When Archbishop Rowan Williams went on Radio 4 last week to publicise a speech he was giving, he had no idea what a sensation he was about to cause. But his remarks about sharia law provoked an extraordinary storm, exposing deep divisions within the Church of England and the country at large about Britain's Muslim community
The Observer [London], Sunday February 10 2008
It's Saturday afternoon and in the middle of a strip of brightly-coloured market stalls in the heart of east London's Whitechapel, Reema Choudhury, a 25-year-old banker, turns to her friend. 'It is not Muslims calling for this,' says British-born Choudhury, 'it is Rowan Williams, a Christian. But once again it is us being demonised.'
Dressed in a fashionable top and jeans with a matching headscarf and clutching a brown bag slung over shoulder, Choudhury expresses sympathy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, now the focus of a sustained tabloid newspaper campaign to have him removed from his post after he expressed the view that it was 'inevitable' that some aspects of sharia law would one day be recognised in the UK.
'It has been taken completely out of context,' Choudhury says. 'Rowan Williams was trying to be kind.'
Choudhury and her friend are saddened to see how the story has been covered on television. 'The first pictures they used were of someone being flogged in Somalia and someone having their arm chopped off in Saudi Arabia,' Reema says, insisting no one would ever want to see that happen in the UK.
Standing between piles of shoes in his stall, Tariq Mohammud, a 43-year-old who moved to England from Egypt more than 20 years ago, thinks even the most punitive forms of sharia law are preferable to English law. 'Of course I would prefer sharia law,' he said. 'There has to be four witnesses so they are one million per cent sure the person is guilty.'
Given the profound reactions to Williams' speech, some Muslim scholars fear the archbishop has unwittingly inflamed community tensions. 'I think the speech will have an impact on social cohesion,' said Dr Irfan al Alawi, International Director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism. One key problem, he points out, is that sharia law is not monolithic. It does not exist as a unified, indisputable set text, but is interpreted by
'If we assume for a second that the UK adopts sharia law in certain respects, there need to be scholars who go through the rigours of studying Islamic law as well as a good understanding of the customs of this country,' al Alawi said.
'Adopting sharia law would mean the need for better trained imams rather than a man who has read one fiqh [Islamic law] book. In fact, in Islamic legal tradition a scholar cannot give a ruling until he understands the customs of his people and we don't have these qualified
imams in the UK. We will have radical fatwas issued by unqualified imams.'
Williams was steering clear of controversy yesterday, preaching at a thanksgiving service at the picturesque church of Great St Mary's in Cambridge for the life and work of the Rev Professor Charles Moule, an eminent New Testament scholar who died last year aged 98. It is the sort of thing many Anglicans would prefer him to concentrate on, rather than steering the church into increasingly turbulent waters.
The Rev Martin Reynolds has known Rowan Williams for more than 20 years. They were neighbours when Williams was Archbishop of Wales and the two could often be found in each other's houses chewing over theological issues.
They do not always see eye to eye. Reynolds is openly gay and has brought up a severely disabled child in Newport. His sexuality has seen him clash with Williams over the emotive issue of gay priests in the Anglican church. Often Reynolds has felt a deep sense of unease with the direction in which Williams is taking the 70 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion and has publicly criticised the man he calls his friend. So it might be expected Reynolds would have similar misgivings about Williams' latest musings. But no.
'What do we do when we have five million Muslims living in the UK in 20 years' time?' he said. 'From the reactions to Rowan's speech it is clear everybody has been waiting to talk about this.'
But why would Williams, whose profound intellect can result in him making gnomic - the unkind might say impenetrable - speeches that are open to misinterpretation, choose to confront the issue now? When the Anglican Communion is attempting to construct a fragile internal truce over the issue of gay priests and its African congregations are losing
followers to Islam, speaking out on such a contentious issue was bound to have profound repercussions that would resonate thousands of miles beyond the walls of the Royal Courts of Justice where Williams delivered his address.
Already the ramifications are being felt. Dr Peter Akinola, the Primate of Nigeria in charge of the spiritual oversight of some 20 million Christians, called the remarks 'most disturbing and most unfortunate'. This week's General Synod now promises to be a particularly prickly affair.
But Williams is singularly minded. 'He writes his speeches,' said one of his advisers who saw the speech before it was delivered. 'Colleagues see it and comment, but he's responsible for it.'
Admittedly, there was a debate among Williams' advisers about whether he should go on Radio 4's The World at One on Thursday lunchtime to talk about the speech he was to make later that day.
'There was a discussion about the pros and cons,' the adviser said. 'We asked, will this lead to just soundbites being taken? It was a difficult decision, but the Archbishop had the material and was not afraid to use it.' But even the adviser admits they had not foreseen
how ferocious the backlash would be: 'I had not expected this kind of outburst. It seems very irrational.'
But Reynolds believes Williams has been waiting to make the speech for a long time. 'The courts and parliament have allowed religious groups to set up states within states,' he said, citing the row between the Catholic church and the government over gay adoption as an example of how politics and religion are clashing against each other, with both sides vying for jurisdiction. 'We already have situations where equality before the law no longer exists.'
