/ 8 February 2008

Church leader’s sharia comment sparks row in UK

The religious head of the Anglican church sparked an angry row in the United Kingdom on Friday after saying the adoption of some parts of sharia law alongside Britain’s legal system “seems unavoidable”.

Leaders across the political spectrum criticised Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s call for “constructive accommodation”. He was also lambasted by the press.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official spokesperson has already distanced the premier from the remarks, stressing that “British law should apply in this country, based on British values”.

Culture Secretary Andy Burnham went further, telling BBC television Williams was “wrong” and warning his views were a “recipe for chaos, social chaos”. The main opposition Conservatives described the remarks as “unhelpful”.

The issue of Muslim integration has been particularly sensitive since the July 2005 bombings in London in which four young British Muslims killed themselves and 52 others on the public transport system.

Britain is home to nearly 1,6-million Muslims — 2,7% of the total population — according to the 2001 national census.

On Thursday, Williams told BBC radio: “There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.”

He agreed that if Britain is to achieve social cohesion, people of religious faith had to be accommodated within the law and to this end, “it seems unavoidable” that sharia should be applied in some circumstances.

Giving an example of how sharia could come into play, Williams said: “There are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them.”

Williams insisted there could be no place for “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”.

He also called on people in Britain to look at sharia “with a clearer eye” and “not just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia or whatever.”

The press joined politicians in laying into Williams’s comments.

The Sun tabloid ran the headline “What A Burkha”, while the Independent broadsheet said he had made the same mistake as Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2006 triggered worldwide protests after quoting a historic text saying the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings were “evil and inhuman”.

But Williams’s remarks were welcomed by the Ramadhan Foundation, a British-based body that aims to promote cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Chairperson Muhammad Umar said: “I believe that Muslims would take huge comfort from the government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith.”

The organisation added in a statement that sharia was “widely misunderstood” and that Williams’s comments would “reinstate the debate based on facts, not right-wing headlines”. — AFP