relationship between religion and the state was certainly easier when it could be assumed that religion's hold over people's lives and behaviour was in long-term decline. But with Islam on the rise, and many Christians—even those with the vaguest of personal beliefs—becoming more defensive of their cultural heritage, the line is getting harder and harder to draw. On that point at least, Archbishop Williams was quite correct.

Michael N. Hull said...

The Sunday Times of February 17, 2008 shares my views on this matter. Britain is becoming a secular society containing a large minority population whose faith is fundamentalist Islam. This is a national nightmare looming on the horizon. The Sunday Times asks if Has Britain Become Soft on Terror? and answers this question through story of......

a 17-year-old schoolboy, Raja, from Ilford, east London who packed a bag and left home apparently bent on pursuing Islamist terrorism. Uder his mattress a letter he had left for his parents which said that he was going to fight abroad and promised: “We will meet in the garden of paradise.” In fact headed not abroad but to Bradford, where he met other British Muslims who had been downloading extremist material about suicide attacks and bomb-making. Raja stayed with his new-found friends for three days.

The security services claim more than 20 Islamist terror plots in Britain have been thwarted, with only one succeeding. More than 1,000 people have been arrested under terrorism laws and more than 200 of them convicted. Raja and his associates were caught up in this tough new approach. They were charged with possessing material “for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism”. They were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 13 years in jail. Given that they had committed no attacks, it was hardly an example of being soft on terror. When the Appeal Court overturned that judgment last week – the government is considering an appeal to the law lords – many people were confused. Why, they asked, were people jailed for downloading child pornography, but not for downloading violent jihadi material?

But the detection and conviction of extremists is the end point of a more important part of the fight against terrorism: disseminating a vision of British values so the various communities that live here do not become radicalised …….. the country “presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, postChristian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity”. his is only made worse “by the firm self-image of those elements within it who refuse to integrate”. In short, a weak and flabby national culture has, by bending over backwards to accommodate outsiders, left itself open to attack by strong-minded radicals. The divide is evident on popular UK websites. Yesterday one called Islambase carried an article entitled Democracy (False Religion), declaring that parliament is “haram” – unlawful or forbidden – because its laws should not be preferred to sharia Islamic law. Another article, called Integration, listed “forbidden types of integration” including voting and going to a cinema, swimming pool or nightclub.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission declined to comment for this article, saying the views of its chairman, Trevor Phillips, are well known. He has said that multiculturalism has led to Britain “sleepwalking to segregation”. But the question remains: after decades of multiculturalism, is there a way back? The problem is finding the long-term political will to do so.