Islam’s traditional code of laws, or shari’ah, seems to be constantly in the news. From criticism of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose legal systems are closely based on shari’ah, to calls for its implementation in Western countries, questions persist about the viability of such a system in the modern world. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ recent remarks have only intensified the debate. In an interview with the BBC on February 7, Williams stated that the introduction of some aspects of Islam’s shari’ah law in Britain “seems unavoidable.” Despite Williams’ careful clarification that he was only suggesting the acceptance of shari’ah in cases of marital disputes and financial matters and was in no way promoting the violent punishments used in the Middle East, this nonetheless harrowing statement sparked considerable controversy. Williams received harsh criticism from all sides, including conservative commentators, leftist organizations, Anglican clergymen, and even some Muslims. Some went so far as to demand his resignation. “What he’s doing is abandoning his own religion,” said MP David Davis, who is an Anglican. “If people come to this country, they should be prepared to compromise their own traditions to fit in with the host country,” he added.
While the Archbishop’s statement is indeed frightening, especially considering his position as the head of the Church of England, official acceptance of shari’ah is in fact already looming. Many shari’ah courts already operate informally, and the British government has made several legal concessions on the issue, including modifying regulations on stamp duties to allow for shari’ah-compliant mortgages and allowing polygamous households to claim additional government benefits. If not for the Archbishop’s naïve view that sanctioning Islamic law would improve “social cohesion,” this entire situation would be a clear case of shooting the messenger. That was indeed the case just two months ago, when the Anglican Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, received death threats and went under police protection after warning that some parts of Britain had become “no-go areas” for non-Muslims. Regarding Archbishop Williams’ remarks, Nazir-Ali, who holds joint British-Pakistani citizenship, contended that introducing shari’ah alongside English law would be “impossible” without severely undermining the latter. He pointed out that shari’ah would be “in tension” with some aspects of modern British society, particularly regarding women’s rights.
Disputes regarding the acceptance of shari’ah are by no means confined to the United Kingdom, and often take place within the Muslim community. A proposal to implement almost exactly what the Archbishop suggested—parallel courts for marital disputes and other domestic matters—in Ontario, Canada, was rejected by the province’s premier in September of 2005 after strong protests by Muslim women’s rights groups. A German judge sparked international outcry in March 2007 after citing the Qur’an in her rejection of a Muslim woman’s request for divorce. And debate rages over the adoption of shari’ah in non-Western countries such as Kenya and even Muslim countries such as Indonesia.
The Archbishop’s comments speak volumes about the impact of massive Muslim immigration and lack of assimilation in Britain. The fact that he would even feel the need to make such a statement reveals the extent of the mounting demographic crisis. As Muslim populations, and especially the proportion of fundamentalists within them, continue to grow in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, calls for official acceptance of shari’ah will no doubt increase in frequency as well. And multiculturalists like Rowan Williams will be there to support them every step of the way.