On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a global discussion on Sharia after his address entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective.” He and others have tried to backtrack his comments from any implication towards the application of Sharia in Britain for Muslims also providing reassurance that it would not trump British law. Hardly reassurance in a nation which submitted to Sharia already by recognizing polygamous marriages. In fact, the Archbishop’s BBC interview before the speech was more clear where he implied that the application of Sharia law in Britain for Muslims was unavoidable.
Commentaries both supporting and decrying the implications of the Archbishop’s ideas about the UK slouching toward Sharia have been ubiquitous over the past week.
Should we be concerned about the Western Islamist organizations that basked in the empowering glow of validation from the Archbishop of the Church of England? The Muslim Council of Britain released a press release on February 8, 2008 stating that, the MCB is “grateful for the thoughtful intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the discussion of the place of Islam and Muslims in Britain today.” They then had the temerity to try and clarify what the Archbishop intended in his remarks stating, “[T]he Archbishop sought in his speech to explore the possibilities of an accommodation between English law and some aspects of Islamic personal law.” This statement should immediately demonstrate the exploitation of such accommodations by Islamists in order to solidify their attempt to represent and control the Muslim community.
Should we, on the contrary, be reassured by the number of reform-minded Muslims in the UK, Canada, and the U.S. who have since expressed outrage that the nations they chose as home in order to escape archaic Sharia laws in Muslim majority nations were contemplating allowing Islamist imams the “freedom” to methodically “integrate” into British society? Perhaps not, since many in the majority appear to be listening to the Islamists and ignoring the anti-Islamists.
Yet in all the international discourse surrounding the Archbishop’s lecture, what remains virtually absent is any meaningful debate between Islamist and anti-Islamist Muslims concerning the relevance and implementation of Sharia law by Islamists. While the Archbishop may have been well-intended, his laborious apology for Sharia law – quoting Tariq Ramadan as a leading authority and completely ignoring the anti-Islamist devotional Muslim movement – makes the assumption that the debate is between the “primitivists” and modernists within the realm of Islamism. Some post-modern “enlightened” Muslims would say that the challenge is quite the contrary – not to modernize Islamism as the Islamists would have you believe -- but rather to bring Islamic interpretations into the post-Enlightenment ideology and defeat Islamism (governmental Sharia). By critically exposing the supremacist orientation of Islamism regarding universal religious liberty, freedom, natural law and reason, political Islam and the quandary the Archbishop and others are trying to address will disappear.
The Archbishop would have Muslims continue in their legal paralysis and avoid this debate altogether. It is not the head of the Church of England who should be dissecting the nuances of Sharia for the 21st Century, but rather diverse Muslims who should be given platforms to openly debate the dangers of Sharia implementation as it exists today. Before looking for ways to accommodate Sharia law into the far more tested Western secular laws, perhaps institutions should be created which pit anti-Islamist Muslims against Islamist Muslims in debating the harms and benefits of Sharia as pronounced by the clerics of today.
To “accommodate,” “implement,” or seek to “apply” Sharia law, no matter which way it is massaged into place, is to skip entirely the internal debate for control, expression, and application of what Sharia is, and hand it over as is to the current Islamist infrastructure. To empower current Islamist jurists and benevolently seek an understanding of how British law can come to terms with it is to dangerously accept the financial, theocratic, and political underpinnings of this backward ideology, which has dominated the theological Muslim community for the past seven centuries or more, generating the body of law which is Sharia today.
While many Muslims may practice a post-Englightenment personal Sharia in our own homes, there is a dearth of accepted texts and Islamic scholars which reject the pre-Enlightenment elements of Sharia while accepting those which are post-Enlightenment. This, in the reality of Muslim practice, is very different from what is preached by the current Islamist leadership and infrastructure. One should, for example, do a study comparing the legal details of the marriage contracts and Last Will and Testaments of Muslims living in the West compared to the actual legal details recommended by most Islamist imams and the established texts of Islamic jurisprudence of today. I would hazard to guess that the majority of Muslims living in the West have modernized the legal framework of their marriage contracts and wills making them in terms which are post-Enlightenment and more in synergy with today’s Western law than today’s Sharia, while also staying true to the spirit of their own interpretation of Islamic teachings. And I would also venture to guess that the vast majority of clerics and Islamic jurists lag centuries behind in their willingness to reinterpret laws and scripture which, for example, often empower men and misogynistically devalue women.
