Legal Theory

Archbishop Ignites U.K. Firestorm With Support of Islamic Religious Law


Updated: The Archbishop of Canterbury is front-page news throughout the United Kingdom today, facing a firestorm of criticism even from his own bishops following his reported call for Britain, at least to some extent, to recognize Islamic religious law based on the Koran.

Now, however, Dr. Rowan Williams is saying that he never intended to say that Shariah should be adopted in the U.K., but merely want to open up discussion about the rights of Muslims and other members of non-Christian religious groups in a secular state, according to the Evening Standard.

In his public comments earlier this week that ignited the national backlash, the archbishop suggested that some provisions of Shariah could be adopted in a parallel jurisdiction to U.K. secular law, writes the London Times. Although Williams argued that this would help meld Muslims into British society, a London Times editor contends in his newspaper column today that this would give Muslims fewer rights than other citizens. Meanwhile, other news articles (see links at bottom of this post) say that a parallel Shariah court system is already operating in Britain, and its authority is accepted by those who participate, even though it is not formally recognized by the state.

The BBC News says it has received more than 17,000 reader comments on the issue on its website, and provides a sampling of differing views. One woman says that most British Muslims, apparently including herself, don’t want Shariah incorporated there. However, an Israeli says that a system of parallel civil and religious courts, for certain matters, seems to work acceptably in his country’s multi-cultural society. “For example, a Muslim couple getting divorced can choose to go through the Muslim religious courts,” he writes. “The system is not ideal, and the general perception is that the religious courts generally favor men, whereas the civil courts are better for women.”

The issue is of international interest, because Muslims residing in other non-Islamic countries also face potential conflicts between the laws imposed by their religion and the country in which they live. As discussed in previous ABAJournal.com posts, for instance, an Ohio court has refused to enforce a religious marriage contract that calls for the wife to be paid a dowry after the couple’s divorce, and she is now appealing. Meanwhile, courts in New Jersey and New York reportedly have recognized such contracts.

More coverage:

London Times: “Lawyers: Sharia can’t trump English law”

London Times: “From Leyton to Dewsbury, Sharia courts are already settling disputes”

Daily Mail: “The British sharia ‘crime’ court in a cafe where knifemen walk free”

Reuters: “Archbishop’s sharia comments:’Recipe for disaster’ “

Telegraph: ” Adopt sharia law in Britain, says the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams”

Updated at 12 p.m., CT, to include additional coverage.

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