The Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world's Anglicans, Rowan Williams, appeared to call for Islamic "sharia" law to be recognised in Britain.
The archbishops said sharia and British law could co-exist and that people should be able to choose which would apply to themselves.
Sharia permits polygamy, for example, easy divorce for men, while it also prohibts the charging of interest on loans by financial institutions. In some areas of the world, sharia mmetes out harsh punishment, including stoning, for crimes against Islam such as adultery, non-Muslim dress, and the consumption of alcohol.
In a February 7 radio interview with the BBC, and in a lecture to British lawyers, the archbishop opened a can of worms in Britain, which has committed troops to fight in Islamic countries and is still smarting from deadly terrorist attacks committed by Islamists.
Said the archbishop, "we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities", and "
Sharia law in Britain would provide Muslims with an alternative to our divorce courts".
He voiced the possibility of developing "a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents."
"This may include aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions, and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution", said the bearded 57-year-old prelate.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared to quickly distance himself from the archbishop's view.
According to a spokesman, "Our general position is that sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes." "The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values."
The archbishop tried to distance himself from regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran where sharia is enforced harshly against adultery and homosexual behavior, for instance. "Nobody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country a kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states - the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well," he said. Jewish Beth Din courts operate in Britain, but like sharia arrangements in existing in Muslim areas, are voluntary and conducted with the agreement of participants.
The Anglican Bishop of Rochester, Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali, faces death threats following his warning last month about Muslim "no-go areas" in Britain, while Archbishop of York Dr, John Sentamu, a native of Nigeria who has been fiercely critical of Muslim extremists, said in 2007 that "the imposition of sharia law, Britain as a Muslim society - that will never happen".
As for Muslim response, Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation said "Sharia law for civil matters is something which has been introduced in some western countries with much success; I believe that Muslims would take huge comfort from the Government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith."
As for critics such as Bishop Nazi-Ali, a convert from Islam, Shafiq said "We are however disappointed that the Archbishop of Canterbury was silent when Bishop Nazir-Ali was promoting intolerance and lying about no-go areas for Christians in the UK by Muslim extremists" "Unless he speaks out against this intolerance, Muslims will take his silence as authorisation and support for such comments."
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