Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sharia in the UK

Its hard to understand why Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, stuck his neck above the parapet to suggest that Sharia law is an inevitability in the UK. It is as easy, in equal measure, to pick apart the argument of the supposedly intelligent holy man. I find myself somewhat alarmed (yet again) that one of the more incisive pieces I've read on the matter was written in the Telegraph by a writer for The Spectator. Perhaps it's not so strange however; Williams' brand of liberalism is utterly confused and tantamount to an appeasement strategy on one level, as if to say: let British Muslims use the moderate aspects of Sharia they want, just so the Islamists/Jihadists are kept at bay.

The principle of political philosophy that he gets muddled about is really pretty simple to understand: if equality before the law is the highest value in a liberal society, then that law has to be universal. If, then, polygamy is considered illegal by the British legal system, this law should apply to all, regardless of religion, and so on. In other words, Sharia (however moderate the specific code) should only apply where it doesn't contravene or conflict with the higher force of British law. In which case, what exactly is its point, as a form of law? Better that Sharia in the UK becomes adopted as a customary practice (as in Jewish or Catholic ritual), rather than a rival form of customary law. But where it contravenes the British legal system (as in the polygamy issue), exceptions can't be made without bringing the whole edifice of equality-before-the-law down with a bang.

However, rather than aligning myself wholeheartedly with Boris' brigade of monoglottal little Englanders via my link to the Spectator chappies piece, the principle of equality before the law does end up as a vital pillar of multiculturalism and pluralism in society. It is precisely the equality-before-the-law principle that provides the social ballast (and balance) for difference to proliferate - within the bounds of the legal system. Just as perplexing as Williams' argument in defence of a role for Sharia within the British legal system, is the right-wing argument that multiculturalism is a myth/is impossible/a liberal fantasy etc. Anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge of British history will acknowledge what a mongrel race we are, without a single element of purity running through our veins. It is arguably that almost paradoxical combination of hybrid origins yoked to strong institutions and legal structures that has been the UK's strength, at least until recently.


Modibbo,  11:06 am  


I am taken aback by your joining the chorus of paranoia and intolerance that has been unleashed by Williams' comments. The Arch has called for no more that the extension of the plurality that is enjoyed by Jews and Catholics (and has been so for centuries) under British law.

Matters of a civil nature are already dealt with by Beth Din in the Jewish orthodox community, why shouldn't Muslims enjoy the same leeway and accommodation. Afterall Islam has been the fastest growing religion in the UK for several years now.

Williams comments have been deliberately bent out of shape. He never called for a parallel legal system - just accommodation withing the existing framework.


Jeremy 11:28 am  

Modibbo: The Beth Din and Catholic civil panels mostly deal with uncontroversial rites - in the case of the former, conversions, burials etc.

Sharia law is an entirely different proposition. One can take issue with Williams' appeal for a limited importation of Sharia within the British legal system without being branded paranoid or intolerant.

No one is concerned with hand-chopping or the stoning of raped women beloved of the wahabi faith; however issues of polygamy and other codes relating to the treatment of women are in direct conflict with the liberalism enshrined in British law.

I don't see any accommodation possible in this context...

Modibbo,  11:47 am  


Given that Williams has not specified how and what should be accommodadted, what is your position based on?

The Social Services already pay out to polygamous families, so in a sense it is already happening. Surely what is needed is clarification and codification, to avoid arbitrariness and uneven treatment.

This is the kernel of RW's suggestion. If Britain was big hearted enough to accommodate Beth Din by statute, why not Sharia? The Beth Din have restrictions and conditions, their boundaries are clearly set out and they do not supercede British Law.

Why the intolerance for the Islamic equivalent. BTW Jews account for about 0.6% of the population, whereas Muslims are over 2.5%.

RW did NOT call for the wholesale importation of Sharia - just accommodation.


Fred 7:13 pm  

Jeremy: um, wow. I'm stunned by some of your posts, but pleasantly so I hasten to add.
Kudos at not being so completely blind to common sense.

Accomodation of mutually exclusive principles and ideology is capitulation.

Modibbo,  8:04 pm  

Capitulation you say, Fred.

You make it sound as if there is a war against Islam.


Jeremy 8:45 pm  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy 9:02 pm  

I don't think many people (apart from the rabid) would have an issue with very specific legislation concerning Islamic practice in the UK - for instance, in the regulation of halal butchers (as with kosher food establishments in Judaism); nor, more significantly, with the licensing and regulation of who can be speak and work as an Imam in a mosque - to keep out the wahabi fruitcakes.

