(CNSNews.com) - A call by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams for Britain to adopt parts of Islamic law (shari'a) to help maintain social cohesion has provoked strong reaction.
In a lengthy academic lecture delivered in London Thursday night, the head of the Church of England and titular leader of the world's 77-million strong Anglican/Episcopalian church challenged what he said were misconceptions about Islamic law.
Shari'a, he said, "is not intrinsically to do with any demand for Muslim dominance over non-Muslims."
He laid out a case for the law of the land making some accommodation for minority communities that have "their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes."
Williams noted, for example, that laws on abortion make provision for the views of pro-life Christians and conscientious objection for medical professionals; and that Orthodox Jews have courts that handle some civil disputes.
In an interview with BBC radio, the archbishop acknowledged that the concept of a single body of law applying equally to all citizens is a foundational tenet of western democracy
But, he argued, the approach that says "there's one law for everybody ... 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."
Williams made it clear in the interview that he was not endorsing extreme practices linked to shari'a in some parts of the world.
"Nobody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country a 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."
Originally, he said, Islamic law was more enlightened in its provisions regarding women than other legal systems of its day.
With the whole area of rights and liberties of women having "moved on," the principles behind Islamic legal provisions in that area need "broadening," he added.
Reaction was swift -- and harsh.
"Has the archbishop gone bonkers?" asked Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent at the London Times, saying that "incredulous commentators of every variety" had been stunned by Williams' remarks.
"Is the Archbishop of Canterbury unaware of the history of the church he has been chosen to lead?" she asked. "The Church of England was born out of an express desire to rid Britain of a foreign, ecclesiastical jurisdiction [the Roman Catholic Church]."
And now, she said, Williams wants to introduce a new outside jurisdiction -- "and an Islamic one at that!"
Catholic Herald editor Damien Thompson, writing on a Daily Telegraph blog, called the words "the most monumentally stupid thing I have ever heard an Archbishop of Canterbury say."
He wondered how Williams' views would go down with Anglicans in Africa - already angered by the homosexuality issue - particularly in parts of Nigeria where many live under totalitarian shari'a.
As the debate raged online, conservative Christian organizations weighed in.
"This is a Christian country with Christian laws," said Stephen Green of Christian Voice. "If Muslims want to live under shari'a law then they are free to emigrate to a country where shari'a law is already in operation."
"We would be alarmed at any proposal to incorporate any part of shari'a law into the British legal system," said Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, a non-denominational group that seeks to promote "Christian influence in a secular world."
On Williams' comment about the principles of Islamic law needing "broadening" in the area of women's rights, religion columnist Christopher Howse pointed out that shari'a does not rely on mere principles but on Allah's revelation, "which may not be abrogated."
Some secularists, too, were offended.
"All religious groups preach that they are inclusive and work towards social integration in Britain, yet what they practice is exactly the opposite," said National Secular Society spokesman Alistair McBay.
"They want, and get, segregated schools, segregated scout groups, even segregated toilets, and now apparently, social cohesion and integration are to be further achieved by separate laws for separate religious groups. This is truly bizarre."
Welcoming the churchman's comments, the Ramadhan Foundation, an Islamic charity, said they would promote a debate on shari'a "based on facts not right-wing headlines."
"Muslims would take huge comfort from the government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith," said the organization's chairman, Muhammad Umar.
The official spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded cautiously.
"Our general position is that shari'a law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of shari'a law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes."
On the other hand, the spokesman said, "if there are specific instances like stamp duty, where changes can be made in a way that's consistent with British law and British values, in a way to accommodate the values of fundamental Muslims, that is something the government would look at."
(The stamp duty refers to the government's agreement in 2004 to abolish double duties on "shari'a-compliant" mortgages in Britain. Because Islam forbids the charging or paying of interest, a bank buys a house and a Muslim purchaser then buys it from the bank by "renting" it over a certain period at a slightly increased price. As the house is effectively sold twice, the stamp duty or tax was being charged twice until the 2004 decision.)
In the U.S., author and Jihad Watch director Robert Spencer picked up on Williams' comment that the notion of one law for everybody was "a bit of a danger."
"Once you discard the principle of 'one law for everybody,' you create protected classes, privileged classes, and end up inevitably with a tyranny in which some groups are denied basic rights," Spencer said.
"I wonder if Rowan Williams is aware that if Muslims ever came to power in Britain, they themselves would enforce one law for everybody -- a law that would reduce him to dhimmitude [the enforced subservient status of non-Muslims under Islam]," he said.
"Of course, by that time he may have converted."
UK Bishop Sparks Row With Comments on Islam, Multiculturalism (Jan. 07, 2008)
Islam Could Become Europe's Dominant Religion, Experts Say (Mar. 02, 2007)
Britain Aims to Become Europe's Most 'Islam-Friendly' Economy (Mar. 20, 2006)
'Shari'a Law Has No Place Here,' Australian Politician Says (Feb. 24, 2006)
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