Friday, February 8, 2008

Sharia in Britain (and Beyond)

In a Guardian piece appropriately titled "Reinventing Sharia," Asim Siddiqui nods along with the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent musings in favor of incorporating Islamic law into the British legal system:

The aspects of sharia being considered by the archbishop are restricted to matters of family and finance law, ie civil matters. No one is suggesting introducing the so-called Islamic penal code - so let's not waste time debating something most of us don't want to see in the Muslim world, let alone Britain.
I know I've made this point repeatedly, but I just have to make it again since god enthusiasts keep pitching the softball: why would someone devoted to Islam, and to the idea of making it the basis of law, do so only half way? What would the thought process be? God dictated a set of laws to Mohammed, but he was just kidding about many of them? And he just happened to be kidding about the ones that we modern types find cruel and distasteful? How is this coherent? How is this anything besides special pleading of the form, "Islam represents the will of the one true god -- except when it doesn't"? Why would any reasonable person take this seriously?

The obvious danger is that allowing the supposedly "nice" elements of sharia into British law opens the door for the nasty elements. "Cultural inclusiveness" justifies embracing Koranic rules on adultery or theft every bit as much as it justifies embracing Koranic rules on divorce or finance. Equally in either case, the law is either recognizing the legitimacy of Koranic law or it isn't; equally in either case, the law is either "excluding" or "including" that which Muslims consider essential, sacrosanct, holy, etc. In that vein, Siddiqui implies that Muslims don't agree on what is essential:
This is the work for Muslim scholars to reinterpret practices considered by some to be "Islamic"; such as women witnesses being worth half that of men, men having up to four wives, custody of children transferring to the father, inheritance etc. In each case, there are multiple interpretations. It is for progressive Muslim scholars to ensure the more liberal and tolerant interpretations that are rooted in the Islamic tradition and part of Britain's libertarian heritage become dominant over time.
The reasonable course is for this work of promoting "liberal and tolerant" interpretations of sharia take place in countries where sharia is already law. Once liberal and tolerant versions of sharia have displaced barbaric and backward versions in such places, and once this more humane version has achieved concensus in the Muslim world, there will be no conflict and no controversy associated with harmonizing sharia with Britain's (or anyone's) libertarian heritage.

I don't expect that to happen because I think sharia is inherently intolerant and illiberal, but whether and when it happens should not be a chore for British law or British society. Britain has a well-established system of laws and has nothing to gain from adopting sharia, in whole or in part. Meanwhile, Muslims in Britain feeling "culturally excluded" have a demonstrably workable democratic process and an open legal system through which to seek redress, or, that failing, a free national border beyond which they may seek a more hospitable political, legal, and cultural climate. That said, I would hope British jurists will continue to reject legal arguments that begin, implicitly or explicitly, with "the traditions of Islam hold that ..."

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