The Archbishop of Canterbury is an immensely intelligent and thoughtful figure. His comments on Feb. 7 were his contribution to the difficult issues surrounding community cohesion and how to quell the feeling of alienation among some quarters of British Muslim communities so they feel more a part of this country.
While the tabloids have gone haywire, it is important that we don t get carried away here. The difficulty with the term sharia (Islamic principles of jurisprudence) is that it is such a broad notion which encapsulates both personal and public matters. It is also open to such varied interpretations. I would argue that the basic objectives of sharia – protection of life, family, dignity, intellect and property – are all covered by British law. The fundamental purpose of sharia is to achieve justice. This country is more just than most. So what more sharia do people want?
The aspects of sharia being considered by the Archbishop are restricted to matters of family and finance law, i.e., civil matters. No one is suggesting introducing the so-called Islamic penal code – so let s not waste time debating something most of us don t want to see in the Muslim world, let alone Britain.
As for family and finance law: let s deal with the latter first, the United Kingdom is already amending its finance laws to allow sharia-compliant products such as halal (permissible according to Islamic principles) mortgages and Islamic bonds. Why? In part to attract the billions of petro-dollars floating in the cash-rich Gulf. That s a law driven by the commercial global realities to keep London as a premier financial capital; it s hardly the makings of Londonistan.
As for family law, there can be no consideration for it to be incorporated into UK law unless there has been extensive consultation with human rights groups, women s groups, civil liberties groups and other stakeholders over what exactly it is they feel needs to be incorporated. There is currently zero consensus on this issue, therefore its incorporation into statute is academic.
There is also the important principle that we are all equal before one law.
It is perfectly fine for consenting Muslim adults to resolve their disputes according to Islamic law within the framework of UK civil law and provided that either party has recourse to it (as is currently the case). Wherever English law and Islamic law differ, Islamic law must give way.
The Archbishop is right to suggest ways to integrate alienated Muslims into the mainstream. Part of that is to educate more religiously and/or culturally assertive Muslims on what sharia actually should mean in a modern context.
This is the work for Muslim scholars to reinterpret practices considered by some to be Islamic ; such as a woman witness testimony being worth half that of a man s, men having up to four wives, custody of children transferring to the father, inheritance, etc. In each case, there are multiple interpretations.
It is for progressive Muslim scholars to ensure the more liberal and tolerant interpretations that are rooted in the Islamic tradition and part of Britain s libertarian heritage become dominant over time. That would do far more to aid Muslim integration than introducing a work in progress into statute.
Asim Siddiqui is chairman and a founding trustee of the City Circle, a network of young British Muslim professionals, and member of the Iraq Commission and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.