16 February 2008

UK Shari'a row exposes limits of tolerance

Last week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a major row in Britain when he suggested that "aspects" of the Shari'a would eventually be incorporated into British law, and said that British Muslims should not be faced with "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty". Archbishop Williams faced a barrage of criticism after his comments, both from within and without the Anglican Church.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said that it would be "disastrous" to incorporate any Shari'a-based laws into the British legal system. Col Edward Armitstead, a member of the General Synod of the Church, said he didn't think Williams was "the man for the job". Alison Ruoff, another member of the Synod, said that "in terms of being a leader of the Christian community I think he's actually at the moment a disaster." Brig William Dobbie, a former member of the Synod, said that Williams's words on the Shari'a were "a tragic mistake." Ordinary Muslims a BBC correspondent talked to in Bradford also seemed opposed to the idea.

However, in many ways Williams was greatly misunderstood. According to Muhammad Abdul Bari, the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB),

The archbishop is not advocating implementation of the Islamic penal system in Britain. His recommendation is confined to the civil system of Sharia law, and only in accordance with English law and agreeable to established notions of human rights.

The MCB thanked Williams for his "thoughful intervention".

The Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme, criticised the "knee-jerk" response to Williams's suggestions, and added,

We have probably one of the greatest and the brightest Archbishops of Canterbury we have had for many a long day. He is undoubtedly one of the finest minds of this nation. The way he has been ridiculed, lampooned and treated by some people and indeed some of the media within this process, is quite disgraceful.

The highest-ranked female priest in the Church of England, the Very Rev June Osborne, cautiously backed Williams, saying, "Our society needs to be provoked into talking about these things." Alun Michael, a former minister in the Home Office, condemned the "absurd media feeding frenzy" surrounding the issue. Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, condemned the outburst against Williams, saying that such a response created a "fear that people with a Christian conscience will be put to the sidelines and not allowed to say what they believe to be true for the common good."

What Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is saying may be true, since Williams has been shocked by the response into a near-silence on the issue. His website said, however, that some Shari'a-based rules were "already recognised in our society and under our law. The statement added that the Archbishop had been looking for ways in which "
reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience", and was trying to "tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state".

The best part in all this is that, of course, as Williams says, some aspects of the Shari'a already operate in daily lilfe within British law (for example, halal slaughter and the certification of halal meat), and that Orthodox Jews have had their own religious courts in Britian for a long time.

Quite unfortunately, Williams's words were used by some quarters in British society and the media to once again jump on Muslims and decry anything Islamic. It's quite heartening, though, to see voices of calm and moderation not just among British Muslims, but among Christians as well.

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