- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

The archbishop of Canterbury called for applying Islamic Shariah law in Britain in certain instances, saying its use there “seems unavoidable” and may help maintain social order.

In an interview conducted Monday and broadcast yesterday by BBC Radio, Archbishop Rowan Williams, leader of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion, said “there is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with some kinds of aspects of other religious law” in the United Kingdom.

After Christianity, Islam is Britain’s most common religion, numbering 1.6 million or nearly 3 percent of the populace. Certain Christian clerics have spoken out against what they see as a capitulation to Islamic interests there, including Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester.

He received death threats for his remarks last month on how some British neighborhoods were “no-go areas” for non-Muslims.

The archbishop was more conciliatory, telling BBC that “certain provisions of Shariah are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it’s not as if we are bringing in an alien … system.”

Shariah law is a complex legal system that follows the prescriptions of the Koran in terms of dietary rules, religious festivals and other customs. Its more controversial rulings allow a man to take up to four wives and to divorce her by merely uttering three words: “I divorce you.” Women have no such recourse.

It also says, in the case of rape, a woman must produce four male witnesses to the act before her testimony will be accepted by an Islamic court. It also mandates the amputation of hands or feet for some crimes.

“I think we need to look at this with a clearer eye and not imagine either we know exactly what we mean by Shariah and not just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia or wherever,” the archbishop said.

“There’s a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community generally about the nature of Shariah and its extent; nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states: the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.”

The bishop was asked to respond to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which stated that Shariah law is “incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy.”

“That’s a pretty sweeping judgment,” he said. “I don’t think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights simply because it doesn’t immediately fit with how we understand it.”

Orthodox Jewish courts are allowed to operate in Britain, he said, with no ill effects. Shariah courts could rule on certain matters.

“There are ways of looking at marital dispute, for example, … which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them,” he said. “In some cultural and religious settings, they would seem more appropriate.”

His comments created a furor in a country where 52 persons were killed on July 7, 2005, after Muslim terrorists set off four bombs on London’s transportation system.

“Our general position is that Shariah law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of Shariah law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “The prime minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values.”

An article in yesterday’s London Times describing the archbishop’s remarks got 191 responses in only a few hours. Most were critical.

“Australia is starting to look tempting,” read one.

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