The Archbishop of Canterbury has stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that there is a place for Sharia law in the UK. I’ve been impressed by how roundly his views have been rejected; politicians, religious groups, and people in the street are united in opposition, which is a level of agreement we rarely reach as a nation.
A couple of interesting points have been made, and one missed. First, there already is a place for Sharia in British law. The equivalent of contract negotiations can be conducted under any set of ‘rules’ that the participants agree to, so a divorce settlement can be handled by Sharia law. Similarly any contract that only has standing under Sharia law (a Muslim marriage, distinct from the corresponding civil marriage) can be adjudicated under that law – that’s what currently happens under Jewish law, for example.
The other point made is that this is a Trojan horse from Williams; if there is a place for Sharia law then surely there must be room for Christian law outside the legal establishment. I’m less convinced by this idea; just stating what he wanted would spark far less resentment about the whole subject than using Islam as a gateway. Whatever his tactics are, I suspect they’re more subtle than this. At least I hope so, otherwise he’s not as smart as I’d given him credit for.
What has been missed in the discussion so far is the arbitrariness of recognition for religious views. Let’s concede for a moment that there should be accommodation for views such as Sharia. Why, then, shouldn’t there be similar concessions for the 390,000 people who listed themselves as Jedis on the latest census? And why not recognition for the views of the 70,000 members of the Cyclist’s Touring Club? The only plausible answer is that religions are different, which rests on one of two assumptions. One is that religious beliefs are more heartfelt than even the most passionate cyclist’s, for example. I’d question whether that’s true, but even if it were we don’t formulate laws based on passion.
The other, often unspoken, assumption is that religions deserve special consideration because they are in some way true. That’s the essence of what too many religious believers seek in government; a recognition that what they believe is more than just belief. The very best democracies shy away from this. That England has not is to its shame.