One need only review, for example many of the recommendations and legal opinions of the Assembly of Muslim Jurists in America to find a plethora of apologetics for male-dominated Sharia. This “assembly” is comprised of a number of individuals who arise out of the global training network of Wahhabi ideology with a decidedly Salafist orientation. With few countervailing established, well-funded, and formidable anti-Islamist, anti-Wahhabi organizations, any movement toward formally recognizing Sharia in the West would empower ideas like that represented by this backward assembly of Islamist theocrats.
The necessary debate within the house of Islam will happen far less if Sharia is looked upon as a monolithic entity waiting to come into play in British society or the West as the Archbishop and his apologists suggest. However, if British society and law stands its ground and lifts up anti-Islamist thought within the Muslim community, the Islamists will be forced to contend with the ideas of the very society from which they continue to receive protection. Reform of archaic legal systems comes not on the heels of acceptance, but rather after repeated challenges and scrutiny.
This is also true with the overriding protection of religious freedom that the beauty of the separation of religion and government provides. Our religious laws should be enacted by choice and choice alone in their whole and in their parts – not as a system one chooses to enter or buck against. Religious practices are only of faith if they are entirely by choice. Establishing a formal legal framework for implementing Sharia may be advertised as “volunteer” in the West on its surface, but at the end of the day will become coercive for the ideological minorities within the Muslim community. The reformists, liberated women, and others seeking equal rights before the clerics will remain at the beck and call of the Islamist majority controlling the courts and the artificial interplay between secular and the Islamist legal system. The only way to prevent this is to maintain one legal system for all as currently exists. Allowing the application of Sharia will give more fuel and power over the minority segments within the Muslim community, further empowering what is already often an oppressive tribal dynamic within Muslim culture.
It is time for non-Muslims, especially those thought leaders speaking for the majority, to stop empowering the Islamists by giving them opportunities to establish deeper more suffocating networks of control over Muslims. It is time for non-Muslim thought leaders to begin demanding that the Muslim community, out of necessity, demonstrate the academic discipline and critical thought to begin the difficult task of bringing Islamic jurisprudence into the 21st Century and into a post-Englightenment ideology.
Rather than bring British law into an understanding of Sharia law, it is high time for Sharia law, as it is described by leading imams, to first enlighten itself and demonstrate its own broad-minded interpretation and synergy with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Is Sharia ready for primetime recognition in England if it has yet to even recognize the separation of religion and state? Perhaps the Archbishop’s own Church’s history of being forced into this separation by the reformist British is something to which he and other Sharia-philes should be reminded. How would Britain respond to a leading Muslim cleric’s lecture on the “need for Christian Brits to enact courts for the adjudication of Canon Law of the Church of England since secular law has lost its Christian identity?” Why should Western society accommodate itself to a minority faith and allow it to segregate and control its own community when the majority itself has not enacted such so-called religious freedoms?
In many respects, one could compare the current condition of the Muslim theology to the condition of the toxic mixture of religion and politics of 16th Century England. Ultimately, we are blessed to now live in a community that has borne the fruit of a society that finally separated its government from the control of its theologians. Are we going to forget this history and the wars of ideas which led to this separation? Or are we going to allow Muslims the opportunity to have this debate within our faith community without artificially lifting up and legitimizing the Islamist side?
To imply, as so many do, that it is clear where the debate in Islam resides belies the reality of a paralyzed discourse within the houses of Islam. Those who claim that the debate and discourse and critique of authority is alive are the hypocritical Islamists who feed off of the illusion of debate by allowing “Islamism-lite” to have a token voice all the while they deliberately smother, suppress, and marginalize the anti-Islamist movement.