Sharia Law

Various people in my comments have asked if there is any polling about attitudes toward Sharia law. Well, I don’t know of any polls of the general population – I suspect that it would be overwhelmingly, uniformly hostile. ICM did, howeer, ask the opinion of British Muslims back in February 2006.

Asked “Would you support or oppose there being areas of Britain which are pre-dominantly Muslim and in which Sharia law is introduced?” 40% of British Muslims said yes and 41% said no. This was not, of course, actually what the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested – he was talking about a parallel system where Muslims could opt to use Sharia courts for things like family and inheritance law rather than geographical areas where Sharia law was used.

39 Responses to “Sharia Law”

  1. This is just ADR
    [Alternative Dispute Resolution].
    It already exists.

    It does not need a second tier of law for one single group.
    Muslims Jews and Christians all have their own rules which they apply themselves in addition to existing laws eg.marriage and its the dissolution.
    It is a matter of personal choice if an individual wishes to adhere to these rules.

    Companies can build into contracts that, in the event of a dipute, they will seek a certain form of resolution.

    However, exisiting laws are there as a matter of social policy which cannot and should not be varied for individual groups.

    For instance, there are boundaries for civil contracts which prevent commercial abuse .eg excessive interest rates.

    There has to be basic standards for marriage and divorce which are acceptable to a largley secular society in order for that society to function fairly.
    In a democratic society those boundaries are set by Parliament and apply to all. Any excemptions have to be voluntary and within those rules.

  2. Dr Williams reportedly 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”.”

    He appears to be speaking against equality under the law.

    I bow to the superior knowledge of the legal specialists among us-but is this practical ?( I say nothing of the question of it’s desirability)

  3. Strange world we live in.

    The more our politicians dictate morals, of all things.

    The more our priests dictate politics.

    Which may sound like simple irony, but this matter should be deeply concerning.

    The ABofC shows himself to be a product of the establishment, which of course is exactly the case.

    So when your world falls apart over the next decade, into violent racial and religious hatred among other things. Remember it was the establishment of this country that MADE IT HAPPEN, not our Muslim brothers, or Mrs Jones next door over using her credit card.

    All the opinion polls in the world will not stop people like the Archbishop spouting dangerous divisive Fascist type establishment propaganda.

    They cant help themselves their minds have been programmed that way virtually since birth.

    Divide and Rule, is one of the many instruments still remaining in the establishments tool box.

  4. if even 10% of minority groups surport such action it would be conserning not only to MP’s in the house of commons, but to me and you. the law of the united kingdom and many other states around the world is built on people acting togethor to uphold the law, if over night the govenment of the united kingdom let areas of say Leicester or Bradford have different laws to say Luton or London then we would have a two law state in which areas with high minority populations would be running on one set of laws and areas with low minority populations would be on a second type of law, it would not work in the long run and would cost alot of money to set up. plus if such laws were to be adoped the local council would have a nightmare in not being bias towards one community or the other whatever the background of that community or for that matter colour of the people who live in the area. and lastly it may tart a backlash in some areas and may split communities in two where they currntly live togethor nicely. (it’s a bad idea!)

  5. get back to uk time with your clock!

  6. There is already a provision to settle cases in a private manner. That is something quite separate from a separate and parallel system of civil law based on specific religious codes. Such a system cannot be right and must be opposed.

    How many systems would we need to introduce? To begin with there are thousands of religions and we could introduce more all the time. And what next. The Stalin-Mao school of divorce law?

    Furthermore, who decides who is or is not a believer? Just because a child is born a Muslim does not mean that they believe, so why should their future be governed by religious law. And what if one is a believer, and then three weeks after the case you change your mind or convert? Even with a voluntary system there is huge scope for pressure and coercion, and the when a religious legal system has qual accomodation to civil law this can only get worse…

    I can only say how glad I am that for once our political leaders seem to have developed a spine. Lets see how long it lasts….

  7. I think everyone should calm down and take a deep breath.

    Well we have a different system of law in Scotland including the Not Proven Verdict and that has worked fine. We also have different laws concerning abortion in Northern Ireland.

    We also have Islamic courts and Jewish Beth Din courts operating in civil law cases where both sides agree in this country and have had for some time. The Catholic Church doesn’t recognise civil marriage or divorce. For centuries we have a different forms of cannon law.

    A few years ago we didn’t have the ability to suspend habius corpus, but now with have 28 days detention and it could be 90 days soon.

    In short the notion put forward that we have some uniform and static single set of unbending national law set in stone is nonsense and so is the suggestion that the ABofC’s comments are a challenge to it.

    So for me what the ABof C said isn’t unreasonable, lets look at allowing those communities where there is a desire to be allowed to voluntarily resolve issues as they wish as long as it doesn’t compromise or undermine common law.

    What I find sad is the almost hysterical reaction to this with news reports talking about cutting off peoples hands. Hell I turned on News at Ten to see a film report that included the execution of a man tied to a tree with an AK47.

    There is legitimate concern about the rapid pace of change, whether it be population growth or multiculturalism, which we should debate and discuss, but the media reaction to this has been little short of Islamophobic paranoia.

    Again as I posted a few days ago I get the impression right now of a nation that feels it isn’t in control of where it’s going and which feels it’s sense of identity slipping away.

    I just can’t see any good reason for people to feel that way.

    England is a strong nation with it’s own culture which should be confident that it can absorb any culture that it comes across and still shine through without all this nonsense of citizenship tests or in-comers adhering to “British values’.


  8. I’m shocked and dismayed by Rowan William’s comments. Both the BNP and extremist Muslim groups must be laughing their heads off as a result of his misjudged comments.

  9. Cllr Peter Cairns: “Well we have a different system of law in Scotland” Yes, but that law applies to all in Scotland, including any English who live there.

    “The Catholic Church doesn’t recognise civil marriage or divorce.” It says that its members shouldn’t divorce, but it accepts the legality of a divorce. And if a Catholic marriage is annulled by the church it accepts that this will have to be followed by a civil action before it is legal.
    Rowan Williams seemed to be going a dangerous step beyond such existing practices.


    Why you would want to link in the BNP to Muslim extremists is mind boggling – NO comparison ! One is a democratic party and the other does’nt believe in democracy !


    I have to agree with his comments – he is right , we already allow a small minority in the UK – namely the Scots to dictate what they want .

    Islam is a new religion to the UK within the last 60 years or so – they are aware before coming here that we practice Christian based laws – the Jews never asked for our laws to be changed for them. Would countries in the oil rich parts of the Middle East with large minorities of western workers be aloud to practice western rules over there – I THINK NOT !!

