London, July 4 : The senior most judge in the UK has inflamed a dead controversy by saying that Muslims in Britain should be able to live according to Sharia law. Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams had suggested that aspects of Sharia law should be adopted in Britain. The archbishop's remarks had sparked a national debate and led to calls for his resignation.
Following the Archbishop's remarks, both Muslim and Christian politicians expressed fears that at a time of heightened tensions, encouraging Muslims to live by their own distinct rules could make it harder for different communities to integrate.
Risking inflaming that controversy again, the Lord Chief Justice of Worth Matravers, Lord Phillips said that only the criminal courts should have the power to decide when a crime has been committed and when to impose punishment. "Sharia law suffered from widespread misunderstanding in Britain. Part of the misconception about Sharia law is the belief that Sharia is only about mandating sanctions such as flogging, stoning, the cutting off of hands or death for those fail to comply with the law," The Telegraph quoted him as saying.
His suggestion that different religious groups should run their affairs according to different rules sparked warnings that community cohesion could be undermined, added the paper.
Speaking at the East London Muslim Centre in east London, Lord Phillips said it was "not very radical" for Dr Williams to argue that Sharia law can be used to help govern issues like family disputes and the sale of financial products.
"It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by law other than English law," he said and added therefore he could see no reason why Sharia law should not be used to settle disputes in this country.
"There is no reason why principles of Sharia law, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. It must be recognized however that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of the mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales," said the judge.
"In some countries the courts interpret Sharia law as calling for severe physical punishment. There can be no question of such courts sitting in this country, or such sanctions being applied here," he said and added that Dr Williams had been misunderstood when it was reported in February that he said British Muslims could be governed by Sharia law.
Lord Phillips said that the archbishop was saying only that "it was possible for individuals voluntarily to conduct their lives in accordance with Sharia principles without this being in conflict with the rights guaranteed by our law".
There is already scope in English law for some communities to use their own religious codes to resolve disputes. Orthodox Jews can use the Beth Din rabbinical courts to decide on matters including divorce. However some critics say that women marrying under Sharia law do not have the same rights as in English law, and could lead to them being treated as second class citizens as far as divorce settlements, custody of children and inheritance go.