Archbishop of Canterbury defends Sharia law comments to Synod

|PIC1|The Archbishop of Canterbury opened the Church of England General Synod to rapturous applause on Monday as he attempted to clarify his comments on Islamic law.

Dr Rowan Williams faced a storm of criticism after stating last Thursday that the accommodation of certain aspects of the Muslim legal framework Sharia in British law was "unavoidable".

His comments came ahead of a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in which the Archbishop pointed to the possibility of overlapping jurisdictions in which "individuals might choose in certain limited areas whether to seek justice under one system or another".

In his Presidential Address to open Synod, Dr Williams apologised for any distress that may have been caused by "unclarity" or a "misleading choice of words", but stopped short of retracting his comments.

"I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus," he told Synod - although the Archbishop later conceded that his efforts in this instance had been "clumsily deployed".

Dr Williams stressed that he was not advocating the establishment of parallel jurisdictions in which some citizens are subject to British laws, while others are governed by Sharia.

"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," he said. "The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity."

Dr Williams went on to again raise the question of whether "certain additional choices" could and should be made available under the law for resolving and regulating transactions.

"It would be analogous to what is already possible in terms of the legal recognition of certain kinds of financial transactions under Islamic regulation (including special provision around mortgage arrangements)," he said. "And it would create a helpful interaction between the courts and the practice of Muslim legal scholars in this country."

The Archbishop pointed to Christian minorities who suffer in Muslim majority countries, even where a national legal framework is in place guaranteeing their civil 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," he continued. "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."

Dr Williams said he had hoped to raise the questions on the relation between faith and law, particularly the extent to which the law could accommodate conscience.

While the law had so far provided space for conscientious objection on religious grounds, Dr Williams warned that "there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular".

"I think we ought to keep an eye on this trend; and if we do, we shall have to do more thinking about the models of society and law we work with," he said, adding, "It's an area where Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together."