  11. One is surprised YouGov ran with this (though one must admit to accessing the site with the thought it might)! Have wasted the past few hours scrolling through the HYS debate (better then watching the Aussies beating Sri Lanka) and enjoyable and informative that was….

    Forget Scotland, it’s legal system is of no concern to the majority. English law is. Consensus is that the rule-of-law should prevail, and that there should only be one law [sic] that governs us.

    So English civil law should be the prime source of non-criminal judicial decision-making. If the Muslim community wish to supplement it with Sharia law, or to integrate civil law practices within Sharia institutions, one has no problem so long as there is no conflict with existing legal precedence.

    There is my tuppence-worth. Does not really say much about the polling data though…!

  12. “Religious” Law can often be the same thing as “Cultural Tradition”. Sharia for example deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business, contracts, family, sexuality, hygiene, and social issues.It has no strictly static codified set of laws. Interpretation is all-and varies.

    This is a minefield for a modern secular democracy whos laws are codified and subject to the will of the people.
    Indeed the very application of Democracy is considered inimical to Sharia Law by some Muslim scholars.

    Our body of law protects the rights of citizens.
    Cultural Law may discriminate against classes-by gender or race, on the basis of traditions which are alien to this country-or have been for centuries.

    It is argued that if the application of Alien Cultural Law is acceptable to the two parties-then it should be applicable. But who is to judge if both parties receive the even handedness of UK State Law ?.

    Best if Religion stays in the Church ( or even better in the heart)-and out of the Courts.

  13. Well I’m glad to see there’s still a few people (i.e. Sally, Peter and others) who have managed to retain there common sense. Rowan Williams words really shouldn’t be controversial, he mentioned nothing at all about replacing any existing laws just that Muslims, if they want to, could subject themselves to additional laws as well. How is that a threat to anyone?

    Having said that, I’ve just read through Colin’s last post and he does raise some good points. It does worry me that some religious folks seem to think that UK law shouldn’t apply to them. It’s not just Muslims; we had that whole thing about Catholic adoption agencies being allowed to discriminate against homosexual people not long ago. I think the balance has to be that UK law is supreme but if people choose to live by other additional codes of conduct then that is up to them.

  14. Steven,

    I pretty much agree with you although on the adoption issue the line that The catholic church took and that the SNP accepted up here was to be ” You can have public money to support your work in allowing married catholic couples adopt as long as you direct anyone unmarried, single or gay to other agencies”.

    In effect it’s seen as an partly funded charitable body saying ” We don’t provide that service, but we can put you in touch with these people”.

    That seems a reasonable compromise to me, where no one is disadvantaged.
    I know some same sex groups object but It’s a bit like going in to a Council office and taking offence because they won’t sort out your income tax. Income tax is the tax office not the council.

    Finally a general comment.

    Is it just me or are the people posting here who are most opposed to what Rowan Williams has said, because there should be “One Law for Us All” not pretty much the same people who rant about European Human rights legislation.

    I think that is a bit contradictory and another example of a society feeling under threat.


  15. Hi folks. while I agree that the notion of a unbending set of law is wrong I still find the conept of seperate and offical bodies of civil law extremely worrying. I think the problem is that this is a recipe for social collapse. If we can have civil law for different religious groups (quite different from allowing people to settle disputes privately but within the law) then we will have dozens of parrallel systems. Not good.

    Secondly the ABoC’s assertion that one size fits all is dangerous is in my view wrong. Yes I appreciate that Scotland has its own laws, but as stated these apply to the whole of Scotland and anyone in it. It would be quite different if English in Scotland or Scots in England got different treatment.

    Even if the system is voluntary there will be enourmous pressure on some to accept a religious-ruling, whether they believe it or not.

    We should be rolling religion out of the legal system, not bringing it back in.

  16. Hi Peter. I know I am not a regular contributor to this blog, but FTR I have never ranted about the European Human Rights act. ;)

    Also, I do think society is under threat, not from Islam, but from a general rise of relativism and religion.

  17. One fears that religions will undermine Ceasar’s laws, but as a follower of St Paul’s doctrine [RC] can we cut to the chase…? Please…!

    Extra-judicial judgments are not (currently) requested, nor desired. Surely Sharia law should be allowed [sic] the same rights as a priest’s confessional…?

    Why has some Welshman made this an issue? D’oh, silly me, he was “anointed” by our Scottish PM, Tony Blair. Peter Cairn’s, you and your folk….


  18. The whole thing is outrageous especially comming from someone in such a prominent position good to hear all the main political parties and politicins condeming his comments outright!!

  19. This might help the debate, what the Archbishop actually said.

    “Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective”

    The full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture in London, part one
    Read part two

    The title of this series of lectures signals the existence of what is very widely felt to be a growing challenge in our society – that is, the presence of communities which, while no less ‘law-abiding’ than the rest of the population, relate to something other than the British legal system alone.

    But, as I hope to suggest, the issues that arise around what level of public or legal recognition, if any, might be allowed to the legal provisions of a religious group, are not peculiar to Islam: we might recall that, while the law of the Church of England is the law of the land, its daily operation is in the hands of authorities to whom considerable independence is granted.

    And beyond the specific issues that arise in relation to the practicalities of recognition or delegation, there are large questions in the background about what we understand by and expect from the law, questions that are more sharply focused than ever in a largely secular social environment. I shall therefore be concentrating on certain issues around Islamic law to begin with, in order to open up some of these wider matters.
    Article continues

    Among the manifold anxieties that haunt the discussion of the place of Muslims in British society, one of the strongest, reinforced from time to time by the sensational reporting of opinion polls, is that Muslim communities in this country seek the freedom to live under sharia law.

    And what most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; just a few days ago, it was reported that a ‘forced marriage’ involving a young woman with learning difficulties had been ‘sanctioned under sharia law’ – the kind of story that, in its assumption that we all ‘really’ know what is involved in the practice of sharia, powerfully reinforces the image of – at best – a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role.

    The problem is freely admitted by Muslim scholars. ‘In the West’, writes Tariq Ramadan in his groundbreaking Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, ‘the idea of Sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam…It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word’ (p.31).

    Even when some of the more dramatic fears are set aside, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about what degree of accommodation the law of the land can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes.

    As such, this is not only an issue about Islam but about other faith groups, including Orthodox Judaism; and indeed it spills over into some of the questions which have surfaced sharply in the last twelve months about the right of religious believers in general to opt out of certain legal provisions – as in the problems around Roman Catholic adoption agencies which emerged in relation to the Sexual Orientation Regulations last spring.

