The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has started a bushfire of outrage and criticism in British political circles with his call on BBC Radio 4 for Muslim Sharia law to be accepted alongside British law in the UK. Dr Williams said the UK had to "face up to the fact" some citizens did not relate to the British legal system. He said adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law could help social cohesion. For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.
It is understandable that a major leader of Britain's Christian community would want to find ways of building bridges of understanding and tolerance with its increasing number of Muslim neighbours. It also makes sense for an archbishop to be concerned about the place of religious 'conscientious objection' in a secular legal setting that is legislating for areas such as abortion, human fertilisation and sexual equality. What is not acceptable is for a Christian leader to fail to acknowledge certain facts that are pertinent to the life of the wider church in areas where Sharia law is already practised. In parts of Nigeria, for instance, and other places in sub-Saharan Africa, Christians find themselves in real difficulties because of the spread of Sharia law. Under it, the rights of non-Muslims to give evidence against Muslims are discounted, as are the equal rights of women under the law, both Muslim and Christian. In similar ways to Old Testament practices, the evidence of a woman is not admissable in court, except where it is corroborated by a man, or in some cases by another woman.
Basically, the problem is that the imposition of Sharia law in those parts of the world is seen as part of the dominance by Islam of its surrounding culture. It is a refelction of the desire of some Muslims to extend the 'caliphate' or rule of Islam across the earth. Not content with dealing with matrimonial issues and matters of the family and inheritance, exponents of Sharia law would want to see it expand to encompass all of life as part of their conviction that the whole world needs the teachings of Islam. The Archbishop of Canterbury speaks for the Church of England in part of the UK, but he also has a role as a titular head of the Anglican communion which is being sorely affected by the practise of Sharia in many places overseas.
It is also a mistake for the Archbishop to presume that the practise of Sharia law is an evolving and increasingly enlightened affair, such as some might regard the development of Christian theology and ethics. There may be one or two educated Islamic jurists who argue for modernisation and mercy, but Sharia law is basically a system of regulation, similar in style and content to the Old Testament, and rigid in its interpretation and penalties. The European court of human rights has declared it to be incompatible with democracy.
All three British political parties have spoken out against Dr William's opinions, whilst acknowledging his right to hold and express them. What we as Christian must beware of is forgetting our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering for their faith in many Islamic countries around the world and who may feel betrayed by the position taken by this Western church leader. We also need to pray for him in his vital position of leadership, and for them as they struggle for the faith against such violent and oppressive opposition. We should also pray that the liberties we enjoy in this country to celebrate and proclaim our faith will be protected, from militant secularism on the one hand, and the spread of fundamentalist Islam on the other.
Take care, Dr Williams, you are treading on dangerous ground.