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'Sharia law' - What did the Archbishop actually say?

Friday 8th February 2008

There has been a strong reaction in the media and elsewhere to the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks of yesterday on civil and religious law.

The full text of the Archbishop's lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice 'Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective', can be viewed here: Archbishop's Lecture - Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective

The transcript of his interview on yesterday's World at One programme can also be viewed here: BBC Interview - Radio 4 World at One.

The Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law.

Instead, in the interview, rather than proposing a parallel system of law, he observed that "as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law" . When the question was put to him that: "the application of sharia in certain circumstances - if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples' religion - seems unavoidable?", he indicated his assent.

The Archbishop opened his lecture by noting importantly that the very term sharia is not only misunderstood, but is the focus of much fear and anxiety deriving from its 'primitivist' application in some contexts. As such he said that sharia is a method of law rather than a single complete and final system ready to be applied wholesale to every situation, and noted that there was room, even within Islamic states which apply sharia, for some level of 'dual identity', where the state is not in fact religiously homogenous.

In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. In doing so the Archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience.

He explained that his core aim was to: "to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state" and was using sharia as an example. These include:

  • How when the law does not take seriously religious motivation, it fails to engage with the community in question and opens up real issues of power by the majority over the minority, with potentially harmful effects for community cohesion.
  • How the distinction between cultural practices and those arising from genuine religious belief might be managed. 
  • How to deal with the possibility that a 'supplementary jurisdiction "could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women".

At the end of the lecture the Archbishop referred to a suggestion by a Jewish jurist that there might be room for 'overlapping jurisdictions' in which"individuals might choose in certain limited areas whether to seek justice under one system or another". This is what currently happens both within the Jewish arrangements and increasingly in current alternative dispute resolution and mediation practice.

He concludes his lecture with the comment:

"if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment"

The lecture, which was given before an audience of about 1000 people and which was chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, was the first in a series of six lectures and discussions which are being given by senior Muslim and other lawyers and theologians at the Temple Church on the general theme of 'Islam in English Law'.

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