An air of unclarity

There has been some confusion about the comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury in regard to the use of sharia law. The debate over the acceptance of sharia law has been conducted in cultural terms and through a prism of social cohesion. For conservative onlookers, the spirited consensus that rejected rival bodies making law would have gladdened the hearts of Hobbes and Locke. There can be only one law making body in this land, and that is Parliament. For conservatives, the rejection of Rowan Williams's viewpoint is necessary.

Libertarians will find that their approach to sharia is a matter of studied ambiguity, dependent upon the acceptance of certain conditions. As a system of alternate dispute resolution to which all parties consent, we can have no objection of Muslims wish to settle their arguments through this legal system rather then through other arbitration processes so long as all parties consent to be bound by the result. This was not Williams's argument, since he argued that the recognition of sharia was unavoidable, and wished to champion this. Did he do so in order to prevent anticipated communal strife?

The arguments in this debate have drawn upon conservatism and liberalism but they have not considered the point of view of the individual. Discarding the issue of legal recognition, can a libertarian oppose a community adopting sharia as their system of law if all members of that community consent willingly, even if they are disadvantaged by the adoption. Consent is surely paramount, alongside the ability of members to leave if they so wish. Therefore, the real test of this debate is whether all those subjected to sharia would have willingly given their consent and whether those who did not wish to subject themselves to this legal system had the right to say no.

On both of these tests, we would not be able to confirm if members of Muslim communities in this country consented to sharia or if they enjoyed the right of exit. The patriarchal society and the use of honour killings to cow women, the penalty for apostacy in sharia and the unwillingness to grant consent by legal scholars means that Islamic law fails these basic tests. Teasing out the lack of consent reveals Williams's illiberal arguments and demonstrates that he implicitly proposes abrogating the rights of some for a mythical concept of social cohesion. This is what he did not wish to say in his bout of unclarity. Now he has started to clarify or backtrack as it is known in politics:

We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions; and I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank cheques' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women. The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity. So the question remains of whether certain additional choices could and should be made available under the law of the United Kingdom for resolving disputes and regulating transactions.....

If - and please note that word - this were thought to be a useful direction in which to move, there would be plenty of work still to be done, with the greatest care, on what would and would not be possible and appropriate areas for such co-operation. I noted, for example, that traditional Muslim attitudes to 'apostasy' posed a very serious question (recognised by many Muslim scholars today), and that honest discussion of this was imperative. I have had a fair amount of recent first-hand contact with Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries which has left me with no illusions about the sufferings they can and do face, even when there is a national legal framework that fully recognises their liberties. But I noted that many Muslim majority countries do distinguish clearly between the rights of citizens overall and the duties accepted by some citizens of obedience to Islamic law. It is this that encourages me to think that there may be ways of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all-or-nothing basis.