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One nation, one system
 
Harry Sterling
Special to The Windsor Star
His comments have been denounced as “naive and shocking,” “unacceptable,” even capable of being interpreted as “appeasement of Islamic extremism.”

Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, clearly stumbled unwittingly into a political minefield recentlydue to his comments that adopting aspects of Islamic Shariah law in the United Kingdom was “unavoidable,” and would help promote “social cohesion.”

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Mr. Brown “believes that British laws should be based on British values.” Britain’s culture secretary, Andy Burnham, said such a proposal would create “social chaos.”

Several of Archbishop Williams’s clerical colleagues have disassociated themselves from his remarks, including his predecessor, Lord George Carey, who said accepting Muslim laws within Britain’s legal system “… would be disastrous for the nation.”

While many Muslim representatives welcomed Archbishop Williams’s comments, others, including an adviser on Muslim women, Shaista Gohir, said she did not believe a need for Shariah courts existed in Britain because even Muslims didn’t want them. Polls showed 60 per cent of British Muslims do not want Shariah law implemented in their community.

Although many disagreeing with the archbishop’s comments may ostensibly base their views on the desirability of one law being applicable for all British citizens, it’s apparent the controversy has also exposed divisions and tensions built up in recent years over that country’s changing society under multiculturalism.

Some of that negative reaction is linked to the belief that the failure to assimilate the country’s visible minorities, particularly Muslims, threatens traditional British values and practices.

The horrific subway bombings in London, plus recent arrests of Muslim groups allegedly plotting further acts of terrorism, has only reinforced mistrust of minorities and their customs, including Shariah law.

However, Muslim spokespersons have pointed out that what Dr. Williams presumably had in mind could involve only a limited segment of Shariah law, covering such things as marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance and other non-criminal matters.

Nevertheless, opponents say that even this would be incompatible with British norms, particularly Islamic practices discriminating against women.

For example, women’s testimony in court cases is given less credence than that of males, and women are denied equal inheritance rights.

(When the possibility of permitting some form of Islamic court system was initially raised by provincial authorities in Ontario, the suggestion was dropped after strong public opposition.)

While Shariah law sentences in some instances — the amputation of criminals’ hands and execution by stoning for adultery or sodomy — have appalled many in industrialized societies such as Canada, such punishments are not enforced in every country where Shariah law is observed, such as Asian and sub-Sahara African nations.

Unfortunately, recent cases in places such as Afghanistan continue to draw attention to aspects of Shariah law considered gross violations of fundamental human rights.

Last year, an Afghan convert to Christianity was charged with apostasy and faced the death penalty until the Karzai government bowed to significant international pressure and allowed the individual to obtain sanctuary in Italy.

This month, a 23-year-old Afghan university journalism student was convicted of blasphemy for distributing an article questioning the subservient role of women in Islam.

The young man also faces the death penalty if his conviction is not overruled by appeal courts or President Hamid Karzai.

Interestingly, while many have denounced the archbishop’s comments about trying to accommodate Muslim traditions within Britain’s legal system, opponents have ignored that Britain already permits special courts for Orthodox Jews. Similarly, some countries, like Egypt for example, permit special legal proceedings for non-Muslims.

The kind of Shariah law Rowan Williams was referring to is far removed from the more extreme versions practised in some parts of the world.

However, in the end I believe that permitting additional separate legal systems for any segment of the British populace will only further undermine attempts to integrate minorities into British society, and ultimately weaken Britain’s “social cohesion,” rather than strengthen it.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

This column was written for the Ottawa Citizen.

© The Windsor Star 2008

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