The Archbishop of Canterbury provoked a chorus of criticism yesterday by predicting that it was "unavoidable" that elements of Islamic sharia law would be introduced in Britain.
Christian and secular groups joined senior politicians to condemn Rowan Williams' view that there was a place for a "constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law" over such issues as marriage.
Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system. We already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances."
He added: "There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law."
Dr Williams insisted there was no place for "extreme punishments, the attitudes to women" in some Islamic states. He said: "That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that."
Gordon Brown has spearheaded government efforts to persuade Muslims to integrate. But Downing Street immediately distanced itself from Dr Williams' remarks, insisting that sharia law could not be used to override the will of Parliament or the courts.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the Government had moved to accommodate some aspects of sharia law, such as stamp duty on mortgages (without special provision, the tax would be payable twice), but declared: "The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values."
He added: "Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes. If there are specific instances like stamp duty, where changes can be made in a way that's consistent with British law and British values, in a way to accommodate the values of fundamental Muslims, that is something the Government would look at."
A government minister said: "I can't understand what the Archbishop was thinking of. This is very unhelpful."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another."
Baroness Warsi, the Tory spokeswoman on community cohesion and social action, also described the Archbishop's comments as unhelpful. She said: "Let's be absolutely clear. All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts."
Dr Williams said it would be "quite wrong" to deny people a right of appeal. But he said there were "ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them". He added: "Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that has sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states: the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women.
"But I do not think we should instantly spring to the conclusion that the whole of that world of jurisprudence and practice is somehow monstrously incompatible with human rights just because it doesn't immediately fit with how we understand it."
The Labour MP Harry Cohen, who has a large Muslim community in his east London constituency, accused the Archbishop of being naive. He said: "This will not assist integration. Sharia law is muddled on the question of divorce and can be cruel to women. People should live by the law of the land in the country where they live and most Muslims accept that."
How the different faiths are governed
Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholic courts are governed by Canon law. A single judge handles normal contentious and penal cases. However, at least three judges must try cases involving an excommunication, the dismissal of a cleric or a contested marriage or ordination annulment. Generally, the burden is on the Church to prove its case, which means a defendant can win by default. Some matters cannot be dealt with at diocesan level and can be heard only by an appeal tribunal. The Pope may hear cases where a Cardinal, Eastern Orthodox patriarch, papal legate or head of state is a defendant, and any penal case involving a bishop.
Church of England
Ecclesiastical courts have jurisdiction over matters dealing with the rights and obligations of worshippers, but are limited to disputes in areas of church property and disciplinary action against clergy. In England, the courts are based upon and operate along civil law procedures, as well as on Canon law – the collection of ancient decrees which concerned the discipline of the Early Christian church.
The Beth Din, or rabbinical courts, hear cases involving the validation of religious bills of divorce, or gettin. They also rule on kosher certification of restaurants and food manufacturers and religious conversions. Determination of "personal status" under the laws of Judaism are heard by the Beth Din, as well as other questions arising out of Jewish law. Rabbis will also settle disputes or areas of uncertainty relating to burial practices and mourning. Some Battei Din maintain their community's marriage and death records.