The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has used the anniversary of his sharia speech to defend the views he advocated then - that Islamic law (sharia) should be implemented in the UK for issues such as family law. Dr Williams argued that implementing parts of sharia would be similar to the Jewish Beth Din arbitration courts that have operated for some time and subsequent debate focused on the question of whether the 1996 Arbitration Act could be used by sharia courts.
Subsequently, and as a direct result of Dr Williams comments, some of the UK Islamist organisations that operate what they term 'sharia courts' have started to claim that their actions are legally binding under the Arbitration Act. Their claim is that they have, by this route, in effect introduced sharia into the UK legal system. This is a situation that as far as I am aware has yet to be tested in the courts.
However, whilst only some of the UK 'sharia courts' currently claim that their decisions are legally binding, no one should be in any doubt that many of the decision made by these sharia courts are profoundly at odds with fundamental principles of British law. Whilst much has written about the discrimination faced by women divorced under sharia the issues of inheritance and child custody, which are equally central parts of Islamic family law, similarly highlight the discrimination against women inherent in Islamic law.
Last year the Nuneaton Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which claims that its decisions are legally binding, was reported to have settled an inheritance dispute by applying the provisions of sharia that two brothers should receive double the inheritance of each of their sisters - notice that this was a 'disputed' inheritance, not a mutual agreement by the sisters to receive half of what their brothers received.
Similarly, the East London based Islamic Sharia Council states that divorced men have an absolute right to child custody once a child is seven years old - and a divorced mother is required to surrender a child to its father once it reaches this age.
These are fundamental issues of justice and equality. Should such decisions by sharia arbitration tribunals ever be proved to have legal standing in the UK, there may well be many more women and children who will suffer grave injustice. It is regrettable that Dr Williams has reaffirmed his earlier comments on sharia rather than humbly listening to the very pertinent criticisms that were made at the time in respect of what sharia actually entails. As a committed Christian myself I find it equally regrettable that the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to be more influenced by liberal ideas about the desirability of promoting 'diversity' in society, however much injustice is inherent in that 'diversity', rather than by the clear teaching of the Bible that Christians should seek to pursue justice - particularly for women who no longer have husbands and for children (Proverbs 31:8-9; James 1:27 etc).