Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Legal fusion the way forward

  • 12 February 2008


He was called everything from an old goat to a man who had lost his way. Such was the reaction to the foundation lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice, given last Thursday by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. In it, he called for some measure of accommodation by secular societies with other faiths, taking Islam as his example. It was not satisfactory, he argued, to abide by a 'uniform law of a sovereign state' to the exclusion of other forms of religious and communal behaviour.

The innocuous lecture, strewn with paginated references, should be read in its entirety. In a climate where the word Sharia evokes beheadings, impenetrable veils and dogmas, a full reading was too much to expect. People in non-Muslim societies see Islamic fundamentalism creeping up on them. The word Sharia tends to be a red rag to a bull. Williams' lecture had London's Fleet Street up in arms. Williams was accused of encouraging a theocracy. The notorious Sun, under the headline 'What a Burkha', called him a 'silly old goat' and a dangerous one at that. Williams, it argued, was giving Muslims 'a choice over which law they follow'.

The Telegraph was more conciliatory, noting the existence of Sharia councils within Britain that Muslims had turned to over such areas as marital disputes. Not to be outdone by the Sun, it concluded that Williams' statement might be seen as appeasing extremists. The Archbishop was simply stating an operative principle: that foreign laws and moral codes have a place in a secular setting. To put it another way, he is against 'an unqualified secular legal monopoly’' To say that Sharia law has a place in the English system — that Muslims may see the protocols of Sharia to be determinative — is stating an already evolving, and to a large extent, benign practice. The issue of, as Williams terms it, 'constructive accommodation' between secular authorities and religious codes is already taking place in Western countries. Some might even argue that it has already been achieved. Since the growth of Muslim communities in some Western countries, a growing number of lawyers have become experts in Islamic dispute resolution. More sober commentators have pointed out the practice of the Beth Din Rabbinical Court among