The Archbishop Keeps It All In the Family

When Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, proposed the recognition of Sharia practices under British law, he said that while he would not contemplate Sharia in secular criminal law, he would consider the implementation of Sharia in 'aspects of marital law [and] the regulation of financial transactions'.

Daud Abdullah, the Deputy Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain said Williams "was trying to set forth a debate on the issue of Muslim personal law .... referring in his lecture to issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance, perhaps burials of the dead, support, child custody." Williams cited the existence of Jewish courts as an example of religious practice operating harmoniously beside British law.

He failed to mention actual British experience with Sharia in precisely the areas that Daud Abdullah mentioned.

When the Archbishop claimed "certain provisions of Sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law" he may have meant a recent British government decision letting Muslim husbands with multiple wives settling in Britain claim extra benefits for their 'harems' even though bigamy is a crime in the UK, punishable by 7 years imprisonment.

The Daily Mail reports that "if a husband and his wives arrive and settle in Britain having wed in a country where polygamy is legal, then the UK benefits system recognises his extra wives as dependents and pays them accordingly," a practice now being criticized by opposition lawmakers.

Speaking of weddings where polygamy is legal, the validity of a Sharia marriage is at the core of a case before three senior British judges deciding if a wedding between a learning-impaired British Muslim man to a woman in Bangladesh by telephone is legal. The marriage took place in September 2006 with the bridegroom in London listening by speakerphone to the ceremony in Bangladesh. The marriage was declared valid under Sharia law, but British authorize did not recognize it.

However "Lord Justice Thorpe, Lord Justice Hall and Lady Justice Hallett were asked by the man's family to reject an earlier decision that, because the groom was unable to give his consent, the marriage was unlawful." In other words, the relatives asked the court to find the Sharia proceeding legal in despite of British law. Experts said the case would have ramifications for plans to make forced marriages - often arranged marriages involving youngsters - prohibited in the UK under case law."

Muslim wedding practices are also involved in a controversy involving the surge of babies born in Britain with birth defects from intermarriage between first cousins. "Medical research suggests that while British Pakistanis are responsible for 3% of all births, they account for one in three British children born with genetic illnesses." Phil Woolas, an environment minister said the issue is not talked about. "It's a very sensitive issue. That's why it's not even a debate and people outside of these areas don't really know it exists ... I have encountered cases of blindness and deafness. There was one poor girl who had to have an oxygen tank on her back and breathe from a hole in the front of her neck. The parents were warned they should not have any more children. But when the husband returned again from Pakistan, within months they had another child with exactly the same condition." Minister Woolas was later rebuked by Gordon Brown for his remarks.

Sharia courts in Britain have already extended their jurisdiction beyond the Sceptered Isle. Sheikh Suhaib Hasan of the Islamic Sharia Council, a panel of Britain's top Islamic scholars says "he and a panel of seven to 10 Islamic scholars hear about 50 divorce cases a month at the Islamic Sharia Council ... settling disputes with couples as far afield as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany." This despite some opinion that Sharia is "not compatible with European fundamental rights and standards."

The experience of other countries in where both secular and Sharia cover "marriage, divorce, inheritance, perhaps burials of the dead, support, child custody" might be instructive. Pakistani cricket captain Shoaib Malik recently rejected his bride, Ayesha Siddiqui because their families could not agree on the terms of their marriage." But Siddiqui's father claims they were already married -- under Sharia law. He "released a statement last week saying that Malik had married his daughter six years ago over the telephone - as she could not get a Pakistani visa. Although the groom had been in Pakistan and the bride in India, he said that the ceremony had been conducted by an Islamic cleric in front of several witnesses and therefore complied with Sharia." But Malik's brother in law said he had been duped into the telephone marriage. The girl sent someone else's photographs to Malik by email "which was cheating". It is not clear where in Sharia law references to email exist, but however that may be Malik's brother in law said, "when we saw the girl in 2005 we were left aghast and at that time we decided not to carry on." While British judges were being asked to validate an Islamic telephone marriage the Pakistani cricket captain was ironically refusing to recognize one.

Sharia law may intrude upon family matters even beyond the grave. The China Post reports how an ethnic Chinese man is "battling Malaysian authorities who snatched the body of his father after saying he had embraced Islam before he died". His father was "buried as Muslim after an Islamic Sharia court in Negeri Sembilan ruled that the man converted to Islam" in 2007. But his family says this is impossible since the deceased had been paralyzed from a stroke and unable to speak since 2006. Authorities nevertheless claimed he had made a deathbed declaration in Arabic and referenced conversion papers which the relatives say are unsigned. A civil court rejected the family bid to declare Gan a Buddhist, saying it had no jurisdiction over Islamic cases. The son protested, "we are not Muslims, why should we go to Sharia court?"

Rowan Williams believed that Sharia would give Muslims a greater choice in Britain. But Sharia gave a Malaysian woman no choice but to remain a Muslim whether she liked it or not. The BBC reported "a three-judge panel ruled that only the country's Sharia Court could let Azlina Jailani, now known as Lina Joy, remove the word Islam from her identity card." The BBC notes:

Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of worship but says all ethnic Malays are Muslim. Under Sharia law, Muslims are not allowed to convert. Ms Joy said she should not be bound by that law as she is no longer a Muslim. Malaysia's Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said the panel endorsed legal precedents giving Islamic Sharia courts jurisdiction over cases involving Muslims who want to convert. ... "You can't at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another," Ahmad Fairuz said.

Britain's own experience and those of other countries with Sharia law have not dampened Rowan Williams enthusiasm for his idea. And it is increasingly possible that he may get his way. An Associated Press report says Williams received a standing ovation at the church Synod Monday "despite his recent controversial statments about the role of Islamic law in Britain."

The ovation was so loud that "Rowan Williams twice asked members of the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, to stop clapping so he could begin his talk about the furious response to his advocating the incorporation of some elements of Shariah law into British society."