    This lecture will not attempt a detailed discussion of the nature of sharia, which would be far beyond my competence; my aim is only, as I have said, to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state, with a few thought about what might be entailed in crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.

    But it is important to begin by dispelling one or two myths about sharia; so far from being a monolithic system of detailed enactments, sharia designates primarily – to quote Ramadan again – ‘the expression of the universal principles of Islam [and] the framework and the thinking that makes for their actualisation in human history’ (32).

    Universal principles: as any Muslim commentator will insist, what is in view is the eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants in particular; but also something that has to be ‘actualised’, not a ready-made system. If shar’ designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualising and applying it; while certain elements of the sharia are specified fairly exactly in the Qur’an and Sunna and in the hadith recognised as authoritative in this respect, there is no single code that can be identified as ‘the’ sharia. And when certain states impose what they refer to as sharia or when certain Muslim activists demand its recognition alongside secular jurisdictions, they are usually referring not to a universal and fixed code established once for all but to some particular concretisation of it at the hands of a tradition of jurists.

    In the hands of contemporary legal traditionalists, this means simply that the application of sharia must be governed by the judgements of representatives of the classical schools of legal interpretation.

    But there are a good many voices arguing for an extension of the liberty of ijtihad – basically reasoning from first principles rather than simply the collation of traditional judgements (see for example Louis Gardet, ‘Un prealable aux questions soulevees par les droits de l’homme: l’actualisation de la Loi religieuse musulmane aujourd’hui’, Islamochristiana 9, 1983, 1-12, and Abdullah Saeed, ‘Trends in Contemporary Islam: a Preliminary Attempt at a Classification’, The Muslim World, 97:3, 2007, 395-404, esp. 401-2).

    Thus, in contrast to what is sometimes assumed, we do not simply have a standoff between two rival legal systems when we discuss Islamic and British law.

    On the one hand, sharia depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God; on the other, it is to some extent unfinished business so far as codified and precise provisions are concerned. To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system.

    In a discussion based on a paper from Mona Siddiqui at a conference last year at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, the point was made by one or two Muslim scholars that an excessively narrow understanding sharia as simply codified rules can have the effect of actually undermining the universal claims of the Qur’an.

    But while such universal claims are not open for renegotiation, they also assume the voluntary consent or submission of the believer, the free decision to be and to continue a member of the umma. Sharia is not, in that sense, intrinsically to do with any demand for Muslim dominance over non-Muslims.

    Both historically and in the contemporary context, Muslim states have acknowledged that membership of the umma is not coterminous with membership in a particular political society: in modern times, the clearest articulation of this was in the foundation of the Pakistani state under Jinnah; but other examples (Morocco, Jordan) could be cited of societies where there is a concept of citizenship that is not identical with belonging to the umma.

    Such societies, while not compromising or weakening the possibility of unqualified belief in the authority and universality of sharia, or even the privileged status of Islam in a nation, recognise that there can be no guarantee that the state is religiously homogeneous and that the relationships in which the individual stands and which define him or her are not exclusively with other Muslims.

    There has therefore to be some concept of common good that is not prescribed solely in terms of revealed Law, however provisional or imperfect such a situation is thought to be. And this implies in turn that the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.

    It is true that this account would be hotly contested by some committed Islamic primitivists, by followers of Sayyid Qutb and similar polemicists; but it is fair to say that the great body of serious jurists in the Islamic world would recognise this degree of political plurality as consistent with Muslim integrity.

    In this sense, while (as I have said) we are not talking about two rival systems on the same level, there is some community of understanding between Islamic social thinking and the categories we might turn to in the non-Muslim world for the understanding of law in the most general context.

    There is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and the human (as in Jewish and Christian thinking; once again, we are not talking about an exclusively Muslim problem).

    The danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity. There is a position – not at all unfamiliar in contemporary discussion – which says that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private and of individual choice.

    As I have maintained in several other contexts, this is a very unsatisfactory account of political reality in modern societies; but it is also a problematic basis for thinking of the legal category of citizenship and the nature of human interdependence.

    Maleiha Malik, following Alasdair MacIntyre, argues in an essay on ‘Faith and the State of Jurisprudence’ (Faith in Law: Essays in Legal Theory, ed. Peter Oliver, Sionaidh Douglas Scott and Victor Tadros, 2000, pp.129-49) that there is a risk of assuming that ‘mainstream’ jurisprudence should routinely and unquestioningly bypass the variety of ways in which actions are as a matter of fact understood by agents in the light of the diverse sorts of communal belonging they are involved in.

    If that is the assumption, ‘the appropriate temporal unit for analysis tends to be the basic action. Instead of concentrating on the history of the individual or the origins of the social practice which provides the context within which the act is performed, conduct tends to be studied as an isolated and one-off act’ (139-40). And another essay in the same collection, Anthony Bradney’s ‘Faced by Faith’ (89-105) offers some examples of legal rulings which have disregarded the account offered by religious believers of the motives for their own decisions, on the grounds that the court alone is competent to assess the coherence or even sincerity of their claims.

    And when courts attempt to do this on the grounds of what is ‘generally acceptable’ behaviour in a society, they are open, Bradney claims (102-3) to the accusation of undermining the principle of liberal pluralism by denying someone the right to speak in their own voice.

    The distinguished ecclesiastical lawyer, Chancellor Mark Hill, has also underlined in a number of recent papers the degree of confusion that has bedevilled recent essays in adjudicating disputes with a religious element, stressing the need for better definition of the kind of protection for religious conscience that the law intends (see particularly his essay with Russell Sandberg, ‘Is Nothing Sacred? Clashing Symbols in a Secular World’, Public Law 3, 2007, pp.488-506).

    I have argued recently in a discussion of the moral background to legislation about incitement to religious hatred that any crime involving religious offence has to be thought about in terms of its tendency to create or reinforce a position in which a religious person or group could be gravely disadvantaged in regard to access to speaking in public in their own right: offence needs to be connected to issues of power and status, so that a powerful individual or group making derogatory or defamatory statements about a disadvantaged minority might be thought to be increasing that disadvantage.

    The point I am making here is similar. If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour – for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief – it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory (expounded recently, for example, by R.A. Duff), fails in one of its purposes.

    The implications are twofold. There is a plain procedural question – and neither Bradney nor Malik goes much beyond this – about how existing courts function and what weight is properly give to the issues we have been discussing. But there is a larger theoretical and practical issue about what it is to live under more than one jurisdiction., which takes us back to the question we began with – the role of sharia (or indeed Orthodox Jewish practice) in relation to the routine jurisdiction of the British courts.

