Adopt sharia law in Britain, says the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams

By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent, and Andrew Porter, Political Editor

Last Updated: 2:44am GMT 08/02/2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury was embroiled in a fierce political and religious row last night after he called for aspects of Islamic sharia law to be adopted in Britain.

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    Dr Rowan Williams said that it “seems inevitable” that elements of the Muslim law, such as divorce proceedings, would be incorporated into British legislation.

      Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury
    Dr Williams has made a habit of ‘pro-islamic’ comments

    His comments were immediately attacked by Downing Street, religious groups and MPs from all sides. The head of the equality watchdog denounced his claims while several high-profile Muslims also criticised Dr Williams.

    “The Archbishop’s thinking here is muddled and unhelpful,” said Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

    “Raising this idea in this way will give fuel to anti-Muslim extremism and dismay everyone working towards a more integrated society.”

    Baroness Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, said: “The Archbishop’s comments are unhelpful and may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities.


    “All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”

    Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said: “I think there is one law in this country and it’s the democratically determined law.

    “That’s the law that I will uphold and that’s the law that is at the heart actually of the values that we share across all communities in this country.”

    Sharia is the body of Islamic law implemented in some Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Libya and Sudan. In some, it is associated with draconian punishments for crimes such as theft, adultery or blasphemy, such as amputation of limbs, death by stoning or use of the lash.

    In Afganistan, a student who downloaded a report on women’s rights from the internet is facing the death penalty.

    Women’s rights are curtailed in many countries. Some interpretations of the law mean women have to cover themselves from head to toe in burkhas when they go out.

  • Profile: Dr Rowan Williams
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    The Archbishop provoked the row by saying Britain had to “face up to the fact” that some citizens did not relate to this country’s legal system and argued that officially sanctioning sharia law would improve community relations.

    He said there was an argument that aspects of sharia law, such as those involving divorce, financial transactions and the settling of disputes, could be accommodated with British legislation.

    Speaking before a speech on the issue – delivered last night – Dr Williams said: “Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that has sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states.

    “But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to divorce courts as we understand them.”

    Dr Williams’s intervention puts him at odds with Gordon Brown, whose spokesman was quick to distance him from the Archbishop’s comments.

    “The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values,” he said.

    Khalid Mahmood, the Muslim Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, said: “This is very misguided. There is no half-way house with this.

    “What part of sharia law does he want? The sort that is practised in Saudi Arabia, which they are struggling to get away from?

    “Muslims do not need special treatment or to be specially singled out. This would not contribute to community cohesion.”

    Some senior Muslim clerics are pressing for the introduction of Islamic penal law with its often brutal punishments.

    However, religious groups and secularists attacked the Archbishop, saying that his comments were “baffling and bewildering” and would undermine social cohesion. Stephen Green, the director of Christian Voice, said: “This is a Christian country with Christian laws. If Muslims want to live under sharia law then they are free to emigrate to a country where sharia law is already in operation.”

    But Dr Williams said the argument that “there’s one law for everybody” was “a bit of a danger” and called for “a constructive accommodation” with aspects of Muslim law.

    The Church of England was allowed to operate its own courts, as were Orthodox Jews, and the anti-abortion views of Roman Catholics and other Christians were taken account of within the law. “I do not 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 just because it doesn’t immediately fit with how we understand it.”

    It was “not at all the case that we have absolute social exclusion. We do have a lot of social suspicion, a lot of distance and we just have to go on working at how that shared citizenship comes through”.

    The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, said last month that non-Muslims faced a hostile reception in places dominated by the ideology of Islamic radicals. He has since faced death threats.

    Dr Williams appeared to suggest that sharia law should be recognised as an officially sanctioned alternative to British law in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

    Legal experts said that it was already possible for Muslim couples contemplating a divorce to seek mediation from an imam and, if both consent, his ruling on their settlement can have a binding effect.

    But they said Dr Williams seemed to be proposing that the British courts may also recognise sharia law on divorce, in which the husband can end a marriage by saying to his wife three times “I divorce you”. Such reforms could also legalise polygamy for Muslims in the country.

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