David Batty and Fred Attewill
Thursday February 7, 2008
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA
The Archbishop of Canterbury sparked controversy today when he said the introduction of sharia law for British Muslims was "unavoidable".
Rowan Williams told BBC Radio 4's World at One that Muslims should be able to choose whether to have matters such as marital disputes dealt with under sharia law or the British legal system.
His comments were strongly criticised by the National Secular Society but welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which stressed it did not back the introduction of sharia criminal law.Willams said giving sharia official status in the UK would help maintain social cohesion because some Muslims do not relate to the British legal system.
Its introduction would mean Muslims would no longer have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
Williams said his proposal would only work if sharia law was properly understood, rather than seen through the eyes of biased media reports.
The archbishop said he was not proposing the adoption of extreme interpretations of sharia law practiced in some repressive regimes.
He said: "It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system.
"We already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances. There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law."
Williams went on: "It would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general.
"But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate."
A spokesman for the MCB said many UK Muslims already used sharia law in aspects of their day-to-day lives, such as banking and marriage, and the same principle of separate laws could "easily be accepted for other faiths groups".
He said introducing sharia law for marriages would combat the problem of forced marriage because Islam required the consent of both parties.
The National Secular Society said it was another example of Britain "sleepwalking to segregation".
"Our view is simple. You can't have a country where you have separate laws for separate faith groups," it said. "The same religious groups who are calling for integration are the same one who want segregation."
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