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Are we promoting harmony or Muslim ghettos?
The storm of criticism that greeted the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture on sharia law in Britain will no doubt have disappointed him but, in fact, he may have done us a great favour by airing this whole area of controversy. He might even be regarded as prescient for discussing sharia, even before demand builds among Muslim communities for special provision in British law.
Indeed, some opinion polls have the number of British Muslims wanting to live under sharia as high as 60 per cent. Furthermore, sharia councils are based in almost every city and town with a sizeable Muslim population.
And in his defence, it has been said that his prescription does no more than recognise the rights of people to settle private and domestic disputes in the way Jewish courts currently operate. Yet his proposal for a legal marketplace in which people can opt in and out based on religious affiliation opens the door to a parallel system of justice.
The question that must be asked is whether separate systems promote harmony or continue the creation of ghettos for Muslim communities - the result of disastrous policies of multiculturalism that the Bishop of Rochester highlighted in The Sunday Telegraph last month.
The problem with an accommodation to sharia is manifold.
Even in Muslim-majority countries the introduction of sharia law has not been without its pain for minority groups.
In Pakistan, that country's blasphemy law has been used to persecute Christians. In Nigeria, where sharia has been introduced in certain northern states, community tension, church burning and widespread violence have been the result. I remember a young Roman Catholic priest, Father Linus, telling me how despite the insistence of the governor of Zamfara state that sharia would have no effect on the Christian community, the opposite had been the case. Christians no longer had any freedom, he said. They could not broadcast on radio or television, they could not build churches and women felt under pressure to assume the veil.
The watchword for any dialogue, worth its name, between Muslim and Christian communities must insist on reciprocity - that rights guaranteed to all in the West should be granted to minorities in Muslim lands. We have yet to see real steps toward that form of equality.
The second main objection to accommodation with sharia is the fact that while there are considerable numbers wanting to avail themselves of Islamic codes, many ordinary Muslims want to embrace the West and adapt their faith and customs to Britain.
The third main objection is that accommodation would lead to further demands. That is absolutely inevitable, since questions to do with the separation of "church and state" are largely new to Islam. While Christianity and Judaism recognise the truth in "rendering unto Caesar", it is resisted by mainstream Muslim countries. Sharia law trumps civil law every time.
So, significantly, this would open up the problem of competition between British and sharia law if the time ever came that they operated side-by-side. Many Muslim interpreters of sharia believe that it supersedes secular law and assume that its "God-given" status would lead to its replacing civil law. Reports that sharia has been used to settle some criminal matters is already a considerable concern.
Finally, you would not think from media reports that Muslims constitute less than three per cent of the population. Most Muslims are heartily sick of being in the spotlight, but an ambitious programme of incorporating sharia tribunals into civil law seems a little like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - and what it would do for social cohesion doesn't bear thinking about.