Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Toleration and Islamic Law

February 12, 2008; Page A16

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, earned an unusual rebuke from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week for suggesting that some version of Islamic -- "Shariah" -- law would inevitably be introduced in Britain. Even in rejecting the idea, however, Mr. Brown noted that some aspects of Shariah could be accommodated on a "case-by-case" basis.

This exchange highlights an issue that is fast reaching a boiling point in Britain and other Western countries with increasingly assertive Muslim communities. Can a modern democracy house more than one legal system, even on a limited basis, and remain a democracy as we have come to understand that term over the past two centuries?


One thing is certain. A constitutional and legal system that does define rights based upon community identification, rather than individual citizenship, will not be democracy as we have known it. The direct and equal status of each individual citizen before the law was arguably the 18th century's greatest constitutional innovation, both in the U.S. and in Europe. The French Revolution, for example, took place when the Estates General -- representing the clergy, nobility and commonality as corporate bodies -- transformed itself into a "National Assembly," self-consciously claiming to represent directly the citizens at large.

Permitting any portion of the body politic to have its legal rights defined by community, rather than citizenship, would be a giant step backward. It is by no means clear how Western societies could practice such accommodation, even on a limited basis, without undercutting their social compact.


Canterbury Tale

February 12, 2008

In secular Britain, the influence of the Archbishop of Canterbury on public life is not what it used to be. But the cleric's words still carry weight, as the current office-holder, Rowan Williams, proved the other day. Of course, the religion he spoke about was Islam, not Christianity.

Mr. Williams suggested last week that the partial adoption of Shariah, or Islamic law, "seems unavoidable" in Britain. In an interview Thursday with the BBC, he mused about the need to find "accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law." He said that there was "a bit of a danger" in "an approach to law which simply said 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said.'"

Perhaps the Archbishop would care to reread the Magna Carta, the English charter of 1215 that laid the basis for the rule of constitutional law in Britain, the U.S. and virtually every other free country world-wide. What Mr. Williams considers so dangerous is otherwise known as "equality before the law" -- one of the basic tenets of democracy.


The public backlash his words have provoked is evidence that the country, which has already suffered from Islamic terrorism, is tired of the cultural relativism that has contributed to the rise of parallel societies where extremism can fester.

There are discomforting surveys showing that up to 40% of British Muslims want Shariah in the U.K. But even if those numbers are accurate, some 60% must not want to live under Shariah. Many Muslims have fled to Britain precisely to escape a legal system that chops off the hands of thieves, as in Saudi Arabia, or hangs homosexuals and stones adulterers, as in Iran.

Mr. Williams appears to be suggesting some form of "Shariah lite," as if one could pick the bits of Islamic jurisprudence that might be acceptable in Western democracies and reject the rest. That's an awfully slippery slope. The best guarantee for social cohesion and religious freedom is the primacy of secular law that's blind to anyone's faith.

Pertinent Links:

1) Toleration and Islamic Law

2) Canterbury Tale

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