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Rowan Williams: Sharia law question "still pertinent"

The former Archbishop of Canterbury revisits his 2008 speech.

Rowan Williams.
Rowan Williams outside Church House in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

In 2008 Rowan Williams gave a lecture to lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice about the relationship between Islam and British law. His comments – or a distorted version of them – provoked outrage in the right-wing press. The assertion that the use of certain aspects of Sharia law "seem[ed] unavoidable" led to wild accusations, even after the incumbent Lord Chief Justice Nicholas Phillips, the most senior judge in England and Wales, asserted that there was "no reason why Sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution", highlighting that this did not constitute a "parallel legal system" and would never "override English common law".

Speaking on Monday at the launch of a book of academic essays inspired by his 2008 lecture, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said:

I believe that the question I attempted to raise in 2008 is still a pertinent one. A question not simply about how we deal with the very specific issue of Islam and British law, but a series of questions about law itself.

Dr Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, told the audience at Fleet Street’s Temple Church:

Behind what I was saying in 2008 lay an inchoate but quite a strong belief that partnership between the state and the associations in a society is not in fact rocket science.  

He cited the partnership between the state and the Church of England in providing education, "one in which both parties have accommodated one another", adding: "in any such model there needs to be statutory resources, statutory checks invoked to make associational life and standards more obviously accountable and professional."

The debate over statutory regulations which would help guarantee "intelligence, coherence and transparency" among organisations with self-governing rules (trade unions, universities and churches were cited, along with Sharia councils, as examples) rolled on throughout the evening. Mohammed Amin, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum – a group within the Conservative Party – questioned whether Baroness Cox's Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill restricted too heavily the capacity for Sharia courts to make judgements according to their faith. Baroness Cox (seated four rows back) stood up to defend her bill as necessary for the protection of Muslim women. Two women from Sharia councils in London and Birmingham argued that adequate protection was already given within their respective jurisdictions. They wanted to clarify that in many cases – the custody of children or domestic violence, for example – the council would refuse to arbitrate and refer the parties either to the civil courts or where necessary to the police.

Williams also addressed the subject of women's rights, saying:

The state will always be asking – are there aspects of this practice which generate avoidable inequalities, are there aspects of this practice which (to use my own terminology in the original lecture) 'block access' for certain sorts of people. This is of course most acute in relation to the position of women in many Sharia courts and in many of the practices that we see around us.

He continued:

One of the more constructive things that was said to me in 2008 after the original lecture was said by a concerned Muslim lawyer who said: 'Sharia practice in this country needs to be exposed to the light' – that is, it needs to be made accountable and professional in ways which the legal establishment and statutory authority is best placed to take forward.

As became clear during the evening's discussion, judges and legal professionals have been grappling with the question of how to work with Sharia councils, long before Williams raised the subject. The only indication he fostered any regrets at having done so came when he said:

I recognise that in some of what I wrote in 2008 I had perhaps veered towards a slightly more ‘partnership of equals’ model than is realistic.

He also recounted a children’s story:

There’s an episode in Winnie the Pooh when Owl’s house is destroyed by a strong wind. As Pooh picks himself up from the wreckage he looks around and says, 'Did I do that?' I think the audience may perhaps understand that I have a certain fellow feeling with Winnie the Pooh in this respect.