    In general, when there is a robust affirmation that the law of the land should protect individuals on the grounds of their corporate religious identity and secure their freedom to fulfil religious duties, a number of queries are regularly raised.

    I want to look at three such difficulties briefly. They relate both to the question of whether there should be a higher level of attention to religious identity and communal rights in the practice of the law, and to the larger issue I mentioned of something like a delegation of certain legal functions to the religious courts of a community; and this latter question, it should be remembered, is relevant not only to Islamic law but also to areas of Orthodox Jewish practice.

    The first objection to a higher level of public legal regard being paid to communal identity is that it leaves legal process (including ordinary disciplinary process within organisations) at the mercy of what might be called vexatious appeals to religious scruple.

    A recent example might be the reported refusal of a Muslim woman employed by Marks and Spencer to handle a book of Bible stories. Or we might think of the rather more serious cluster of questions around forced marriages, where again it is crucial to distinguish between cultural and strictly religious dimensions.

    While Bradney rightly cautions against the simple dismissal of alleged scruple by judicial authorities who have made no attempt to understand its workings in the construction of people’s social identities, it should be clear also that any recognition of the need for such sensitivity must also have a recognised means of deciding the relative seriousness of conscience-related claims, a way of distinguishing purely cultural habits from seriously-rooted matters of faith and discipline, and distinguishing uninformed prejudice from religious prescription.

    There needs to be access to recognised authority acting for a religious group: there is already, of course, an Islamic Shari’a Council, much in demand for rulings on marital questions in the UK; and if we were to see more latitude given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identity, we should need a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version of such a body, with increased resource and a high degree of community recognition, so that ‘vexatious’ claims could be summarily dealt with.

    The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance. There can be no blank cheques given to unexamined scruples.

    The second issue, a very serious one, is that recognition of ‘supplementary jurisdiction’ in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.

    The ‘forced marriage’ question is the one most often referred to here, and it is at the moment undoubtedly a very serious and scandalous one; but precisely because it has to do with custom and culture rather than directly binding enactments by religious authority, I shall refer to another issue.

    It is argued that the provision for the inheritance of widows under a strict application of sharia has the effect of disadvantaging them in what the majority community might regard as unacceptable ways.

    A legal (in fact Qur’anic) provision which in its time served very clearly to secure a widow’s position at a time when this was practically unknown in the culture becomes, if taken absolutely literally, a generator of relative insecurity in a new context (see, for example, Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights.

    Tradition and Politics, 1999, p.111). The problem here is that recognising the authority of a communal religious court to decide finally and authoritatively about such a question would in effect not merely allow an additional layer of legal routes for resolving conflicts and ordering behaviour but would actually deprive members of the minority community of rights and liberties that they were entitled to enjoy as citizens; and while a legal system might properly admit structures or protocols that embody the diversity of moral reasoning in a plural society by allowing scope for a minority group to administer its affairs according to its own convictions, it can hardly admit or ‘license’ protocols that effectively take away the rights it acknowledges as generally valid.

    To put the question like that is already to see where an answer might lie, though it is not an answer that will remove the possibility of some conflict. If any kind of plural jurisdiction is recognised, it would presumably have to be under the rubric that no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.

    This is in effect to mirror what a minority might themselves be requesting – that the situation should not arise where membership of one group restricted the freedom to live also as a member of an overlapping group, that (in this case) citizenship in a secular society should not necessitate the abandoning of religious discipline, any more than religious discipline should deprive one of access to liberties secured by the law of the land, to the common benefits of secular citizenship – or, better, to recognise that citizenship itself is a complex phenomenon not bound up with any one level of communal belonging but involving them all.

    But this does not guarantee an absence of conflict. In the particular case we have mentioned, the inheritance rights of widows, it is already true that some Islamic societies have themselves proved flexible (Malaysia is a case in point).

    But let us take a more neuralgic matter still: what about the historic Islamic prohibition against apostasy, and the draconian penalties entailed?

    In a society where freedom of religion is secured by law, it is obviously impossible for any group to claim that conversion to another faith is simply disallowed or to claim the right to inflict punishment on a convert. We touch here on one of the most sensitive areas not only in thinking about legal practice but also in interfaith relations.

    A significant number of contemporary Islamic jurists and scholars would say that the Qur’anic pronouncements on apostasy which have been regarded as the ground for extreme penalties reflect a situation in which abandoning Islam was equivalent to adopting an active stance of violent hostility to the community, so that extreme penalties could be compared to provisions in other jurisdictions for punishing spies or traitors in wartime; but that this cannot be regarded as bearing on the conditions now existing in the world.

    Of course such a reading is wholly unacceptable to ‘primitivists’ in Islam, for whom this would be an example of a rationalising strategy, a style of interpretation (ijtihad) uncontrolled by proper traditional norms.

    But, to use again the terminology suggested a moment ago, as soon as it is granted that – even in a dominantly Islamic society – citizens have more than one set of defining relationships under the law of the state, it becomes hard to justify enactments that take it for granted that the only mode of contact between these sets of relationships is open enmity; in which case, the appropriateness of extreme penalties for conversion is not obvious even within a fairly strict Muslim frame of reference.

    Conversely, where the dominant legal culture is non-Islamic, but there is a level of serious recognition of the corporate reality and rights of the umma, there can be no assumption that outside the umma the goal of any other jurisdiction is its destruction.

    Once again, there has to be a recognition that difference of conviction is not automatically a lethal threat.

    As I have said, this is a delicate and complex matter involving what is mostly a fairly muted but nonetheless real debate among Muslim scholars in various contexts.

    I mention it partly because of its gravity as an issue in interfaith relations and in discussions of human rights and the treatment of minorities, partly to illustrate how the recognition of what I have been calling membership in different but overlapping sets of social relationship (what others have called ‘multiple affiliations’) can provide a framework for thinking about these neuralgic questions of the status of women and converts.

    Recognising a supplementary jurisdiction cannot mean recognising a liberty to exert a sort of local monopoly in some areas.

    The Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shachar, in a highly original and significant monograph on Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights (2001), explores the risks of any model that ends up ‘franchising’ a non-state jurisdiction so as to reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members: ‘we must be alert’, she writes, ‘to the potentially injurious effects of well-meaning external protections upon different categories of group members here – effects which may unwittingly exacerbate preexisting internal power hierarchies’ (113).

    She argues that if we are serious in trying to move away from a model that treats one jurisdiction as having a monopoly of socially defining roles and relations, we do not solve any problems by a purely uncritical endorsement of a communal legal structure which can only be avoided by deciding to leave the community altogether.

