Not that I feel that I speak for, need to speak for, or even want to speak for ‘Muslims’, I feel necessitated to add my particular view to the hysteria surrounding the Archbishop’s comments.
My personal (non-legal, non-scholarly) understanding is that UK law already allows ordinary British citizens (including those from different faith backgrounds) to go to a third party for the purpose of arbitration in a dispute on the proviso that the arrangement is entirely voluntary and that either of the parties have full recourse to the British legal system if they so require.
In this way, Orthodox Jews have for decades had their own Beth Din courts in the UK.
In parallel to this, back in the 1980s some Muslims set up the UK Sharia Council.
The UK’s main Beth Din is based in Finchley, north London. It oversees a wide range of cases including divorce settlements, contractual rows between traders and tenancy disputes. The court cannot force anyone to come within its jurisdiction but once someone agrees to settle a dispute in the Beth Din, he or she is bound in English law to abide by the court’s decision.
However, both the Beth Din and Sharia Council courts deal primarily with marital disputes (estimated to be around 90% of cases that go before them) and both are already entirely legal.
In terms of Sharia Law however, only 30% of British Muslims – when polled early last year for Channel 4’s ‘What Muslims Want’ Dispatches programme – stated that given the choice, they would prefer to live under Sharia rather than British law. In other words, around 70% would prefer British over Sharia law.
Similarly, given the choice of moving to a country where Sharia law was already in place, only 19% stated that they would take this opportunity and move away from Britain.
As such, I think that it is fair to suggest that most British Muslims would prefer not to have Sharia law here, or at least any more than is already present. A small, extremely vocal minority would however disagree.
For me, what seems to be particularly worrying about the Archbishop’s words is his comment that one law for all is “dangerous”. I would suggest that in fact, quite the opposite is true. For someone who is normally so weighted with what he says, it is surprising as to what he has said about Sharia and for the hostility that he has created for himself. Declaring tonight that he was overwhelmed by the backlash is a wonderful example of how to employ understatement to maximum effect.
My interpretation of what the Archbishop might have been trying to achieve is somewhat different to what has been put forward elsewhere. Soon after the introduction of the Equalities Act last year, many from within the mainstream religions became embroiled in the ‘gay adoption’ row that culminated in the law requiring religious and faith based adoption agencies to provide adoption services to gay, lesbian and transgender people irrespective of the ‘beliefs’ that any given faith/ religion had about homosexuality et al.
Such a public humiliation for the major faiths was extremely hard to take and many in the faith constituencies felt aggrieved by what they saw as their ‘rights’ – rooted in their conscience and theology – being relegated or at least diminished by what many saw as an abomination. Consequently despite the introduction of the Equalities Act, some believed that a hierarchy of ‘rights’ was already in place and unsurprisingly, religion and belief was rooted firmly at the bottom of the pile. Given that the beliefs of the Church and indeed most other religions are determined and ultimately governed by a higher entity than central Government made this decision even more difficult to swallow for those involved.
It is possible therefore that the comments made by the Archbishop yesterday were a rallying cry to those same people of faith to stand up for their rights and stake a claim within the British legal system using Muslims as his shield to deflect the (limited?) criticism that his words would no doubt attract at the same time as bringing this vociferous community ‘on side’. Unfortunately for him, neither of these strategies have worked and in the main, the Archbishop has left himself looking like a dead man walking.
This is of course speculation but possibly a more grounded speculation than much of the ‘analysis’ offered by many of today’s national newspapers and no doubt tomorrow’s.