If the Archibishop had confined himself to these issues, there would have been no conflagration in the press.

However, to talk of Sharia law as an "inevitability" in the UK was an ill-advised move, especially as many would take it to be a thin end of the wedge type argument. No wonder there has been such hostility to the 'old goat' from all aspects of the press - from left of centre to the right, from the quality ex-broadsheets to the tabloids.

The European Court of Human Rights no less has clearly stated that Sharia law is incompatible with democracy - see this link

On page 2, we read (apropos a case in Turkey):
"Noting that the Welfare Party had pledged to set up a regime based on sharia law, the
Court found that sharia was incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy as set
forth in the Convention. It considered that “sharia, which faithfully reflects the dogmas and
divine rules laid down by religion, is stable and invariable. Principles such as pluralism in the
political sphere or the constant evolution of public freedoms have no place in it". According to the
Court, it was difficult to declare one’s respect for democracy and human rights while at the same
time supporting a regime based on sharia, which clearly diverged from Convention values,
particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of
women and the way it intervened in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with
religious precepts."

Regulation of any religious or cultural practice to ensure that it interfaces/accords with basic standards of health, well-being, freedom of speech and does not involve hate speech is one thing. Importing a theocratic system of rules from a patriarchal elsewhere (no matter in what small chunks) is quite another.

Jeremy 9:03 pm  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy 9:05 pm  

ok i am having problems getting the full link location for the pdf into my comment. To get to the pdf on the European Court of Human Rights judgement against Sharia law, type:

European Court of Human Rights Sharia

into Google. Its currently the first thing that comes up...

Modibbo,  8:45 am  


I couldn't agree with you more.

Problem is you are still mis-quoting and taking RW out of context - and you know you are.

High street banks are giving out Sharia-compliant mortgages. Polygamous marriages are being recognised (and by extension legitimised). With over 1.8m Muslims in Britain, it is only a matter of time before aspects of Sharia become part and parcel of the law.

Sure there will be restrictions to its application - but this is inevitable.


Jeremy 10:21 am  

Modibbo why do you continually assume I have not read RW's piece? It is easy to find here:

In the penultimate paragraph, he tries to align his argument (challenging the universal conception of abstract human rights with a more inclusive, customary law grounded in cultures) with an argument for faith schools. He writes,

'The best argument for faith schools from the point of view of any aspiration towards social harmony and understanding is that they bring communal loyalties into direct relation with the wider society and inevitably lead to mutual questioning and sometimes mutual influence towards change, without compromising the distinctiveness of the essential elements of those communal loyalties.'

How exactly does a faith school - say a madrassa in London - bring its pupils (or its teachers for that matter) 'into direct relation with the wider society'? Surely, the exact opposite is more likely the case - that Muslims who are educated in Muslim-only schools are sectioned off from the wider society.

His style of argument is too intricate to retain clarity of thought. He seems to want to challenge what he calls the 'Enlightenment' ideal of human rights, based on respect for cultural difference. None of his arguments in this direction have any strength. It does seem, as other commentators have noted, that he is trying to separate out what he calls the 'primitive' followers of Qutb from a moderate interpretation of Islam. However, by suggesting that Muslims in Britain should be allowed 'choice' in the 'market' of legal jurisdictions, he retains both baby and bathwater. In this circumstance, how would certain mosques be prevented from arguing that forced marriages, honour killings are not part of their interpretation of Sharia?

In being quite so intellectualist/academic about his argument, he has not followed its consequences through. As a Professor of Theology at a university somewhere, Williams would cut and interesting and mildly controversial figure. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he has opened up an arena of debate which is far more complex and volatile than he initially realised.

All of which is unfortunate to say the least. Without his theological meanderings, most people in the UK who are not Muslim would have no qualms about licensing the halal meat trade, Imams or Islamic banking for that matter. What we have here is a case of way too much theological debate, not in full awareness of the complex dynamics of the society in which it takes place.

'Gbenga,  11:03 am  

Nigeria is actually a good place to use to put things in some sort of context.

When thinking of the place of Sharia in Nigeria, it is easy to think of it in terns of very recent history and the aberration that the likes of Yerima tried to perpetrate in the last 7-10 years.

On the other hand, the truth is that Sharia has been part of Nigerian law before and since independence and under our various Constitutions. It has always been applicable and applied in the same way essentially as customary law in certain spheres of "personal law" (and only to some limited extent in some spheres of public law).