    We need, according to Shachar, to ‘work to overcome the ultimatum of “either your culture or your rights”‘ (114).

    So the second objection to an increased legal recognition of communal religious identities can be met if we are prepared to think about the basic ground rules that might organise the relationship between jurisdictions, making sure that we do not collude with unexamined systems that have oppressive effect or allow shared public liberties to be decisively taken away by a supplementary jurisdiction.

    Once again, there are no blank cheques. I shall return to some of the details of Shachar’s positive proposal; but I want to move on to the third objection, which grows precisely out of the complexities of clarifying the relations between jurisdictions. Is it not both theoretically and practically mistaken to qualify our commitment to legal monopoly?

    So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; that everyone stands before the public tribunal on exactly equal terms, so that recognition of corporate identities or, more seriously, of supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality.

    There is a bit of a risk here in the way we sometimes talk about the universal vision of post-Enlightenment politics. The great protest of the Enlightenment was against authority that appealed only to tradition and refused to justify itself by other criteria – by open reasoned argument or by standards of successful provision of goods and liberties for the greatest number. Its claim to override traditional forms of governance and custom by looking towards a universal tribunal was entirely intelligible against the background of despotism and uncritical inherited privilege which prevailed in so much of early modern Europe.

    The most positive aspect of this moment in our cultural history was its focus on equal levels of accountability for all and equal levels of access for all to legal process.

    In this respect, it was in fact largely the foregrounding and confirming of what was already encoded in longstanding legal tradition, Roman and mediaeval, which had consistently affirmed the universality and primacy of law (even over the person of the monarch).

    But this set of considerations alone is not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies: it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation. Where this has been enforced, it has proved a weak vehicle for the life of a society and has often brought violent injustice in its wake (think of the various attempts to reduce citizenship to rational equality in the France of the 1790’s or the China of the 1970’s).

    Societies that are in fact ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse are societies in which identity is formed, as we have noted by different modes and contexts of belonging, ‘multiple affiliation’.

    The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist.

    But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.

    But this means that we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities. Perhaps it helps to see the universalist vision of law as guaranteeing equal accountability and access primarily in a negative rather than a positive sense – that is, to see it as a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination and guaranteed the freedom to demand reasons for any actions on the part of others for actions and policies that infringe self-determination.

    This is a slightly more gentle or tactful way of expressing what some legal theorists will describe as the ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ by the law of a state, the absolute restriction of powers of forcible restraint to those who administer statutory law.

    This is not to reduce society itself primarily to an uneasy alliance of self-determining individuals arguing about the degree to which their freedom is limited by one another and needing forcible restraint in a war of all against all – though that is increasingly the model which a narrowly rights-based culture fosters, producing a manically litigious atmosphere and a conviction of the inadequacy of customary ethical restraints and traditions – of what was once called ‘civility’. The picture will not be unfamiliar, and there is a modern legal culture which loves to have it so.

    But the point of defining legal universalism as a negative thing is that it allows us to assume, as I think we should, that the important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which a systematic abstract universalism regards as ‘private’ – in religion above all, but also in custom and habit.

    The role of ‘secular’ law is not the dissolution of these things in the name of universalism but the monitoring of such affiliations to prevent the creation of mutually isolated communities in which human liberties are seen in incompatible ways and individual persons are subjected to restraints or injustices for which there is no public redress.

    The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity – and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of ‘human dignity as such’ – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.

    It is not to claim that specific community understandings are ‘superseded’ by this universal principle, rather to claim that they all need to be undergirded by it.

    The rule of law is – and this may sound rather counterintuitive – a way of honouring what in the human constitution is not captured by any one form of corporate belonging or any particular history, even though the human constitution never exists without those other determinations.

    Our need, as Raymond Plant has well expressed it, is for the construction of ‘a moral framework which could expand outside the boundaries of particular narratives while, at the same time, respecting the narratives as the cultural contexts in which the language [of common dignity and mutually intelligible commitments to work for certain common moral priorities] is learned and taught’ (Politics, Theology and History, 2001, pp.357-8).

    I’d add in passing that this is arguably a place where more reflection is needed about the theology of law; if my analysis is right, the sort of foundation I have sketched for a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such and a conviction that the human subject is always endowed with some degree of freedom over against any and every actual system of human social life; both of these things are historically rooted in Christian theology, even when they have acquired a life of their own in isolation from that theology.

    It never does any harm to be reminded that without certain themes consistently and strongly emphasised by the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, themes to do with the unconditional possibility for every human subject to live in conscious relation with God and in free and constructive collaboration with others, there is no guarantee that a ‘universalist’ account of human dignity would ever have seemed plausible or even emerged with clarity.

    Slave societies and assumptions about innate racial superiority are as widespread a feature as any in human history (and they have persistently infected even Abrahamic communities, which is perhaps why the Enlightenment was a necessary wake-up call to religion…).

    But to return to our main theme: I have been arguing that a defence of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperilled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework.

    At the moment, as I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture, one of the most frequently noted problems in the law in this area is the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups: the assumption, in rather misleading shorthand, that if a right or liberty is granted there is a corresponding duty upon every individual to ‘activate’ this whenever called upon.

    Earlier on, I proposed that the criterion for recognising and collaborating with communal religious discipline should be connected with whether a communal jurisdiction actively interfered with liberties guaranteed by the wider society in such a way as definitively to block access to the exercise of those liberties; clearly the refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.

    The point has been granted in respect of medical professionals who may be asked to perform or co-operate in performing abortions – a perfectly reasonable example of the law doing what I earlier defined as its job, securing space for those aspects of human motivation and behaviour that cannot be finally determined by any corporate or social system.

    It is difficult to see quite why the principle cannot be extended in other areas. But it is undeniable that there is pressure from some quarters to insist that conscientious disagreement should always be overruled by a monopolistic understanding of jurisdiction.

    I labour the point because what at first seems to be a somewhat narrow point about how Islamic law and Islamic identity should or might be regarded in our legal system in fact opens up a very wide range of current issues, and requires some general thinking about the character of law.

    It would be a pity if the immense advances in the recognition of human rights led, because of a misconception about legal universality, to a situation where a person was defined primarily as the possessor of a set of abstract liberties and the law’s function was accordingly seen as nothing but the securing of those liberties irrespective of the custom and conscience of those groups which concretely compose a plural modern society.

    Certainly, no-one is likely to suppose that a scheme allowing for supplementary jurisdiction will be simple, and the history of experiments in this direction amply illustrates the problems.

