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Rethinking Islamism II

Misconceptions and fears about sharia.

One of the first, and foremost, fears about Islamism is that its aim is the imposition of sharia law. That in itself is open to question, and I will come to that in a later post. But the very concept of sharia has been so oversimplified by scaremongers that, in the popular imagination, it is inextricably linked with the punishments of beheading, flogging and amputation for crimes such as theft and adultery, and for which Saudi Arabia has long been notorious.

Regimes like that of the Taliban, who banned flared trousers and jailed beard-trimmers, reinforced this view, which is why when the Archbishop of Canterbury made a modest suggestion about whether aspects of sharia could or should be incorporated into British law he faced a hysterical reaction and calls to quit.

As is sadly so often the case, the nuances in the lecture Rowan Williams delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice in February 2008 failed to have any impact on those whose closed minds alit on the word "sharia" and decided he was talking nonsense yet again. In fact, Dr Williams addressed this point very early on when he quoted Tariq Ramadan's chapter on sharia in his book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

"In the west," writes Ramadan, currently professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford, "the idea of sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam . . . It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word."

The example of Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has much to do with this. Yet it is important to stress that to look at that country and then assume that its version of sharia is the only one, or the one to which Muslims all secretly aspire, would be akin to holding up a vision of Torquemada's Inquisition and concluding that this was what real Christianity was. It is unrepresentative and, many would argue, a perversion.

"Barbarism"

Equally important is that the punishments which cause the greatest outcry -- flogging, stoning, etc -- come under the hudud laws, which are implemented in Saudi Arabia and were introduced by General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan in 1979, but are the exception, not the rule, in most Muslim countries.

They are, in fact, an embarrassment to the many Muslims who consider them barbaric. So when Ramadan called for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic world in 2005, some non-Muslims criticised him for not going further. Why didn't he say the hudud laws should just be discarded or repealed?

He explained this by pointing out that most of the authorities "are of the opinion that these penalties are on the whole Islamic [because of textual references] but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to re-establish. These penalties, therefore, are 'almost never applicable'." He later declared that "Islam is being used to degrade and subjugate women and men in certain Muslim-majority societies in the midst of collusive silence and chaotic judicial opinions on the ground". The present-day use of hudud, therefore, is clearly a misuse of sharia.

But Ramadan provides further explanation for why the simplistic view of sharia is wrong. He has written of "the fundamental distinction that should be established between timeless principles" -- "sharia as a way towards justice", as he puts it -- "and contingent models". In other words, to reduce the whole of sharia to a detailed and specific set of laws, none of which leaves room for interpretation or reform, is, in his opinion, to miss the point.

"The concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed," he writes, "but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics, and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes . . . It really is a way, a way toward the ideal."

Many-splendoured

Cast in this manner, it becomes easier to understand why sharia varies enormously in the countries where it enjoys official status. For a surprisingly favourable account of what it's actually like to experience a sharia court, by a Times reporter, click here.

In Malaysia, to take another example, sharia is co-equal with civil law but is applied only to Muslims, and then mostly in matters concerning family law, marriage, inheritance and so on. Chinese restaurants are free to serve pork, alcohol is widely available, and women are not required to cover up. The former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad insisted on this latter point when I interviewed him in Kuala Lumpur this year.

"My wife does not cover her head. She's accepted," he told me. "It does not determine whether you are Muslim or not."

This may not be the type of sharia that all Islamists would favour, but not only would it suit some, it actually operates in a way that goes beyond what other Islamists advocate (about which, more later). You don't have to go as far as the authors of this interesting article in last July's Foreign Policy magazine, "What Israel needs to know about sharia" -- they argue that understanding sharia is the key to a peaceful coexistence with Hamas -- to appreciate that Rowan Williams did not deserve the barrage of criticism to which he was subjected two years ago (the Sun even set up a "Bash the Bishop" game on its website). Dr Williams was merely indicating that he knew (as I'm sure Christopher Hitchens does, too) that sharia is a highly complex and varied concept.

There are plenty who will object to any legal system or way of life that has a religious basis, regardless of how it operates. But the one word that is, above all, associated with sharia, stressed by Ramadan in his writings, Mahathir in his interview with me, by Bernard Lewis in his latest book and by countless others, is "justice".

I think we can agree that it is not just Islamists who are in favour of that.