Archbishop's Sharia Remarks Open Important Debate, Says Group

The Christian Muslim Forum has said that comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury on accommodating aspects of Sharia and religious conscience within Britain's secular legal system have opened up an important but complex debate.

In his Temple lecture Thursday, Dr. Rowan Williams addressed the "great deal of uncertainty" that remains over the degree of accommodation the law of the land "can and should give to minority communities with their own strongly entrenched legal and moral codes."

He claimed the adoption of elements of Islamic sharia law in the UK "seems unavoidable."

While his comments drew wide criticism, the Christian Muslim Forum said that the Archbishop's lecture had "opened an important debate," not primarily about Sharia, but about the broader issues of how to accommodate the rights of religious groups within a secular debate.

The Forum added, however, that it was a "complex and emotive debate" and one in which it was "easy for misunderstanding and stereotyping to occur, especially in relation to Sharia law."

During his lecture on Thursday, Williams stressed that the issue does not only affect Islam but other faith groups, including Orthodox Judaism, and can be seen in recent appeals from religious believers to opt out of certain legal provisions, including Roman Catholic adoption agencies asking to opt out of aspects of the Sexual Orientation Regulations last year.

Taking the Muslim legal framework of Sharia as his example throughout, the Archbishop went on to highlight that social identities "are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging," and warned that problems could occur when "secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity."

He went on to argue that a "law is the law is the law" mentality failed to take into serious consideration the fact that societies are ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse and that identities are formed "by different modes and contexts of belonging, 'multiple affiliation.'"

"This means that we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities," he said.

"The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity."

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, does not agree with Williams' comments.

"His conclusion that Britain will eventually have to concede some place in law for aspects of Sharia is a view I cannot share," Carey said in the News of the World newspaper. "There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights.

"His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation."

Still, the former archbishop defended Williams, saying he was a great leader and it was not a resigning matter.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury may have done Britain a great favor by raising issues concerning Islam," he said. "I don't believe he saw the implication of the speech he made. I understand he is horrified by what has happened."

With debate on how to accommodate diverse religious groups now opened, the Presidents of the Christian Muslim Forum said they are committed to enabling better understanding and discussion of these complex issues and how they might be developed in a positive way, according to a released statement.

"We will be undertaking a considered discussion of these matters in the months ahead. We hope that this will lead to a better understanding of issues affecting the relationship between law and religion, and of Sharia which goes beyond stereotype."

The Forum statement was signed by the Chair of the Muslim Forum, Dr. Musharraf Hussain, and Co-Chair of the forum, Bishop Richard Cheetham, as well as Dr. Mohammed Saeed Bahmanpour, the Rev. Esme Beswick, Bishop Michael Evans, Khalil Kazi, Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui, and Dr. Nicholas Wood.

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