February 7, 2008 7:53 pm

Archbishop in Sharia law row

The Archbishop of Canterbury provoked a media storm, and universal criticism from the main political parties, by arguing on Thursday that the adoption of aspects of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable”.

Rowan Williams’ call to allow British Muslims to use “some aspects” of Sharia law is certain to fuel the debate over multiculturalism. The head of the Church of England argued the principle of “one law for everybody” was a “bit of a danger” that could force Muslims to choose between the “stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

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His proposal was designed to promote social cohesion. But the backlash against the liberal cleric suggested the move could instead highlight divisions within society.

Dr Williams did not advocate adopting Sharia law as practised in some Islamic states. He said “nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country” extreme punishments, such as stoning to death for adultery, or “the attitudes to women as well”.

However, he argued that Sharia courts would follow the precedent set by orthodox Jewish courts that operate in the UK. “There are perfectly proper ways the law of the land pays respect to custom and community.”

The three main political leaders distanced themselves from the comments.

Gordon Brown “believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values”, said the prime minister’s spokesman. “Our general position is that Sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of Sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.”

But the government said there were specific cases where legal concessions had been made. Regulations on stamp duty were modified to ensure Sharia-compliant mortgages, which involve two transfers of property to meet the Islamic ban on paying interest, did not require the tax to be paid twice.

The Conservatives condemned the “unhelpful” comments, warning they could “add to the confusion that already exists in our communities”. Baroness Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion, said: “Let’s be absolutely clear: all British citizens must be subject to British laws.”

Religious and secular groups joined the fray. The National Secular Society said the UK had “segregated schools, segregated scout groups and even segregated toilets for Muslims and now the archbishop says we should have different laws – it’s madness”. Christian Voice, an evangelical pressure group, said: “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 the Ramadhan Foundation, a Manchester-based Muslim group, welcomed Dr Williams’ intervention. “Sharia law for civil matters is something which has been introduced in some western countries with much success,” said Mohammed Shafiq, its director. “I be-lieve that Muslims would take huge comfort from the government allowing civil matters to be resolved according to their faith.”

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