Examples are not hard to find. Thirty years ago, parliament gave Sikhs the right to wear turbans rather than helmets when riding motorbikes. Last year Gordon Brown as Chancellor changed the law to introduce sharia mortgages because Islam forbids the charging of interest. The Church of England has Consistory courts giving it wide powers over planning applications. Halal meat is legal, despite protests from animal rights groups who attack the preparation method of slitting the animal's throat. Britain recognises Islamic marriages and divorces conducted overseas and the Department for Work and Pensions has ruled that the multiple wives of polygamous husbands were eligible for spouse benefits.
Jewish civil divorce courts have operated effectively for decades. Yesterday members of the Orthodox Haredi Jewish community in Stamford Hill, north London, spoke warmly of the Beth Din, the rabbinical court set up by a British statute more than a century ago and recognised within the UK legal system.
They said the Beth Din was respected by all the community and was the first port of call to resolve civil disputes. But it always operates within British law and never seeks to supersede it. It deals only with civil disputes and can award costs, but cannot impose fines or punishment or hear criminal cases.
'We're living in a society where you've got to integrate into the British system,' said Gerald Rose, 49, a property developer. 'The Beth Din always acknowledges British law first. Wherever you live the law of the land has to come first.'
Williams was explicit that he was talking only about the role of sharia law within the civil, not the criminal, system. And he was talking about a voluntary system, something that seemed to be lost on many.
'The archbishop is not advocating implementation of the Islamic penal system,' said Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. 'He sought to explore the possibilities of an accommodation between English law and some aspects of Islamic personal law. British Muslims would wish for parity with other faiths, for their
personal relationships to be governed by a sharia code.'
Even many critics concede this now that the white noise which followed his speech has died down. 'His aim was to look at the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state,' said the Rev Joel Edwards, general director of the Evangelical Alliance. 'While we disagree that implementing aspects of sharia law is "unavoidable", or even desirable, the issue of the protection of religious conscience for all faiths cannot be trivialised or ignored.'
'The law makes all sorts of accommodations for faith groups,' said the archbishop's adviser. 'In a society with a diverse range of values and religious systems, is it not reasonable to suppose the parliamentary system will want to make other forms of accommodation?'
But even with these provisos, Williams's speech opened a hornets' nest. 'He's damaged the Anglican church,' Reynolds said. 'People have this impression he's pro-sharia, but he's not.'
Faced with a tabloid feeding frenzy, it was not long before politicians joined the attack. Gordon Brown's official spokesman was quick to talk about British law based on British values; Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservatives' shadow cabinet spokeswoman on community cohesion and a practising Muslim, described the comments as 'unhelpful'.
But Williams' supporters argue that sharia law exists within the UK and turning a blind eye to it will not help an increasingly multicultural society. There are already an estimated 30 sharia courts in Britain handing down judgments on civil matters.
In addition, as Haras Rafiq, of the Sufi Muslim council, which recently established Crescentlive.tv, an online portal to combat the radicalisation of Muslim youth, asks: 'Which version of sharia do you pick? There are 40 [sic]. In Saudi Arabia, for example, sharia law forbids motorists from having driving insurance and women from driving.'
Rafiq's concern is that Williams has opened the door to legitimising these 'backstreet courts'. 'Britain allows me to practise my faith,' Rafiq said. 'When people go outside that and have separate laws we have a problem.' This was never Williams's suggestion, but he has paid the price for being an intellectual and not a politician - who would have foreseen how his speech would be interpreted.
But his supporters say the issue can no longer be ignored. 'Is there a household that has not been talking about sharia for the past few years?' one of the archbishop's advisers asked. 'It's not as if this debate has come out of the blue.'
Unfortunately for Williams, for millions of Britons last week, that is exactly what happened.
'Sharia law has its good points'
In a market in Whitechapel, east London, yesterday, were Reema Choudhury and Subana Chowdhury, both 25.
'Every since the 7 July bombings, I feel there has been a new culture in this country, which fears Islam,' said Reema, who works as a banker at Canary Wharf. Her friend Subana, who works in Islamic finance, added: 'For Muslims to live in this country and have any rights, people have to accept we have certain values. The majority of British Muslims, born in this country, understand we can't have strict sharia law. That won't work in the UK but there are some aspects we do want, such as within marriage and divorce. Currently Muslims have a spiritual ceremony but also have to go to the register office. One ask [sic] is that British law accepts our marriage ceremonies. There are also sharia courts that people use for arbitration during divorce. During this debate people have simply picked things they do not like about sharia law and highlighted them. What about all the good parts?'
'I am annoyed with Rowan Williams'
Nearby, Iqbal Mohammed was also talking about the debate. Crouching at the back of his kitchenware stall, gripping a polystyrene cup filled with steaming tea, he said: 'We don't have sharia law in our own countries, so why should we demand it here? I don't need sharia law to follow my religion or the Koran. I am annoyed that Rowan Williams said what he did because it might start trouble on the streets - so many white people do not like Muslims. It feels like there is going to be a civil war in this country.'
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