Upon hearing about the government sanctioning Sharia law in the United Kingdom, I was immediately concerned that western law was being subverted in an ally country with whom we share a unique history. There are two levels on which there might possibly be concerns. The first possible concern arises when one compares Sharia law to a traditional, Western sense of justice. The second possible concern arises when this event is viewed from a historical perspective. Upon thinking through these possible concerns, I believe that the first one raises interesting questions that Christians especially ought to consider and the second may actually be troubling.
In his speech on the rise of Islam in the United Kingdom and the coming sanctioning of Sharia law, Archbishop Rowan Williams best draws out the nature of the first concern. Williams said,
And what most people think they know of sharia is that it is repressive towards women and wedded to archaic and brutal physical punishments; just a few days ago, it was reported that a ‘forced marriage’ involving a young woman with learning difficulties had been ‘sanctioned under sharia law’ – the kind of story that, in its assumption that we all ‘really’ know what is involved in the practice of sharia, powerfully reinforces the image of – at best- a pre-modern system in which human rights have no role.
Off-the-hip criticisms of sharia law, especially in the media, will tend to focus around the easiest elements to critique. Namely, criticism will focus on the areas where sharia law tends to most barbarically separate from traditional, Western ideas of justice. The contrast between sharia law and Western law is especially easy to notice when one compares the rights of women within the two systems. In an election year where Hillary Clinton was almost a presidential nominee for one ticket and Sarah Palin is the Vice-Presidential nominee for another, it seems pitiful that there is still a legal and cultural tradition where a man can divorce his wife via text message while the wife cannot divorce her husband save for impotence or his extended absence.
Nonetheless, while we believe in the rights of women we simultaneously highly value cultures, especially minority cultures, and their traditions. We value liberty and the freedoms of those with religious beliefs. We desire to liberate people from oppressive systems, but we simultaneously believe that we liberate people from oppressive systems so that they may live freely according to their beliefs so long as they are not openly subversive to the state. At the heart of these beliefs is an interesting tension between free expression and how one chooses to express himself/herself freely. At the center of the tension are questions about the nature of law which are especially important for Christians to consider.