The leader of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, on February 11 defended his earlier call for a partial incorporation of Islamic law into UK law.
The suggestion provoked an outcry, and a strong political backlash among all three major parties. More broadly, it raises issues relevant to immigration and integration, equality and citizenship, multiculturalism -- and even to terrorism.
The Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that some aspects of Sharia law be introduced into the UK legal system. In particular he argued that it:
would be fair to do so given that this is the case for other religious groups (eg orthodox Jews);
is already occurring; and
would help integrate Muslims into UK society.
Religion and society. Large-scale immigration inevitably generates demands on the part of immigrants to behave in ways that differ from the receiving country: These demands can be for private forms of cultural and religious expression, such as dances, festivals, particular patterns of diet and attending places of worship. This is generally unproblematic and exists in any liberal society. Most of the forms of public expression that are associated with collective 'multiculturalism' are in fact simply the exercise of basic liberal individual rights to association, freedom of expression, and religions.
There can also be demands for public activities that are consistent with the law and paid for privately, including language and religious schools. Again, these demands are commonly accommodated in European countries. For example, if individuals wish to opt out of the state school system and pay for a private religious school, they may do so if the school respects the national curriculum.
Religion and state. However, some demands from religious or cultural communities, especially when they are not 'indigenous' to the society in which they live, are more controversial as they imply a direct involvement of the state:
These can be for public activities that are consistent with the law but paid for by public money, such as subsidies for language schools or public funding for religious schools. Such demands imply using public money to subsidise religious practices.
Faith groups sometimes demand exceptions to the law on religious grounds, such as the right to conscientious objection or exemption from the requirements of a uniform or helmets. This implies that individuals be granted exemptions from the law that in principle applies to all citizens.
Most controversially, there can be demands for the incorporation of religious decisions into law: using the secular law to enforce the decisions of private religious bodies (Muslim divorce tribunals) or religious persons (rabbis, imams). If granted, this would elevate religious bodies to the status of the lawmakers and, as such, quasi-instruments of the state.
The Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion fell under the latter category. If adopted, it would constitute the greatest departure from the presumption of liberal equality before the law.
Religion and education. In general, the law across Europe is secular, and churches play a small and diminishing state role. Exceptions exist where the historical process through which church and state have been separated in Europe is incomplete, leaving vestiges of ecclesiastical authority:
France is the 'ideal' type of a secular society in which the power over almost all aspects of life has been wrested from the church. In other societies, there are various degrees of recognition.
In the United Kingdom, by contrast, the Church of England is established and it runs many of the country's primary schools, as does the Catholic Church. In Germany, the Catholic, Anglican and Jewish faiths enjoy (partly because of the church's role as a constraint on National Socialism in the 1930s) official sanction, and people have to opt out of an automatic tithe. Religion is a compulsory subject in some Laender schools.
In these cases, churches act as service deliverers rather than legal fora for dispute resolution.