Dr. Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church worldwide as Archbishop of Canterbury, has provoked great controversy by suggesting that the introduction of Sharia Islamic law is unavoidable in Britain.
And yet he has three strong points to make in support of his controversial view. The first is that British law has traditionally been rather relaxed about accommodating other faiths. Catholic doctors in the National Health Service are not required to perform abortions. Jewish religious courts have long flourished in Britain to settle issues of divorce, commercial contracts and tenancy. Moreover, the British government is already planning to issue Treasury bonds that conform to Sharia financial law against usury.
The Archbishop's second point is that since there are close to 2 million Muslims in Britain, most of them citizens, it is unwise to present them with a stark choice between obeying the state law or their religion in a way that could alienate them from British law.
"There's a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law," he notes.
His third point is that Sharia law and Islamic traditions need to be better understood and not left to "sensational reporting and opinion polls," which produce anxieties among both Muslims and Christians which bedevil reasonable discussion.
He cites the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, who has written that "many Muslim intellectuals do not even dare to refer to the concept [of Sharia] for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work."
The European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that Sharia is incompatible with democracy, because of its treatment of women, its code of punishment and its denial of religious freedom. (If a Christian missionary succeeds in converting a Muslim, they both face the death penalty under strict Sharia law.) Indeed, the Archbishop acknowledges the difficulties with Sharia. He has said, "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."