Lambeth Palace was last night bracing itself for harsh morning headlines, after Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was widely interpreted as having called for the incorporation of Muslim Sharia law in or alongside the English legal system. The Archbishop’s defenders, who seem few in number, point out that this is not what he has asked for in any general sense.
Previewing the foundation lecture in the prestigious Temple Festival series, Dr Williams, conscious that his argument might raise hackles, spoke at length to Christopher Landau of the BBC World at One radio programme at lunchtime on 7 January. But what he said seems only to have made matters worse, and what started out as an academic lecture has headed rapidly towards being a PR disaster.
The Archbishop suggested that, as with some Orthodox Jewish family law, a very small portion of the overall Muslim Sharia approach concerned with marriage, divorce, custom and inheritance – already widely practiced in some communities – could be recognised officially, within certain limits to do with the preservation of universal rights, as a way of accommodating particular community and religious sensibilities within a unified framework.
Dr Williams acknowledged that “[the] principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy.” But he added: “I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that.”
Stressing that his overarching theme was ‘shared citizenship’, he continued: “So an approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts'. I think that's a bit of a danger.”
It is this which has provoked widespread fears that he wishes to compromise the link between universal law and citizenship, which is commonly coded, though mediated in different ways by the legal systems in England Scotland, for instance.
Dr Williams also carefully distanced himself from comments about Muslim “no go areas” made recently by the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and he said that while accommodation of a periodic call from the minaret at a mosque in Oxford might be possible, a daily call to prayer in “a mixed community which will never be homogeneously Muslim … doesn't seem to be appropriate.”
Acknowledging that in some situations Sharia as a universal method has been codified in “very brutal and inhuman and unjust ways”, the archbishop also stressed that “nobody in their right mind … would want to see in this country 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 as well.”
Nevertheless, his comments were immediately condemned as “inappropriate”, “wrong” and “unhelpful” by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the leaders of the other two main political parties, a host of public figures, secularists, bloggers across the world, and thousands of members of the public writing and phoning into the BBC.
British Humanist Association chief executive Hanne Stinson commented: “Fundamental to the principle of equality before the law that the same rights and processes of law be available to all and this automatically rules out any possibility of delegating the rights of some citizens to unaccountable religious authorities. Singling out certain groups for separate treatment will also surely undermine work towards good relations and social cohesion rather than assist it.
The principle of equal access and equal rights for all was also stressed by former Home Office barrister Shami Chakrabarti, now head of human rights pressure group Liberty, speaking on BBC TV’s Question Time programme.
But she also added: “I think his remarks may have been spun a bit, so that everyone can have a good row about them”, adding that Dr Williams was a “clever man and a very tolerant man”.
Ms Chakrabarti declared: “You have the civil and criminal law… People can have their conscience and religious freedom on top of that.”
Andy Burnham MP, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was unequivocal in his disagreement with the route proposed by Dr Williams, stressing that “two parallel laws” was wholly unacceptable. But he added: “Before everyone rushes to judgement… we should try to get underneath what he is saying… he no doubt is wrestling with some difficult issues.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said that Dr Williams’ sentiments “are no doubt rooted in goodwill and the search for mutuality, but they run the danger of introducing an unhelpful confusion between voluntary association, communal practices and the protective role of a common civil law.”
He added: “The confusion is also present when faith groups expect the government to enact blasphemy laws on their behalf, when religiously-based ritual, moral and covenantal codes for marriage are required to be co-terminus with legal civil partnership arrangements, and when faith groups seeking public money and contracts to be public service providers seek opt-outs from universal equalities requirements.”
Ekklesia says it is concerned that the Church of England, recognising the untenability of privileges it still claims as an Established Church, is now seeking to create a broader “multi-faith establishment” where “the same problems will be replicated across a wider and more complex arena. This compromises the voluntary nature of religious association and mobilisation, quite apart from introducing anomolies within wider society.”
The full text of the Archbishop's Temple lecture 'Civil and religious law in England: a religious perspective' may be read here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1575 
The full transcript of Dr Williams' interview with Christopher Landau of the BBC World at One programme is here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1573 
Simon Barrow, 'What lies beyond Lambeth's humiliation?' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6726