LONDON — The British government has cleared the way for husbands with multiple wives to claim welfare benefits for all their partners, fueling growing controversy over the role of Islamic Shariah law in the nation’s cultural and legal framework.
Bigamy is outlawed in Britain, but authorities have never prosecuted Muslim men who had legally married more than one woman abroad and continued to live with them after immigrating. Shariah permits men to have up to four wives at one time.
Now, after a review that began in November 2006, a panel of four government departments has decided that all the wives of a Muslim man may collect state benefits, provided that the marriages took place in a country where multiple spouses are legal.
Neither the review nor the decision was announced publicly, and their discovery by newspapers late last month triggered an uproar in the largely Christian nation — a fury exacerbated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ remark last week that some aspects of Islamic law could be embraced within Britain’s legal system.
Archbishop Williams, the spiritual head of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, refused to back down from the idea yesterday, but admitted at a meeting of the church’s General Synod, or parliament, that the remark had been “clumsy.”
The furor contributed to a sense of unease about Islam after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States and the suicide bombings by Muslims on London’s bus and rail system that killed 52 commuters three years ago.
The proposed use of taxpayer money to support multiple wives of Muslim men — a figure that one estimate puts at up to $20 million a year — has provoked widespread anger, particularly since bigamy is a crime in Britain, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Although exact figures are unavailable, government ministers have estimated that up to 1,000 polygamous marriages exist in Britain.
A report in London’s Daily Mail newspaper estimated that a Muslim man with four wives could claim up to $20,000 in income support and qualify for an even bigger cash payout if his expanded family needed a bigger house.
Four departments — the Treasury, the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP), Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and the Home Office — were involved in the review, which was concluded in December.
It decided that recognizing multiple marriages that were performed legally abroad was “the best possible” option.
As a DWP spokesman put it to journalists: “We recently reviewed the rules regarding benefit payments to customers in a polygamous marriage, which concluded that the rules in place since 1987 provide the necessary safeguards to ensure there is no financial advantage for claimants in a valid polygamous marriage.”
But Chris Grayling, Works and Pensions spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party, described the government’s decision as “completely unjustifiable.”
“You are not allowed to have multiple marriages” in Britain, he said, “so to have a situation where the benefits system is treating people in different ways is totally unacceptable.”
“This,” Mr. Grayling said, “sets a precedent that will lead to more demands for the culture of other countries to be reflected in [British] law and the benefits system.”
Corin Taylor, research director for the rights organization Taxpayers’ Alliance, was equally blunt.
“Polygamy is not something which British law allows, and therefore British taxpayers should not have to pay extra for extra benefits for second or third wives,” he said. “If other countries sanction polygamy, that is fine, but the British taxpayer should not have to fund it.”
Growing concern over the application of Shariah law in Britain has come under a spotlight with the archbishop of Canterbury’s seeming endorsement of some of its aspects, particularly those involving family and financial affairs.
George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, added his weight to the uproar over Archbishop Williams’ remarks, saying the introduction of elements of Shariah would be “disastrous for the nation.”