Rowan Williams has certainly opened a bit of a can of worms. In a BBC interview yesterday (which was a prelude to a lecture he gave later) he said that it is inevitable that Sharia law will be adopted by muslim communities in the UK. This has, predictably, induced apoplexy in the readership of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the BBC’s Have You Say.
The most surprising thing about this whole affair is that the Archbishop seems to be ignoring the fact that Sharia law is already practised in parts of the UK, in much the same way as some jewish communities use the Beth Din to arbitrate in civil disputes.
UK law allows parties to use whatever arbitration mechanism that they want in order to resolve disputes. So it’s quite legal for muslims to go to their local Sharia council, for jews to go to a Beth din or even for bikers to go to their local Hells Angels chapter. There are, however, two important caveats.
Firstly, the findings of the arbitrators must be legal and reasonable. This means, of course, that some of the worst excesses of Sharia law (stoning offenders or cutting off the hands of thieves) can never be used by Sharia councils in the UK.
Secondly, both parties in the dispute need to agree to be bound by the findings of the arbitrator. This should prevent husbands invoking a Talaq divorce when their wives don’t agree or a parent using Sharia to punish a daughter who decides against wearing a Hijab.
These two protections are vital to prevent Sharia law (or, indeed, any of these minority legal systems) from taking precedence over UK law. And people in these communities need to know that those protections are in place and that they can’t be forced to succumb to their local arbitration system. Any arbitration panel of any kind that breaks these rules should be closed down.
But with those protections in place, then I can’t see why communities shouldn’t be allowed to set up their own arbitration panels. It has been legal in the UK for years and it should continue to be legal.
Of course, if Williams is suggesting anything outside of this existing system, then I’m completely against it.