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Say “No!” to the Sharia Proposal, but “Yes!” to Islam.
By Roi Ben-Yehuda
In an interview that raised many eyebrows, Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (a man with formidable eyebrows of his own) announced that the partial introduction of sharia into the British legal system was both unavoidable and desirable.
It was unavoidable because under the British Arbitration Act – which allows civil disputes to be arbitrated by a third party – faith-based adjudication of family law already takes place (the Jewish court, or beit din, being the clearest example). It was desirable because according to the Archbishop allowing Muslims to use state-sanctioned religious courts would aid the process of social cohesion.
The archbishop’s comments set off a firestorm of debate. While there have been some voices of support, most of the reactions, from the office of the Prime Minster to the local pub, have been decidedly negative.
The main argument employed against the proposal is based on the principle that there should be one law for all without exception. That the very identity of a nation is bound up in the law, and that by allowing a plurality of legal systems the thread which unites all British citizens will be lost.
The Muslim reaction to the Sharia proposal has been interesting as well. Some groups like the Muslim Council of Britain have issued a statement in support of the sharia proposal. Yet many others, especially in the world of the blogosphere, have come out against the Archbishops words.
Writing in her blog, Irshad Manji, the controversial Muslim intellectual, opined that “when it comes to contemporary Sharia, choice is theory; intimidation is the reality.” The problem, as Manji understands it, is that while the sharia proposal seemingly offers Muslims more choice, in effect it creates conditions by which Muslims (especially women) will be socially coerced into accepting Sharia justice.
Mona Eltahawy writing in the International Herald Tribune reminds the Archbishop that from a women’s perspective the inhumanity of the sharia lies not so much in the harsh punishments meted out to crimes such as theft and adultery, but rather in its male-centered approach to such matters as marital disputes. “As a Muslim woman – born in Egypt, raised in Saudi Arabia,” Eltahawy proclaims, “I can only laugh at the archbishop’s naïveté.”
And Ali Eteraz, the indefatigable Muslim blogger, having listed the multitude of objection to the Sharia proposal, concludes:
“There is absolutely no reason for a Muslim to support Sharia arbitration. If you’d like to live in a state where you can resolve your marital, custodial, and divorce disputes under the aegis of classical Islamic law, might I recommend the Gulf? It looks like America and tastes like the 7th century, perfect for a retrogressive Muslim. Cheaper gas for your very Islamic gas guzzler, too.”
For the record, I happen to agree with the criticisms and conclusions above. It would be wrong to incorporate into English law an alternative legal tradition that is at times incompatible with universal human rights and values of modern democracy. Private arbitration for settling civil disputes should be based on English law alone. To that end, I have argued on the pages of the Israeli daily Haaretz that a vote against the shariah proposal is also a vote against the Jewish courts. There should be no double standards allowed.
But to say that I am against the Shariah proposal (or any other state-sanctioned religious courts), is not the same as saying that I am against Islam. This seems like an obvious point, but in all the rhetoric precipitated by the Archbishop’s comments this crucial distinction is lost.
So much of the noise in the aftermath of the Archbishop’s proposal has been at the service of a false dichotomy: On the one side there is Islam (identified with the worse of sharia) – A nefarious and uncivilized faith and legal system bent on the domination of European society. On the other side there is Britain (and by extension Europe): Bastions of Enlightenment, built upon the noble values of the Judeo-Christian civilization. As a consequence, Islam becomes the alien “other”, le grand Contraire – everything that Europe is not.
The truth of the matter is much more complex. First, it needs to be recognized that the history of both Europe and Islam has been intertwined for quite some time: An interaction, both salutary and deleterious, lasting over 1300 years. In Muslim Spain, to give but one example, a center of interfaith co-existence and intellectual creativity, the great works of the classical world were translated from Greek to Arabic to Latin and transmitted to Western Europe by way of the Iberian Peninsula – thus paving the way for the renaissance.
Fittingly, in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, one of England’s great treasures of literature, Chaucer tells us of a pilgrim, a “Doctour of Phisyk”, who carries with him to Canterbury the scientific knowledge of some of Islam’s great intellectual luminaries, including Rhazes (al-Razi), Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and Averroes (Ibn Rushd).
Sadly the brilliance of the Andalusian star was snuffed out by a Christian Army religiously bent on re-conquering (La Reconquista) its lost land. One needs only to contrast the intolerance of Catholic Spain with the inclusivity of its Moorish counterpart in order to dispel the myth of Islam as an inherently alien and hostile entity. The rise and fall of Muslim Spain, a period covering over 700 years, is an integral part of European history that both Muslim and non-Muslims Europeans will do well to integrate into their collective narrative.
Second, Islam is no monolith. In making the contrast between European and Islamic civilization, people have been speaking about Islam and Sharia as if they are uniform entities. This could not be farther from the truth. As the writer Reza Aslan put it, “God may be One, but Islam most definitely is not.” Islam is as diverse (if not more so) than Christianity.
When speaking about Islam you have to ask yourself which Islam? Sunni or Shia? Fundamentalist or moderate? Political or Reform? Sufism or Salafism? Etc, etc. While monoliths make convenient enemies, they are in fact a distortion of the truth. The polyphony of voices that make up Islam today speak to the plasticity of a faith that many characterize as a rigid and intransigent.
The Sharia proposal gives Britain and Europe a chance to look itself in the mirror – to redefine its sense of beauty and ugliness. Identity, an ever evolving phenomenon, is not only shaped by a common legal code, but also by a shared and collective history. Lets hope that Britons avoid the temptation of throwing the Islamic baby out with the Sharia bath-water.