    But if one approaches it along the lines sketched by Shachar in the monograph quoted earlier, it might be possible to think in terms of what she calls ‘transformative accommodation’: a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that ‘power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents’ (122).

    This may include aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution – the main areas that have been in question where supplementary jurisdictions have been tried, with native American communities in Canada as well as with religious groups like Islamic minority communities in certain contexts.

    In such schemes, both jurisdictional stakeholders may need to examine the way they operate; a communal/religious nomos, to borrow Shachar’s vocabulary, has to think through the risks of alienating its people by inflexible or over-restrictive applications of traditional law, and a universalist Enlightenment system has to weigh the possible consequences of ghettoising and effectively disenfranchising a minority, at real cost to overall social cohesion and creativity.

    Hence ‘transformative accommodation’: both jurisdictional parties may be changed by their encounter over time, and we avoid the sterility of mutually exclusive monopolies.

    It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a ‘market’ element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits.

    But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.

    In other settings, I have spoken about the idea of ‘interactive pluralism’ as a political desideratum; this seems to be one manifestation of such an ideal, comparable to the arrangements that allow for shared responsibility in education: 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.

    In conclusion, it seems that if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of ‘deconstruction’ of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment.

    But as I have hinted, I do not believe this can be done without some thinking also about the very nature of law. It is always easy to take refuge in some form of positivism; and what I have called legal universalism, when divorced from a serious theoretical (and, I would argue, religious) underpinning, can turn into a positivism as sterile as any other variety.

    If the paradoxical idea which I have sketched is true – that universal law and universal right are a way of recognising what is least fathomable and controllable in the human subject – theology still waits for us around the corner of these debates, however hard our culture may try to keep it out. And, as you can imagine, I am not going to complain about that.

    © Rowan Williams 2008”

    Pretty hard going, but thoughtful and well argued and for me nothing that constitutes in any way athreat to our way of life or legal system. it certainly didn’t deserve the reaction in the press or indeed here.


  20. people have many views on such subjects but all the people i’ve spoken to seam to be against such a system in england

  21. I think what many people have missed is what the Archbishop said in a subsequent Radio 4 interview. In this he clearly stated that in his view to say there is only one basis on which laws should be based is a ‘problem’ for those who believe in a higher authority. In other words, he appears to potentially subvert the will of the democratically represented majority under an individuals belief in God or Gods. In practice, what he is actually talking about is no great shakes – Sally’s first post here highlights how minimal his thinking actually is in practical terms – but there are philosophical issues at stake. I personally feel that, so long as individuals are not persecuted, gods must bow before laws. Otherwise we enter the scenario where laws change for each individual. I don’t think he is arguing for anything radical, but he has again displayed a staggering naivety and inability to connect to ordinary people.
    I was however very entertained by a caller to Radio 5 – amongst general unpleasant rantings against Islam he managed to come out with the quote ‘we’re a Christian nation by tradition and a Pagan nation by nature’. Couldn’t quite work that one out.

  22. Alec:-

    “he has again displayed a staggering naivety and inability to connect to ordinary people.”

    Yes I agree Alec-his disconnection fom his own clergy has been exposed too.

    The press reports today, and a radio phone-in I listened to, revealed extraordinary accounts of Sharia Law already being administered in UK within Muslim communities..If the reports are to be believed they appear to be dealing with cases which include those which would fall under criminal law in The Courts.

    Rowan Williams has at least caused this to be exposed…but I make the assumption that, in his naivete he knew nothing about it ( as in mine , I did not).
    If on the other hand he did-and it is what prompted him to call for an “accomodation” with Sharia-then he has made a monstrous error and should resign.

  23. Th man is not naive in any way.

    If what you are saying is ” Don’t say anything thought provoking or controversial because the mob will turn nasty if you are seen to challenge there narrow view of the world” then you have a point.

    But then if that is your point we really do need god to help us.

    In previous centuries Galileo and Darwin have faced similar popular assault for daring to challenge the orthodoxy of the time and history has proved them right.

    I am not sure that RW is right on this but the vitriol he has had to endure because he has dared to ask the majority to that the consider the current arrangements might be less than perfect is appalling.

    I am not a great student of US politics but one of it’s worst features is that what passes for free speech in the land of the free is often nothing more than shouting down opinions that you disagree with resulting not in progress but the dialogue of the deaf.

    Some one earlier talked about the danger from the rise of relativism and religious, I don’t think it is. The danger is anti intellectualism where anyone who makes a reasoned or thoughtful comment is lambasted for it.


  24. Hi Peter. Thanks for putting up the full speech. Its good to have that.. However, from what I understand i still disagree with the AB. I fundamentally reject his notion that religious belief is potentially sufficient explanation of action, as religious belief is entirely personal and subjective. Indeed, one could make up any belief one liked and decry its inclusion in understanding ones actions.

    It is also for me not a question of a flaw in Islam (which he goes to great lengths to dispute). I simply would rather remove the religious element from public and legal life as much as possible. And yes i do not think there should be any publicly funded religious schools.

    for me his strategy is very clear. By calling on Mulsims to reaffirm the priomacy of religious belief over the state (or at least its equity) he is calling on Christians to do this same. This is not the direction which I personally feel society shoul;d be moving if it wishes to maintain any cohesion.

    For the record though, I do not think the man should resign or be personally attacked. I just disagree with his argument. But I would expect that. He is a believer. I am not.

  25. Alasdair Cameron,

    Die Heretic……


  26. Very well put Alasdair.

    For those who are interested in the views of a modern muslim-read Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent:
    ” What he wishes on us is an abomination”

    Rowan Williams should read it carefully-he might like to put Brown’s views to the general public in further pursuit of his “debate” about an”accomodation” with this system.

  27. Does anyone remember the debate in the 1970’s about Sikhs wearing crash helmets? Seems on the face of it very similar. Of course in those days the Sikhs didn’t put up bearded men talking about tolerance and implying dire consequences if they didn’t get their way ( of course they left that to the IRA ).
    Of course it would be interesting if anyone polled the public as to how happy they are with present divorce and family laws. Heard some of the proposed Sharia divorce rules and they sounded fine. Pity about the arrogant way they were put across though. Perhaps Harriet Harman should convert to Islam and then start lecturing the Muslims about their traditions and how they really need the English version of care in the community.

  28. Thank you, Peter, for putting the whole text up. After reading it (and following his argument as carefully as I could) it now seems to me that the media reaction – and the initial reaction of ordinary people, including me – is based on misunderstanding (perhaps at least partly based on some degree of subconscious Islamaphobia). In many respects he actually said the opposite of what many have accused him of saying.

