Forward thinking or old-style multiculturalism? (video)

( dpa ) - The Archbishop of Canterbury has entered a minefield with what he believed would be a thoughtful and important contribution to enhancing social integration in Britain.

Rowan Williams, often described as the most intellectual leader the Anglican Church has ever had, has caused a unanimous outcry with his suggestion that aspects of Islamic law (sharia) should be "formalized" under the British legal system.

From the top of government to leading Muslim academics, human rights campaigners and media commentators, the response to his idea that Britain's Muslims should be given a choice to handle aspects of marital law, financial transactions or mediation under provisions alien to the British legal system, has been negative.

The reaction from the Labour government of Gordon Brown was blunt: "The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values."

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the country's largest Muslim association, said it rejected a "dual legal system."

Williams, meanwhile, who is leader of the worldwide Anglican church with more than 70 million members, believes it is "unavoidable" that Britain should offer its 1.7-million-strong Muslim population the chance "not to have to choose between the stark alternatives of cultural or state loyalty."

"It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market element,' a competition for loyalty," Williams said.

While the church leader argued that an open debate about the sensitive issue was necessary to promote social cohesion, and to halt the much-discussed process of "alienation" of young Muslims after the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, critics said "social chaos" would be the result.

"Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together," said Nick Clegg, leader of the small Liberal Party.

"The implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous," said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has social integration as its main task.

Phillips, like most other critics, takes the view that Williams' proposals would enhance, rather than prevent, the development of separate communities in Britain.

"It's not modern multiculturalism, its old-style divisive multiculturalism," he said.

However, some commentators, including from inside the Anglican church, admitted that Williams was "brave" to raise the issue, but that his use of the explosive term "sharia law" was a serious misjudgement.

"The Archbishop has a way with language, but this was a heavy lecture," the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, said.

Even though the Archbishop made clear that he rejected the "kind of inhumanity" often associated with sharia in Islamic countries, the BBC's "Have your say" website column was filled with hostility towards his ideas.

"If he wants sharia law perhaps he should change faith ... stop pandering to these people and stand up for us," one woman wrote.

Others recalled the imprisonment of a British teacher in Sudan recently for naming a school teddy bear Mohammed.

In the real world, however, Williams' view that, in their search for respect and tolerance, many Muslim communities in Britain were "seeking the freedom to live under sharia law," does not seem to be far from reality

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