Sharia Comes for the Archbishop
by Stephen Schwartz
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Communion, doubtless thought he was making a positive contribution to interfaith relations when he gave a speech on February 7 suggesting that some form of official recognition in Britain for elements of sharia--Islamic religious law--is "unavoidable." But his remarks were shocking to many of his flock. Only four days later, Archbishop Williams, insisting he'd been misunderstood, blamed "our current style of electronic global communication" for the ensuing uproar. He refused to retract what he had said.
Britons--some 3 percent of whom are Muslims--were disturbed by more than Williams's naiveté. Many Muslim immigrants came to the West to escape the excesses of Islamic ideology in countries like Pakistan, where extremism is advancing. Imposition of sharia could deny these immigrants' children opportunities to become successful in British society or elsewhere in the West.
What the archbishop ignored is that British Muslim radicals raise the demand for sharia as an ideological banner. They hope to separate Muslims from their non-Muslim neighbors, the easier to recruit and indoctrinate believers for jihadism. George Carey, Rowan Williams's predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury, warned in the Sunday Telegraph of February 10 that sharia might perpetuate Muslim ghettoes in Britain.
But sharia is not a sound-bite topic. Paradoxically, ignorance of sharia among non-Muslims is matched by a similar void among the radical agitators, who chiefly seek publicity with their demands and threats. Unschooled in Islamic law, they equate sharia with their own improvised notions of religious justice. In reality, sharia is a complex system of jurisprudence, differently applied by four different Sunni and two Shia schools of interpretation.
One aspect of sharia governs religious customs that are not normally the subject of public law in the West--things like diet, prayer, burial, and zakat, the obligatory contribution for relief of the poor. Non-Muslims need not be concerned about, say, clerical supervision of the slaughtering of meat. In this limited sense, sharia already functions on a voluntary basis in Britain and wherever Muslims live, and poses no threat to Western legal systems.
Indeed, under British and American protections for the free exercise of religion, some religious believers are already granted exemptions for certain principles and practices of their faith so long as they do not interfere with the good order of society (Sikh policemen in Britain may wear turbans, conscientious objectors to war or abortion are not required to participate in those acts, and so on).
Further, a "shadow sharia" already exists in Britain: informal courts, usually handling family matters or alleged apostasy, that impose forcible marriage and divorce. But sharia fanatics call for something more: They want the public enforcement of religious decrees. Obligatory sharia for Muslims, enforced by the British state, is the ultimate threat implicit in Archbishop Williams's call for accommodation.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the Islamists' call for introduction of Islamic religious law in the West is an innovation, not heard in Europe or the United States before the radicalization of Muslims at the end of the 1970s. This is because it is actually a violation of traditional sharia, which commands that Muslims living in non-Muslim lands obey the law and respect the customs of the host countries. This requirement is spelled out, for instance, in the sharia volume A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West (1999), which quotes the moderate Iraqi Shia ayatollah Ali Sistani pronouncing that Muslims living in non-Muslim nations must commit themselves "to abide by the laws of that country," as they implicitly promise to do when they sign an immigration form. If they cannot do this, they should return to Muslim territory.
Traditional sharia also forbids antagonizing the local majority in non-Muslim societies. Through most of Islamic history, jihad against non-Muslims referred to warfare between states and armies, not infiltration and conspiracy. For normal Muslims, there is a duty to protect one's family and community by showing a good civic example to non-Muslims.
Many great Islamic polities--including the Ottoman empire, the most powerful Muslim state in history--refused to grant primacy of sharia over common law. The Turks maintained a legal standard, kanun, for administration of government, taxation, and related affairs and left sharia to family and religious matters. Exclusive authority for sharia is an Arab and Pakistani fixation, occasionally sprouting in the margins of the Islamic global community--in parts of Nigeria, northern Malaysia, and the Muslim diaspora in the West.
Family law is the most controversial aspect of sharia, because radical Muslim concepts of modesty, and traditional regulation of marriage and divorce, violate Western canons on women's equality. Many Muslim clerics in Western Europe acquiesce in, and offer mendacious legal interpretations to support, such offenses as wife-beating, polygamy, female genital mutilation, honor killings, forced marriage, forced divorce, and the Saudi practice of "tourist marriage." (Late last year, the Saudi daily al-Watan claimed that Saudis have spent $25 million over the past three years on this scam, in which Saudi men on vacation deceptively marry local women for a summer, then divorce them before returning to the kingdom. Some of this behavior is derived from local cultures, but it has been assimilated by Islamist ideology.)
In practice, government recognition of the jurisdiction of sharia courts over matters of common law in the West would mean either sharia on the cheap dominated by ignorant radicals depriving British Muslims of their due rights--or an extremely elaborate system making room for the six main schools of Islamic jurisprudence, providing for an administrative apparatus, certification of judges, appeals, and so on, creating a major burden on the public budget. Sharia as a basis for strictly voluntary mediation of family or business disputes might sound well and good, except for the likely appointment of radicals as arbiters.
Archbishop Williams failed to see that demands for sharia in the West have little to do with increased respect for Islam and everything to do with the continuing radicalization of Muslims. His lightminded remarks aggravate, rather than diminish, the growing tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, the West's main center for expansion of radical Islam.