Thus a Moslem person may decide that his estate is to be divided upon his death in accordance with Moslem law; or the "English-style courts" courts may hold (indeed have held since as far back as 1973) that the estate of a Moslem person who died intestate was to be divided under Moslem law since the person had lived and conducted his life under that law.

Understood in that kind of context, the brouhaha over RW's speech is really a storm in a teacup!

Modibbo,  12:08 pm  


I am sure you have read the speech, that hasn't stopped you getting hot under the collar and twisting the intent.

You bring up faith schools and immediately reach for the 'Madrassa' example, knowing the negative images this connotes. The reality is that parents are falling over themselves to get their kids into RC and CofE 'faith' schools, because of the perceived benefits for their kids.

This is the essence of your opposition to RW's speech, based on your fear and bias against Islam as a whole. The man committed no crime than to raise a discussion no one else is prepared to have.

That said, you may just be correct. If even you, as bright and liberal as I assume you to be, married to a woman whose family must have Islamic links (Bakare), feel threatened, then maybe it is a debate too far.

That doesn't mean RW is wrong though.


Jeremy 12:42 pm  


I am neither hot under the collar, nor motivated by fear of Islam. In fact, I have a lot of respect for Islam in history (especially around the time of the House of Wisdom) and find myself drawn to Sufism. But these are personal matters and not at all related to the argument.

My criticism of the Archbishop's speech is motivated by concern that he has stirred up a hornet's nest.

My point is, there is a perfectly calm debate to be had about practical aspects of regulating Sharia in terms of the overall authority of British law.

However, the good Archbishop decided to stage a deeper, more theological argument about recalibrating the relationship between Enlightenment human-rights in favour of a more engaged approach to religious codes. It does look like he's doing this as a way of separating off extremists from the masses of moderate Muslims, by a mechanism of legal enfranchisement. Definitely, his motivations are positive. But we all know about the road to hell being paved with good intentions...

The problem is, the logical conclusion of his musings is opening up the option of parallel legal processes (and parallel education systems, parallel family laws etc). He explicitly acknowledges this in his reference to a legal 'market'.

Either we stick to Enlightenment ideals of universal justice based on human rights, or we throw the whole lot away and say take your pick. I don't see how the latter enables any retention of the former.

So - better to take away the deep-theory and remain practical with how Islamic cultural codes can be given some kind of oversight in terms of British law. Unfortunately, this is not the argument the Archbishop staged, hence all the wahalla and the slap on the wrists by big Gordon yesterday..

Modibbo,  1:14 pm  

'how Islamic cultural codes can be given some kind of oversight in terms of British law.'

You seem to have come full circle in your argument, having begun by acknowledging the 'mongrel' nature of Britishness.

Time has come for Muslims' role in the continuous evolution of British identity to be recognised and formally inculcated in the law. Given their number and social/political impact, this is as welcome as it is inevitable.

This is the essence of RW's argument. A point on which you do not (apparently) disagree.

So, what is your problem?


Jeremy 1:35 pm  

My argument has been I think consistent throughout, and can be stated thus:

British social identity has always been hybrid. However, the principle of equality under the law requires abstract principles of human rights. Legal systems based on universal values float free of the society in which they operate, to a large extent.

RW's argument is thus:
British identity is increasingly facing diversity from groups who do not share the Western Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment background (ie Muslims who wish to practice Sharia). Rather than alienating them, or pushing them into extremism, it is better that we at this stage consider how to provide an alternative to British law for civil cases, and hence stop the social alienation.

The difference in positions is I think clear. I do not think that the UK should forgo the centuries of struggle which has led to the British legal system/political set-up as it is, just because there are tensions in society from those who do not share/buy into that historical context.

Rather than go for the jugular: changing the legal-political basis of British law by offering Sharia as an alternative system, RW should have (if he was to open his mouth at all on this issue) engaged in a much more practical, less-academic argument. There would have been little controversy had he done so, apart from the inevitable outcry on the pages of the Daily Mail..

As in the case of the US, I cannot let go of the fact that social difference is glued together under a universalist legal system which disregards difference (everyone is equal under the law). Of course the reality is that minorities often suffer under the nose of the law. But that is a failing of practice, not of principle..

RW confuses social difference with the need for its legal accommodation. That is the nub of his error.

On all this, I think my perspective is clear. I am not motivated by islamophobia (far from it), nor by emotion.

I'd now like to hear your (so far undeveloped) perspective. Do you seriously think the majority of people in Britain would accept a parallel Sharia legal system, allowing certain sections of society the option to chose which route they take on conflict/dispute resolution?

