Muslim lawyers say they are puzzled that Archbishop Rowan Williams raised the Sharia issue before they have had a chance to tackle some key concerns. But Evangelicals and a progressive interfaith group are calling for wider debate.
Speaking after Dr Williams said introducing aspects of Sharia law into the British legal system was "unavoidable", Mahmud Al-Rashid, a spokesperson for the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML) and a barrister at 6 Kings Bench Walk, said regulation could lead to improvements - but explained that Muslims had not asked for the debate and were a little puzzled as to how it had come about.
He said: "Sharia councils need to be formalised so they can be regulated and improved. Whenever anything operates that isn’t transparent there are always problems… people may not know the degree of competence of certain councils, as there is no way of standardising at the moment."
But while he felt regulation of existing courts would bring benefits, Mr Al-Rashid cautioned that the UK Muslim community had not been agitating for the introduction of Sharia, reports the UK Law Gazette, the profession's highly respected journal.
Al-Rashid said he was surprised by Dr Williams’ decision to raise the issue now, as "it is an internal debate Muslims need to have first".
He also warned: "I would want the experts in this country who understand the context, history and culture particular to our society here to develop the Sharia that way. It is not a fixed rule to be imported from another country… Muslims here are not of one view as to whether it is a good thing."
Mr Al-Rashid stressed that Sharia laws would not supersede English law.
Meahwhile, the Evangelical Alliance, which seeks to speak on behalf of a million Christians in that section of the churches, is inviting them to use its website to help set the agenda for discussions on faith and the law, following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s controversial Temple lecture.
The Alliance is inviting a group of church leaders, theologians and community practitioners to look at faith and law in the public square, and the impact this has on community relations and social cohesion.
It is undertood these will be persons in sympathy with the EA. But the organisation is also keen to get the wider Christian community involved in this discussion, by feeding in their opinions to the debate.
The Rev Joel Edwards, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: “The way faith operates in the political and legal sphere has always been extremely important to the Alliance, but the response to the Archbishop’s speech has given this debate a real sense of urgency."
He explained: "We want to use this as a spring-board to find a way forward for those in our, and other, faith communities who feel disenfranchised on matters of conscience by the changing meaning of what it is to be British."
The Alliance says it will publish the findings of the consultation.
In a further development, the trustees of the Interfaith Alliance UK, a progressive body (and distinct from the Inter Faith Network, which has not commented) say they "reject the unfounded interpretations placed upon the Archbishop’s lecture but welcome the ensuing debate, including his further clarifications."
The groups adds: "The Interfaith Alliance UK is committed to expressing liberal and progressive views, rooted in the diversity of Abrahamic faith traditions, on a range of contemporary social justice and ethical issues. We regret that the questions raised by Dr Williams’ Lecture might suggest that those seeking exemptions for faith groups from equality legislation and other Government guidelines have a legitimate basis for their woeful strategies. A false opposition has been stated between the rights of faith communities to order their internal policies and procedures and the promotion of ‘the common good’. The Archbishop’s reflections should not be used to advance a reactionary agenda, seeking ‘opt-outs’ on matters which do not relate to central tenets of Abrahamic faith."
It continues: "Vital to the well-being of human society is that it should hear and give voice to those who are frequently marginalised in the corridors of both religious and political power, including vulnerable children, oppressed women, and those subject to prejudice on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity or race. Misogyny and homophobia should no more be institutionalised than should racism. The principles of mercy, compassion and justice are as paramount to secular law as they are to the internal ordering of faith communities, and are not the sole preserve of the religious. Many people of faith see hopeful and joyful signs of the times in political commitment to civil rights which are entirely consistent with the values of our faith traditions, and are often more obvious in secular realities than within faith groups."
The Interfaith Alliance UK urges: "Let the leadership of our faith communities listen first to the voice of the voiceless, both in their midst as well as in wider society, seeking any structural integration of their juridical principles and codes in secular frameworks only where secular law fails in its commitment to the dispossessed."