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Conflict over Sharia law in the UK

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bullet"...then we gave you a Sharia in religion, follow it, and do not follow the lust of those who do not know..." Qur'an, Sura 45:17.
bullet...there was a legitimate fear that fundamentalist practices as codified in sharia law even more worrisomely, as interpreted by individual imams would leave women vulnerable to judgments founded on religious texts that clash with Canadian law and values." Rosie Dimmano 1

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Many countries in the West are experiencing a conflict between:

bulletMuslims who feel an obligation to be obey Sharia, the law system used in many Islamic countries, and
bulletA desire to recognize equal justice and liberty for all, particularly with regard to gender.

In Ontario Canada, for example, columnist Haroon Siddiqui wrote about critics who complained that with the proposed establishment of Sharia law:

"Multiculturalism was eroding common values. The line separating church and state was being erased. Theocracy was being grafted onto Canada." 1

Religious courts already exist in the UK. They help individuals settle disputes, but can only act as long as both or all parties agree to the process. Their final arbitration decisions are binding and enforceable. Criminal matters are reserved for the UK's state courts.

Jewish Beth Din courts at Finchley in north London arbitrate disputes in which both parties are Jewish. They provide binding civil arbitration. They do not try to replace the state's civil courts. David Frei of Beth Din said:

"If one side does not accept the authority of the Beth Din, concerning divorce or any dispute, we cannot act. And in the case of divorce, the parties must still obtain a civil divorce alongside the religious one."

The Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, East London opened in 1982. They have given advice on topics ranging from financial inheritances to women wearing wigs. However, the vast majority of cases deal with divorce. Many of those involve are trapped in what are called "limping marriages:" A Muslim man has left one wife and married another without giving his first wife a divorce. This prevents her from remarrying, because Muslim law allows women only one husband, even while allowing men up to four wives. Muslim courts normally attempt to reconcile the parties first. If this is unsuccessful, they will generally issue a religious divorce.

One woman's story of how she used the UK Sharai court to obtain a divorce after a fraudulent marriage is online. She obtained a religious divorce at no cost to herself in three weeks. 8

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Rowan William's comments:

Concern over Sharia Law in the UK surged on 2008-FEB-04 when the Rowan Williams was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 World at One program. He is the current the Archbishop of Canterbury -- the spiritual leader of the Church of England and the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He suggested that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia Law in the UK "seems unavoidable."

The BBC reported:

"Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court. He says Muslims should not have to choose between 'the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty'."

"He stresses that 'nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the 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 as well'. But Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said 'there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts - I think that's a bit of a danger. There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law'."

"Dr Williams added: 'What we don't want either, is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences. We don't either want a situation where, because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do... people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes another way of intensifying oppression inside a community. ... That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that. ... The whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways the law of the land pays respect to custom and community, that's already there," he said. 2

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Reaction to William's comments:

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the prime minister understands the difficulties that the Archbishop is facing and praised his "dedication to public and community service." However, Brown feels that religious law should remain subservient to UK law. 3

Conservative members of the Church of England asked that the Williams apologize for his remarks. There are allegations that 150 traditionalist members were prepared to sign an open letter in which they distanced themselves from his suggestions. According to Robert Pigott, a religious correspondent to the BBC, the traditionalists believe that Dr Williams should be promoting the supremacy of UK law which they believe is based on the Bible. Dr Chris Sugden, canon and executive secretary of the conservative group Anglican Mainstream said:

"Well we're saying that he's made a mistake - that he has caused great difficulties for our colleagues especially in Nigeria, especially in other countries where there's significant Muslim pressure for Sharia to come in. ... We hope that he will have the integrity to say 'I made a mistake in what I said', and 'I'm sorry to those for whom it has caused great distress'." 3

The Reverend Rod Thomas, chairman of a conservative Anglican group called "Reform" said:

"He has let down the Church and in particular I think he's left Christians in other countries that are trying to sound cautionary notes about the spread of Sharia law in an extremely difficult position."

Two members of the Church of England Synod suggested that Williams resign:

bulletColonel Edward Armitstead, a member from the diocese of Bath and Wells, said that Williams should resign and work in a university setting.
bulletAlison Ruoff, a synod member from London, said Williams was "very able, a brilliant scholar as a man" but in terms of being a leader: "he's actually at the moment a disaster". 3

George Carey, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, said that acceptance of some Sharia laws would be "disastrous" for Britain. He also said that Williams should not be forced to resign over this issue. He said:

"He has in my opinion overstated the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes. His conclusion that Britain will eventually have to concede some place in law for aspects of Sharia is a view I cannot share. There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights. His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation."

But he added that Williams is: "... a great leader in the Anglican tradition and he has a very important role to play in the Church." 4

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Rowan William's clarification:

He defended his beliefs concerning Sharia law i the UK during a speech to the General Synod of the Church of England on 2008-FEB-11. He said that his statements were widely misunderstood. He said in part:

"... 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 and bring them into better public focus. ..."

"We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions, and I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank checks' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women. The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity."

"So the question remains of whether certain additional choices could and should be made available under the law of the United Kingdom for resolving disputes and regulating transactions. It would be analogous to what is already possible in terms of the legal recognition of certain kinds of financial transactions under Islamic regulation (including special provision around mortgage arrangements). And it would create a helpful interaction between the courts and the practice of Muslim legal scholars in this country."

"If - and please note that word - this were thought to be a useful direction in which to move, there would be plenty of work still to be done, with the greatest care, on what would and would not be possible and appropriate areas for such co-operation. I noted, for example, that traditional Muslim attitudes to 'apostasy' posed a very serious question (recognized by many Muslim scholars today) and that honest discussion of this was imperative."

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References used:

  1. Haroon Siddiqui, "Sharia is gone but fear and hostility remain," The Toronto Star, 2005-SEP-15, Page A25. Online at: http://www.thestar.com/
  2. "Sharia law in UK is 'unavoidable'," BBC News, 2008-FEB-07, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  3. "PM praises archbishop's integrity," BBC News, 2008-FEB-11, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  4. "Carey weighs into Sharia law row," BBC News, 2008-FEB-10, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  5. Dan Bell, "The view from inside a Sharia court," BBC News, 2008-FEB-11. at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  6. Nick Tarry, "Religious courts already in use," BBC News, 2008-FEB-07, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  7. "Archbishop's speech to General Synod," BBC News, 2008-FEB-11, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  8. " 'I used Sharia law for divorce'," BBC News, 2008-FEB-11, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/

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Copyright 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2008-FEB-13
Latest update: 2008-FEB-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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