And how do you propose to stop mosques extending and re-defining Sharia for their own purposes? Are you suggesting that Sharia itself should be codified for the first time? How would you resolve the divergences between Sunni and Shia interpretations of Sharia? Which interpretation would be acceptable and which not, and why?

If the codification of Sharia is the only route forwards to stop the proliferation of regulations named as Sharia across the Muslim world from being imported into the UK, I'd love to know how you propose that codification process would take place.

Modibbo,  2:01 pm  


Britain already does, as you put it, 'allow certain sections of society the option to chose which route they take on conflict/dispute resolution' - it is called arbitration and is practiced in both religious and non-religious contexts.

The Jewish Beth Din courts already practice this plural legal approach, though subject to and limited by British law. Which of course would be the basis for incorporating Sharia. The basis for undertaking arbitration by Beth Din involves a number of provisos;
1. Both parties must agree to taking the route,
2. Both parties must be Jewish,
3. Only civil (not criminal) issues are dealt with, and
4. British law supercedes

What stops a similar framework being adopted for Muslims?

How could Sharia be inculcated? By adopting a similar model to the Beth Din. Do you presume that there are no sects or conflicting schools of theology in Judaism? Of course there are (there are Jews who don't believe in the State of Israel, for Christ's sake!). Are all represented by/supportive of the Beth din - probably not.

So the diversity of Islamic interpretation is a moot point.

The unwillingness of even educated, liberal-minded people to merely think about this issue, without the knee-jerk Little Englander backlash is, frankly, embarrassing.


Jeremy 2:19 pm  

Modibbo - again you are confusing different issues. Sharia is NOT a codified legal system - it is a vast non-uniform assemblage of different practices and interpretations in different contexts and across different Muslim sects. You talk as if it IS a uniform and integrated system, which is a mistake and a misunderstanding.

This is all in marked contrast to Orthodox Judaism, which is highly codified and uniform.

So whether or not there are as many strands of Judaism as Islam is irrelevant.

My most recent point (ie my last post) is that if parliament decided to enable a Sharia court to decide upon civil disputes, which version of Sharia would it permit, and which would it exclude, and why? RW touches upon the more 'neuralgic' of these examples - forced marriage and the inheritance of widows being two that he highlights.

The way forward once the debate has simmered down I think is to practicalise the issue (as the Prime Minister seems to want to do) - decided on various regulatory/resolution mechanisms that fit within British law. Leave the grand theology and juriprudence theory well alone. Make sure that there is no possibility of the more barbaric aspects of Sharia (a la the wahabis) has a chance of a look-in. And for the Govt to come up with a good communication strategy on the whole thing.

On this point, we may be entirely in agreement. Certain Islamic practices CAN be regulated within the British legal system, via an outsourced resolution panel (aka Sharia court). However, this has to be handled with care, so as not to signal that a parallel legal system is being set up, let alone the future of enlightenment-based law is up for grabs via some spaghetti soup relativism.

And my point about the Archbishop wading into the argument in precisely the right way to stir up a thousand little Englanders remains: it was extremely ill-advised for him to opine in this way.

Modibbo,  2:34 pm  


This is the open-minded Jeremy that we all know and love.

I am glad that RW has taken the flak for introducing this controversial issue to the public arena. Now when GB rolls out sensible, practical ways for involving Sharia in the Brit legal system, there will be little opposition. Whatever govt comes up with will be seen as an innocuous watered-down compromise.

Call it Christian sacrifice.

(Mmmm, I just love the smell of cynical public manipulation by the Establishment in the morning!)

Jeremy 2:38 pm  

Modibbo: lol. Do you think the Establishment is that smart - to be three moves ahead and laugh while we fall into the traps?

But in a sense I agree with you. RW taking the flak may just soften the blow.

But his credibility, and the Anglican Church's credibility may just have come out the worse for it, at a fragile time for the organisation...

Anonymous,  9:38 am  

Modibbo, can all Islamic countires please also recognise the rights of Christians and Jews to worship? If not yes, then why do u think that its okay to expect your laws (including the freedom of worship and dissent that the West alows you to express) to be recognised in Western Christian countries, nothwithstandig that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the UK.

Jeremy and the rest of the Bristish people who stand against what RW said, keep up th good work in expressing your mind. Its not about being seen to be politically correct as RW has. The muslims in the West left their tyrannical setting s to a liberalised and free society. What RW needs to do is just as the Pope has been doing is to be a champion for the christian minority in Islamic countries to have freedom of worship and existence.

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