Baroness Afshar speaks to Joe Chapman on how the recent uproar was based on misconceptions.
Baroness Professor Haleh Afshar, in an interview with Nouse, sympathised with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on Sharia law in the UK last week, saying she thought “he feels that he is saying nothing controversial.”
Professor Afshar, a cross-bench peer to the House of Lords and a highly respected authority on Islamic issues, added that “all he is asking for is the equality of conscience, and if that is what he believes then why can’t he say it?”.
When asked if the Archbishop of Canterbury was right to argue that incorporating aspects of Sharia law into the British legal system would improve social integration, she comments that this was not what he intended at all.
“As far as I understand, all he said was that many people are choosing to go to the Sharia councils and these should be considered a matter of conscience and treated the same as similar courts for Jews and Christian. I cannot see anything controversial in this.”
The suggestion by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, two weeks ago that aspects of Islamic Sharia law will inevitably be incorporated into the British constitution prompted an almost unprecedented backlash against the leader of the Church of England. However, after a weekend-long media frenzy, a realisation gradually emerged that what the Archbishop was suggesting was not a wholly different to the institutions and practices already in place.
Afshar passionately believes in equality for all before the law, and thinks the Archbishop is merely seeking to advocate similar values. Christians and Jews already have the opportunity to seek guidance from institutions within their respective faith. She said: “The reality is that Muslims also have that choice. But in all of these cases – whether you are a Jew, Christian or Muslim – you also have the right to take [the dispute] to court, and that right remains non-negotiable.”
However, the suggestion that the Archbishop was merely highlighting a state of affairs that already exists seems suspicious, given the extraordinary criticism the Archbishop has received from all quarters, including his predecessor, Dr George Carey, who claimed that Dr Williams had “overstated the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes”.
Dr Williams claims that greater legal recognition of the practices of individual faiths such as Islam might increase the willingness of Muslims to integrate into British society, since they would feel less alienated or marginalised. Professor Afshar seemed unconvinced by this, and expressed concerns about the effects of forcibly imposing Sharia practices on Muslims, many of whom may prefer to settle disputes through formal legal methods. “We must have the right, as citizens of this country, to have recourse to the laws of the land,” she said.
But the most significant difficulty with the Archbishop’s proposal is the inevitable conflict between what is permitted by religion and what is allowed under secular law. Examples of potential clashes between state and religion include stamp duty and the practice of polygamy, which is permitted within the Islamic faith, but is not recognised under Western law.
In Afshar’s view, the issue of marriage, as well as the rights afforded to Muslim women in general, represents one of many common misconceptions about Islam which are largely driven by the media. She bemoaned the sense of anxiety surrounding issues relating to Islam: “As soon as you mention the word ‘Muslim’, it suddenly becomes explosive.” She believes that the Archbishop had only “chosen a different avenue” for discussion.