There are so many concerns which need to be separated and individually addressed here. Let me start first with muslim reaction in the UK. It is one of puzzlement. After recent talks of integrating the muslim community further into the mainstream of UK life and fighting feelings of alienation amongst the younger generation, one does not know what to make of the Archbishop's statements. Some raise practical questions: How would disagreements between sharia and secular law be resolved? Given the various sects, whose sharia would gain primacy? Others ask more penetrating questions: Wouldn't adoption of the sharia law actually achieve the exact opposite effect- that of further delineating the muslim individual rather than leading to further cohesion? Sharia is not renowned for its enlightened stance on most issues even if many in the world would willingly submit to it. What about the status of women? If sharia were formalized, would this not sow the seeds of discontent among other religious communities (like the hindus, christians, buddhists...) who could then ask to follow their own religious edicts instead of the national law?
Another aspect of this issue has to deal with the fact that by introducing muslim courts one would reintroduce an aspect of life most people may have been fleeing from, in the first place, by emigrating to a secular country. Rowan Williams wears the blinders of a religious man who cannot conceive of lives that do not revolve around religious conviction alone. There are plenty of younger people who are forced into arranged marriages and "honor" rituals in the UK, who have some recourse currently in the secular law of the land. Sharia courts would be a huge disservice to them. Indeed, he goes so far as to think that the introduction of sharia courts would somehow reduce these "cultural practices" by allowing for their legal monitoring. Huh? So sharia courts would bring to the fore that which was previously a hidden "cultural practice" but how would legal monitoring serve any purpose if sharia law considered said cultural practice correct?
Another set of questions raised by the Archbishop's comments relate to his motivation. Why would he be championing muslim rights to a separate sharia court? If one were to read or hear the full-text of his conversation with BBC's Christopher Landau, one will also hear other comments such as:
"What we don't want either, is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences". [sic]
"An approach to law which simply said that there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands our loyalties or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the court - I think that's a bit of a danger".
"That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that".
He goes on to make more confused noises while presenting examples such as whether a catholic adoption agency would be forced to consider gay parents under equality laws. His words swing between seemingly selfless championing of religious rights to incoherent ramblings about the trampling of the religious conscience by western secular democracy. One begins to wonder whether his true motivations aren't to strengthen judeo-christian religion and ultimately the church of England's position and re-establish it as the font of legal and moral authority in the land.
Quotes were taken from news stories on the BBC.