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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 15:14 GMT
In full: Rowan Williams interview
The Archbishop of Canterbury gave an exclusive interview to BBC Radio 4's World at One reporter Christopher Landau on 7 February 2008. Here is the full text.

It begins after the reporter asked him whether the adoption of Sharia law really was necessary for community cohesion.

Dr Williams: It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law. So it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system.

We have got a fragmented society at the moment
Rowan Williams

We already have in this country a number of situations in which the law - the internal law of religious communities - is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances.

So I think we need to look at this with a clear eye and not imagine either that we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia, or whatever.

Reporter: But I suppose Sharia does have this very clear image in peoples' minds whether it's stoning or what might happen to a woman who's been raped. These are big hurdles to overcome if you're trying to rehabilitate Sharia.

Dr Williams: There's a lot of internal debate within the Islamic community about the nature of Sharia and its extent; nobody in their right mind I think would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states - the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well and I think one of the points again that's come up very interestingly in recent discussion between Muslim and other legal theorists is the way in which in the original context of Islamic law, quite often provisions relating to women are more enlightened than others of their day; but you have to translate that into a setting where actually that whole area, the rights and liberties of women has moved on and the principle, the vision, which animates the Islamic legal provision needs broadening because of that.

Reporter: One of the examples you give where Sharia might be applied is in relation to marriage; what would that look like; what would that mean for example a British Muslim woman suddenly given the choice to settle a dispute via a Sharia route as opposed to the existing British legal system?

Dr Williams: It's very important that you mention there the word "choice". I think it would be quite wrong to say that we could ever licence, so to speak, a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general, so that a woman in such circumstances would have to know that she was not signing away anything for good and all.

I'm simply saying that there are ways of looking at marital dispute, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate.

Reporter: Is part of the challenge that Sharia is regarded as it is? For example the European Court of Human Rights says quite simply it's view is that Sharia is incompatible with democracy and therefore it would be very difficult to see it incorporated in any meaningful way?

Dr Williams: That's a pretty sweeping judgement I think and again it seems to me to suggest that the Court is regarding Sharia as a single fixed entity and a great many Muslim jurists would now say that this is not how you need to see it; there are other ways of coming at it.

I think there is a real question about how the discourse of human rights relates to traditional idioms of Islamic law; a real discussion, and there's a lot of literature about that, but I don't 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 simply because it doesn't immediately fit with how we understand it, and as I said earlier, it's not something that's absolutely peculiar to Islam.

We have orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country; not to mention the issues as I mentioned earlier - not to mention the questions about how the consciences of Catholics, Anglicans and others who have difficulty about issues like abortion are accommodated within the law; so the whole idea that there are perfectly proper ways in which the law of the land pays respect to custom and community; that's already there.

Reporter: And your concern is that that is in some ways under threat; the ability of religious people to be true to their faith as well as true to their role as a citizen in the secular state?

Dr Williams: I think at the moment there's a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what's been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what's written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means 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. An approach to law which simply said: "There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said." I think that's a bit of a danger.

Reporter: And that is why Sharia should have its place?

Dr Williams: That is why 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.

Reporter: This comes in the context of very fraught debates about community cohesion. How it is achieved that Britain might move forward in that respect? How concerned are you about the state of that debate at the moment and how much do you agree with the statements by Bishop Nazir Ali in relation to "no go" areas'?

Dr Williams: We have got a fragmented society at the moment. Now I think there would be a way of talking about the law being more positive about religious communities that might be seen as deepening or worsening that fragmentation. I don't want to see that. I do want us to have a proper way of talking about shared citizenship, whatever we say about religious allegiance we have to have that common ground and we have to know what belongs there.

When people have talked about mutual isolation of communities, sadly there are some communities where that looks as if it's true. I think it is not at all the case that we have absolute mutual exclusion. But we have a lot of social suspicion, a lot of distance, and we just need to go on looking at how that shared citizenship comes through.

Now, I think there are ways of doing that for example in relation to our education system, ways of doing that in connection with local federations and networks of different communities working together for common objectives - many ways in which that active citizenship can be promoted.

So I don't think that recognising the integrity or independence - the depth of the reality of religious communities - is to commit yourself to a kind of ghettoized future, not at all.

Reporter: Was the talk of "no go areas" unhelpful do you think in the context of this debate?

Dr Williams: I think the phrase, because it echoed the Northern Irish situation - places where the police couldn't go - that was what it triggered in many people's minds. I don't think that was at all what was intended. I think it was meant to point to what I call the "silo" problem.

The sense of communities not communicating with each other and that is a two way issue as well. As I said a couple of weeks ago many Muslims would say that they feel bits of British society are "no go" areas for them - places where they can't go.

Reporter: In the end, do you think that some people might be surprised to hear that a Christian archbishop is calling for greater consideration of the role of Islamic law?

Dr Williams: People may be surprised, but I hope that that surprise will be modified when they think about the general question of how the law and religious community, religious principle, are best, most fruitfully, accommodated.

What we don't want I think is either a stand-off where the law, if you like, squares up to religious consciences over something like abortion or indeed by forcing a vote on some aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the Commons - as it were a secular discourse saying: "We have no room for conscientious objections." We don't want that, we don't either, I think, want a situation where because there's no way of legally monitoring what communities do, making them part of public process, people do what they like in private in such a way that that becomes another way of intensifying oppression within a community and that happens, that happens.

So how does the law engage critically and intelligently - the law of the land - with the custom, the imperatives, the principles of distinctive religious communities? It's a large question, much larger than the question about Islam and I think it's a question which the Church can quite reasonably be involved in thinking about.

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