The Guardian reports today that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, raised eyebrows last night when he suggested that the UK ought to recognize sharia law. Sharia law, or Islamic law, forms the basis of the legal systems in Islamic theocracies, but is often practiced informally within other societies, particularly on matters such as marriage and divorce.
The idea that the UK–a society that like Europe at large has almost fully rejected the shackles of religious tyranny–would take such a huge leap backwards is almost unthinkable. Not only that, but one of the fundamental pillars of the British legal tradition is equal treatment under the law. While multiculturalism is a fact of life in the modern world, there’s a fine line between multiculturalism (good) and exceptionalism (bad). Recognizing sharia law would cross that line… and then some.
But why, WHY would you want to do this in the UK of all places? British common law is by far Great Britain’s most valuable gift to the rest of the world. Much more than just outrageous white wigs, it’s a system that has evolved to promote fairness, equality, and justice while effectively balancing the often competing forces of change and stability. It forms the basis of law in the United States and in countries across the world, and it is the bedrock of stable democracies worldwide.
Although colonialism was a morally bankrupt endeavor–one that colors some of the darkest chapters in the history of our globe–former British colonies by and large escaped much better off than others, to a great extent due the stable legal systems left behind. Of course, the net gains and losses of British colonialism can be debated endlessly, and the picture that emerges is far less rosy. Regardless, British common law is at least one tick mark on the side of the positives.
Take South Africa, for example. The struggle against apartheid was far from civil, and the apartheid regime was one of the most brutal and debased in history. Despite this, the struggle was largely a legalistic one (and Nelson Mandela’s skills as a lawyer were at least as important as his ability to help lead an often violent revolution) because much of the British legal system remained intact, even during South Africa’s darkest hours. Or, for a more contemporary example, the situation in Pakistan only reached crisis levels when President Pervez Musharraf eviscerated the Supreme Court, removing the only true check on his power.
Fortunately, British government officials aren’t having any of this nonsense from Williams:
His comments, in a lecture on civil and religious law given at the Royal Courts of Justice, were swiftly rebutted by the prime minister’s spokesman, who insisted British law would be based on British values and that sharia law would be no justification for acting against national law.
“Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes. If there are specific instances, like stamp duty, where changes can be made in a way that’s consistent with British law … to accommodate the values of fundamental Muslims, that is something the government would look at.”
Williams was also criticised by the Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion and social action. “The comments may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities,” she said … “We must ensure people of all backgrounds and religions are treated equally before the law. Freedom under the law allows respect for some religious practices. But let’s be clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through parliament and the courts.”
If anything this just points to the growing irrelevancy of Williams (like other religious figures in Europe). He knows that the heydays of Christian theocratic dominance in Europe are long gone, so now he’s scrapping for any undue influence of religion in the secular state… fortunately to no avail.