    Quite clearly it was intended to be a thoughtful contribution to a difficult area – almost impossible to be reduced to a series of simple sound-bites. And in the hysterical reaction to it (my own included), almost all of his detailed argument has been ignored.

    My conclusion is that we live in an age where difficult and important thought can be drowned out by uninformed reaction – dangerously like the baying of a mob, and egged on by the media. Even the “broadsheet” papers have mostly failed in their duty to inform us of the substance of what he was discussing, and have concentrated on the reactions to his lecture. Far easier and more “newsworthy” – but unworthy!

  29. John H,

    Pretty much my thoughts.

    The tabloids went for the “Oh My God Islam will Destroy Us All Wake Up Britain” line that sells papers and the broad sheets went on the public reaction to the word “Sharia”.

    Not quite hysteria but pretty close. In some ways it reminds me of the Death of the Princess of Wales where anyone who even suggested that the nation was over reacting was pilloried.

    Now years on we look back on that period and where as at the time virtually none of our commentators or politicians said anything against it now it’s hard not to find one who says they were any part of it.

    I wouldn’t say it’s mob rule but it isn’t democracy , “Rule by majority consent for the good of all”, it’s closer to populism, “Rule by the majority for the majority”.

    That’s always worried me because whether it be the BJP in India or the right in general, the notion that those who suggest things other than the majority view are wrong, should shut up or be made to comply is extremely dangerous.

    But here again some of the loudest voices here attacking the ABofC are people who are regularly posting about the nanny state or big brother. I suppose restrictions of freedoms like speech and thought must be okay as long as it’s only their freedoms and not ours.

    Welcome to Britain; A country where you are free to do what we think you should.


  30. Either ABofC was aware of the likely reaction, in which case he was brave, or he did not, in which case he was naive. On balance, I think he was naive, but perhaps we should thank him for that.

    Rowan Williams has opened up a debate which may be on arguments other than those he intended. Perhaps it is a debate that is overdue – and who knows where it may eventually lead.

    At root there are several different philosophical issues to consider:

    Firstly:- which should take precedence: one’s faith or one’s country ? This could be couched as a conflict between society (or the state) vs the individual.

    Secondly:- do we as a nation have a “common” heritage and values ? If so, to what extent should those values be adjusted – or even put aside – for the benefit of immigrant communities or cultures ? This is dangerous territory since it arouses fierce emotional (indeed irrational) passions, but it should be possible to have a reasoned debate. The problem for the UK is that after 10 years of NuLab’s careless mucking about with our constitution, much damage has been done without any debate.

    Thirdly, there is the specific issue as to how one can integrate into our society a different cultural strand, which unlike most previous immigrant communities, does not necessarily share – or indeed is inimical to – certin core principles on which our society is founded.

    Historically, European legal traditions have all been based on a shared judaeo-christian religious culture with a greco-roman civil law foundation.

    That there may be conflicts between civil law and religious belief has always been accepted, but this has been accommodated in differentiating the temporal from the spiritual. For believers, one should abide by the secular law, but then canon law also. This principle was enunciated by Christ himself when challenged over the legality of paying taxes: “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s”.

    Historically, civil law has evolved to reflect secular needs, and has sometimes come into conflict with canon law. In general these conflicts have been rare and/or minor, mainly because the majority of legislators were themselves imbued with the same cultural / philosophical background.

    What we now face however, is a government which seems determined to renounce the cultural heritage of our country, while allowing to develop within our country enclaves which explicitly reject the values on which our country and its legal system are founded.

    We need as a nation to reassert that our country is founded on Christian values and associated legal principles. This does not mean that we must impose Christianity on all citizens – indeed, one cannot impose any faith, since faith is a matter of personal belief. But it does mean that anyone wishing to live in our country must abide by our laws, and in so doing, accepts that those laws are based on certain historic values.

    “When in Rome….”

    Much of the vilification poured on the ABoC has come from those unwilling to confront the real danger that our nation is gradually being undermined for want of a proper debate as to what we as a country wish to be.

    That debate needs to be held. It is not a “party” political issue – though it will undoubtedly have political influences and impacts. It is not just a debate as to whether or not Britain remains a Christian country, it also touches on key issues as to the role of the individual, the family and the state within society – and on where moral and legal authority actually do, or ought to, lie.

    It is a difficult issue, and will take real courage and leadership to initiate. Poliical parties are not well placed to lead or control it, but must allow it to evolve.

  31. There will always be issues on which individual citizens have a sincere objection to something the state wishes to impose (on good democratic grounds). It is not weakness or “renouncing our cultural heritage” to kake an effort to accommodate such conscientious objections as far as possible – whether they arise from purely personal views, or are part of the special heritage of a religious community. In fact it is the mark of a confident society if (without damaging our basic rights) it seeks to accommodate differences wherever possible.

    That, I think, was what RW was saying. And even though it is a difficult area for rational debate, especially in view of our current fears about Islamist extremists, it is a debate we will always need to have.

  32. In the spirit of the call for “freedom of speech” which Peter Cairns makes here is a view expressed by a Muslim:-

    I think it would be good if all of us non-muslims stopped pontificating about something we understand only vaguely, and which does not touch our lives-and leave it to those who understand it to speak for-or against.

    We might learn something that way.

  33. JohnH,

    “In fact it is the mark of a confident society if (without damaging our basic rights) it seeks to accommodate differences wherever possible.”

    Your parentheses are the crux of the problem here. To what extent does allowing any form of parallel law damage basic rights ? That depends to the extent of conflict between the “parallel” law and underlying law.

    One example is the recent reports that muslim men with more than one wife may claim benefits in respect of those wives. Not sure how accurate the reports are, but it is dangerous to make an allowance for one cultural group for something which has long been considered against the law in this country. Should we henceforth allow bigamy as an acceptable practice under English law ?

    There is a world of difference between the state allowing for matters to which the individual may object on principle (whether indivudally or as part of a community) and “something the state wishes to impose (on good democratic grounds)”.

    I cannot see how there can be justification for the State to impose anything. The state acts by the consent of its citizenry – or do you not accept this as a definition of democracy ? When the “state” seeks to impose its will against the wishes of its citizens it runs the risk of revolt.

    One must not confuse acquiescence with agreement. There may be laws with which we as individuals might disagree, but we abide by those laws as part of a compact, since there are more laws with which we do agree.

    If however, the state seeks to impose laws in conflict with the “values” of its citizens, there is a danger of tilting the balance between what is accepted and what is tolerated – and that way lies the potential for anarchy from widespread civil disobedience.

