Justin Welby is right to take a stand against his predecessor, Rowan Williams' most controversial announcement: that Britain should introduce sharia law. Ten years ago last month, Williams suggested parts of Islamic sharia law should be incorporated into British law. He argued that some kind of “constructive accommodation” was not only possible but desirable to better integrate British Muslims. The idea provoked almost universal condemnation, and now Williams’s successor has thankfully knocked down Williams' poorly thought through stance.
This isn't to say, of course, that Muslims, mosques and halal food are not all welcome in Britain—diversity makes us richer. But law is another matter. Reconciling any two legal frameworks within a single country is problematic; and sharia remains particularly incompatible with the Judaeo-Christian tradition our own legal system has been built on. In his new book, Reimagining Britain, Welby writes:
“Accepting it (sharia) in part implies accepting its values around the nature of the human person, attitudes to outsiders, the revelation of God, and a basis for life in law, rather than grace, the formative word of Christian culture”
He’s right. Yes, Williams was well-intentioned in his efforts to make British Muslims feel welcome. But his approach was wrongheaded and his argument doesn't stop a simple fact: tacking sharia on to existing law would cause all kinds of problems.
Part of Williams’s argument was that the Enlightenment idea of equality under the law for all was now redundant and we could have “overlapping” legal systems. Welby says this is nonsense:
“Household and family – the basic foundational communities of society – face enormous pressures and need one legal basis of oversight and one philosophical foundation of understanding”
It is tempting to think that creating parallel Islamic jurisdictions for things such as marriage and divorce would help integration. In reality, allowing one class of Brits to pick and choose between two competing legal systems would be a road to further division.
The sharia courts that already exist in the UK, some of which offer legal but voluntary arbitration, show the pitfalls of integrating Islamic law. A damning Home Office report by Professor Mona Siddiqui published last month identified “discriminatory practices” in the system and called for much tougher regulation of sharia councils. If sharia courts were more widely embraced, this is a problem that would undoubtedly get worse. The vast majority of those who use the limited form of sharia currently available in Britain are women seeking Islamic divorces — but they run the risk of discrimination, or even being trapped in abusive marriages thanks to the unequal provisions of sharia divorce when enforced by unscrupulous and unregulated sharia ‘judges’. And it’s not just a question of better regulation either. As Welby says:
“Sharia, deeply embedded in a system of faith and understanding of God, cannot become part of another narrative”
In firmly rejecting Williams’s proposals, Welby has identified the problems with integrating sharia law. But he’s also done more than that, by giving an insight into the vital role the Church of England can play in community cohesion. Unlike criticism from politicians or the press, Welby can speak to Muslim communities – who often feel excluded, misunderstood and hated – from a position of sympathy not antagonism. As a fellow person of faith, he has a voice in these knotty questions of law, God and ethics that no government minister or newspaper editorial could offer. When he calmly but clearly explains why sharia cannot be incorporated into British law he has a chance of actually being heard by British Muslims. He and his fellow Anglicans, with their long track record of standing up for minority faith groups, can and must act as critical friends to other believers, challenging and protecting in equal measure. In doing so they will build greater cross-cultural harmony than any Home Office strategy ever could.