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Sharia law could be part of UK legal system: top judge

[JURIST] Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers [official profile; JURIST news archive] said Thursday that there may be applications of Sharia law [CFR backgrounder] in the British legal system during a speech [PDF text] at the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre [official website]. Phillips' comments were in support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams [official profile], who controversially said earlier this year that certain aspects of Sharia could be applied to resolve some civil disputes [JURIST report] between British Muslims. Phillips said:

there is widespread misunderstanding in this country as to the nature of Sharia law. Sharia consists of a set of principles governing the way that one should live one’s life in accordance with the will of God. These principles are based on the Qu’ran, as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and interpreted by Islamic scholars. The principles have much in common with those of other religions. They do not include forced marriage or the repression of women. Compliance with them requires a high level of personal conduct, including abstinence from alcohol. I understand that it is not the case that for a Muslim to lead his or her life in accordance with these principles will be in conflict with the requirements of the law in this country.

What would be in conflict with the law would be to impose certain sanctions for failure to comply with Sharia principles. Part of the misconception about Sharia law is the belief that Sharia is only about mandating sanctions such as flogging, stoning, the cutting off of hands, or death for those who fail to comply with the law. And the view of many of Sharia law is coloured by violent extremists who invoke it, perversely, to justify terrorist atrocities such as suicide bombing, which I understand to be in conflict with Islamic principles. There can be no question of such sanctions being applied to or by any Muslim who lives within this jurisdiction. Nor, when I was in Oman, did I find that such penalties formed any part of the law applied there. It is true that they have the death penalty for that intentional murder, but they do not apply any of the other forms of corporal punishment I have just listed.

It remains the fact that in Muslim countries where the law is founded on Sharia principles, the law includes sanctions for failure to observe those principles and there are courts to try those who are alleged to have breached those laws. The definition of the law and the sanctions to be applied for breach of it differ from one Muslim country to another. In some countries the courts interpret Sharia Law as calling for severe physical punishment. There can be no question of such courts sitting in this country, or such sanctions being applied here. So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English courts....

[But i]t was not very radical [for Archbishop Williams] to advocate embracing Sharia Law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the Archbishop’s suggestion. It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by a law other than English law. Those who, in this country, are in dispute as to their respective rights are free to subject that dispute to the mediation of a chosen person, or to agree that the dispute shall be resolved by a chosen arbitrator or arbitrators. There is no reason why principles of Sharia Law, or any other religious code should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. It must be recognised, however, that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of the mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales. So far as aspects of matrimonial law are concerned, there is a limited precedent for English law to recognise aspects of religious laws, although when it comes to divorce this can only be effected in accordance with the civil law of this country.

Those who provide financial services in this country are subject to regulation in order to protect their customers and that regulation accommodates financial institutions or products that comply with Sharia principles. There are three Islamic banks authorised by the Financial Services Authority to carry on business in the United Kingdom. A number of Sukuk issues have been listed on the London Stock Exchange. In May this year Europe’s first Islamic insurance company or “takaful” provider was authorised by the Financial Services Authority.
Some members of the British parliament expressed concern over Phillips' comments, saying that Sharia would be divisive and could lead to alienation of the Muslim community in Britain. The Guardian has more. The Telegraph has additional coverage.

In February, in an interview [transcript] with the BBC, Williams appeared to agree that limited application of Sharia law might help to ease social tension between Muslims and other UK residents. The comments sparked outrage [BBC report] both from social conservatives, who maintain that UK law should be exclusively based on Christianity, and from liberals, who fear that implementation of Sharia law might hurt the rights of women and homosexuals. In response to Williams, Prime Minister Gordon Brown rejected the suggestion [press briefing] that UK Muslims be given an option to resolve some civil disputes under Sharia law rather than UK law.

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