    The political classes need to heed the under-currents of discontent among the natives. Yes it is a mark of strength to be able to say “I acknolwledge and respect your culture which differs from my own”. However, it is not strength but weakness that says “I dare not challenge your values and so concede my own”.

    In effect, what I refer to here is the entire concept of “political correctness”. This is a creed which seeks to impose its will rather than engage with difference. The State can pass as many laws as it wants, and limit or control what we may say, but it cannot change how we think or feel. Ultimately, if enough people feel oppressed by the law, then they will collectively reject it – and if they cannot do so by peaceful means, will resort to violence.

    It is possible that we have already allowed that balance to tip too far in favour of the state. It is incumbent on politicians to be alert to this and respond. If some choose to do so, while others seek to entrench state control, then history has many examples – ancient and recent – to teach us what may happen.

  34. Peter,

    Just to pick up the point you made about Catholic adoption agencies a while ago (sorry I’ve been away the weekend). I see that that the compromise you’ve outlined in Scotland is sensible in practical terms because noone is seriously disadvantaged by it but I think the principle is much more serious than your analogy with the Council Office not doing income tax.

    It’s the same for everyone that council offices can’t sort out income tax but if the council did offer that service it would be pretty outrageous if some council offices said they could only do it for white people and black people would have to find a different one. Why should the situation be different for gay people and adoption?

    I know that’s a bit off topic, but the tension between what seems right in principle, and what is right in practice, is very similar to the situation that the ABoC mentioned about the reported case of a muslim women in a bookstore not being willing to handle Bibles or the situation Wolf mentioned earlier about Sikhs and crash helmets in the 70’s. All of these involve a compromise between the two and I don’t think it’s at all obvious what that compromise should be.

  35. Steven Wheeler (Lab)

    A better example than Councils would probably be Christian charities which do a great deal of good work and receive government support in doing so, but which won’t get involved in projects that deal with birth control.

    Do you accept that they do good work but not that and keep funding them because you know that others are doing it and you can fund them, or do you withdraw funding from them unless they start to do it and risk losing there good work?

    For me it’s ends and means. If the objective is to get children in care or at risk adopted in to safe better homes then the various adoption agencies are the means and as long as you fund a range that means no group is disadvantaged it’s fine.

    I personally wouldn’t be against the state supporting a charity that offered to place black children with black families, as long as none black children and potential parents could freely get help elsewhere.

    As long as no one is disadvantaged then we can have a variety of options that allows people free choice rather than one size fits all. It’s the same with church schools, as long as no one is forced in to one or discriminated against then I don’t have a problem with them, as long as they provide good education.


  36. Paul H-J
    “Your parentheses are the crux of the problem here. To what extent does allowing any form of parallel law damage basic rights ?

    As far as I can understand, from a first reading of the A of C’s closely reasoned words, this was one of the very points that he was trying to address. And as far as I can see he was not advocating anything that cannot be discussed reasonably. The deluge of criticism seems to be more a knee-jerk reaction to the mere occurrence of the words “sharia law”, than to what he actually said.

    I admit it is not an exact parallel – but even in the most crucial phases of the second world war, there was at least some attempt to accommodate those who had a conscientious objection to active service. It must be possible to have a rational debate about such matters and, even if we disagree with what he said, it seems to me that the media have a greater need to question their words, actions (and motives) than does the Archbishop.

  37. I am sure there are a load of holes in my theory, but for what it’s worth…

    I am not in favour of ‘parrallel law systems’.
    At issue is the freedom of the individual.

    Many laws have ‘positives’ aswell as ‘negatives'[eg drug legislation/taxation rules/speed limits]. The impostion of a rule it is about assessing that balance. If the make-up of society changes and it affects that balance, a case for change can to be made, but for everyone.

    I can accept Scottish solution to the Catholic adoption issue [to a point!] on the basis that gay couples can go elsewhere. If Catholic adoption agencies form such a large part of the system that the exercise of religious choice seriously interferes with the right of others, then the balance changes, and so should the level of accommodation. Then the adoption agencies verdict on an individual would be society’s verdict and that cannot/should not stand.

    A parrallel system therefore [ie where ‘the law’ effectively to ‘moves aside’ for certain groups] can mean the mainstream effectively endorses the outliner .

    The House of Lords have spent much time deliberating the problem of Jewish women being unable to obtain a divorce without the consent of their husbands. It is not the restrictions on divorce that are at issue but the fact that they apply unevenly between the sexes; if the wives rights were the same, it wouldn’t be a problem.

    ‘The system’ is fundamentally at odds with our approach to life and cannot be reconciled. Any endorsement of that system is an endorsement of THAT verdict on that individual.

    The problem with some aspects of Sharia law is that there is a similar inherant imbalance between the sexes. To legitamise ‘I divorce thee’ x 3 is accept its inescapable verdict and consequences on the individual woman.

    One aspect that could be looked at is inheritance. Estates can be passed on pretty much any way a person wants in a will. The problem lies in the tax implications. For instance, entailed estates are tax dear. This is because the entailing of estates was considered bad social policy.
    If the Sharia Muslims wish to argue that their presence in our community has changed of the balance of the arguement, then they could make the arguement and if a change is made, it applies to all.

  38. I think we should fund them because they do a very good job but I think it’s good that these practices do get put in the spotlight and criticised ever so often because I hope that one day our society will move past them.

    It’s similar with the ABoC last controversy about gay Bishops. He raised awareness in the Church and got a debate started but then backed down a bit when it looked like the Communion might be damaged by it. I think that is the right appoach if you want to be progressive; rock the boat but don’t rock it so much that it sinks.

  39. The ABoC used the term – unavoidable. To me that is quite clear, just as it is also clear that he is out of touch with society in general. We know he is a man of considerable intelligence and an academic of some renown which makes it all the more ridiculous that he seemed to be completely unaware of the upset this particular part of his speech would engender.

    Anybody wishing to come to the UK should be prepared to abide by our laws. Indeed many of those who have come here have done so for that very reason. Muslims have been here since trading began as you can see by visiting all our old ports, yet they have never presented us with any desire for ‘accommodation’. The present furore is especially due to the claims by many vocal muslims that the UK will be a muslim country in the future. Coming on top of the terrorist threats this is more divisive than anything I have heard in my lifetime.

    Our present laws provide protection for all levels and ethnic groups in our society. To introduce new law for one minority group is to set them apart and establish a clear division. There was a time when religion had a large influence on how the country was run as it did in many other countries. Every secular state faces the occasional interference from one or other of the religions, and mostly this is resisted simply because it is divisive. Once any government starts pandering to a minority, whether or not that is religiously driven, then democracy is under threat.